Urban “big box” stores: Toronto critics head-to-head?

by Yule Heibel on April 8, 2008

There’s a fascinating dust-up of sorts playing out in Toronto’s two major newspapers over a big box store development planned for Leslie Street. From what I can tell, this is the location — not right downtown, perhaps, but certainly very well within the inner core.

And yet the Globe and Mail‘s James Rusk brings out the big guns in the form of architect Jack Diamond, who more or less suggests that NDP leader Jack Layton misled him into initially opposing the development. Diamond now claims that Layton misrepresented the development to him, and that, really, it’s a charming little properly urban project. See Architect gives retail project thumbs up after seeing for himself.

The Toronto Star‘s Christopher Hume, on the other hand, comes out guns blazing, calling a spade a spade in Impose minimum height on big boxes. He writes that this proposal (together with a couple of others) is nothing but a suburban big box being foisted on the city by developers who have lost all sense of commitment to the place where they develop.

No surprise, I’m on Hume’s side. (No surprise to regular readers, who will have seen me point to many of his articles.)

I also have a problem crediting Rusk, given that he calls Daniel Libeskind David Libeskind. Tsk, tsk. Rusk’s article starts as follows:

A prominent Canadian architect has decided to back a controversial development in the old east-end neighbourhood of Leslieville, saying that federal NDP Leader Jack Layton misled him into opposing it.

In a letter to Mr. Layton, who was once the councillor for the city ward in which the project is located, Jack Diamond said that the impression he got about the development from a telephone conversation with Mr. Layton “was of a large box surrounded by surface parking.”

Mr. Diamond wrote that now that he has seen the project’s plans, “they differ in several important respects” from what Mr. Layton described to him, including a failure by the NDP Leader to mention that, along its two main sides, the project is a continuous front of shop windows, store entrances and pedestrian colonnades.

Mr. Layton said in an interview from Calgary that Mr. Diamond did not use the word “misled” in the letter and that was the word used by a reporter to describe the tone of the letter.


While the political opposition to the project at city hall has been spearheaded by Paula Fletcher, Mr. Layton’s successor on council, that Mr. Layton had taken time from federal politics to play an active role in opposing the project was not known until The Globe and Mail obtained Mr. Diamond’s letter.


While the opponents of the project have labelled it a “big-box” development, SmartCentres has said that this is not an accurate depiction of the two-to-three storey red-brick, mixed-use development on a site east of Pape Avenue between Eastern Avenue and Lake Shore Boulevard.

In the letter, Mr. Diamond said that after reviewing the plans of the 700,000-square-foot Shops of Leslieville, he discovered they follow a model that has proved successful in other neighbourhoods in North America and will also be successful in Toronto.

“This development will be a healthy, positive extension of urban fabric and good city planning principles in this community. It represents a significant step forward in building healthy, street-related retail, healthy neighbourhoods and supports the community,” the letter said.

So writes Rusk, citing Jack Diamond. (Excuse me while I toss my cookies.) Good grief, that letter is just full of fulsomeness, isn’t it? It certainly fails to convince anyone who loves cities.

Here’s Hume’s rebuttal. To whit:

We’re talking about the growing suburbanization of the city. In recent years, a whole new layer of suburban-scale development – highway-like roads, malls and subdivisions – has been added to Toronto.

It represents planning at its worse, a failure to take advantage of the urban conditions.

The most egregious example is an ill-conceived proposal to build a big-box outlet on Eastern Ave. at Leslie St. But they are everywhere one turns – the LCBO on Yonge north of Davisville, the Canadian Tire at Lake Shore Blvd. E. and Leslie, the Shoppers Drug Mart at Queen and Parliament and, worst of all, the Shoppers Drug Mart under construction on Danforth east of Broadview.

None of these buildings deserves to exist. They are an affront to the city, painful demonstrations of what can happen once the corporate agenda is disengaged from the community in which it operates.

Take that, Jack Diamond! Now, Hume calls them single storey monstrosities, and the Leslieville project is supposed to be 2 or 3 storeys, according to Rusk’s account. Regardless, Hume’s critique stands, irrespective of height. It’s the big-box format itself, and the homogeneity it engenders, which are the problem. It’s a format suited for automobile access, but it’s not fine-grained enough for pedestrians, who experience the street at a slower pace. Key point: cities are about people on foot, and the density they create:

These large, bland, thoughtless, single-storey structures are conceived by corporate myrmidons who see no farther than the bottom line.

But the city need not roll over and play dead as usual. Last year, when the Planning Act was amended, the province gave Toronto (and all cities in Ontario) the authority to set minimum height requirements for all new buildings. Even if that were to be set as low as two storeys, it would force the corporations to rethink the way they operate in the city. Most likely, it would require mixed use, which, of course, is exactly what we want.

As the corporations themselves are well aware, the height of the building makes no difference to them. Consider the fact that these same businesses also operate in towers, underground malls and wherever else makes sense. Shoppers can be found in the ground floor of an office tower at King and Yonge. LCBO outlets are all over the place.

Then there’s the most interesting case of all, perhaps, the Canadian Tire in the Ryerson School of Management Building at Dundas and Bay. In its own way, this structure, which opened several years ago, points the way to Toronto’s future. Canadian Tire occupies the ground floor; above that there’s a parking garage, and above that, the school itself.

Thus the density so necessary to the proper functioning of an urban centre has been enhanced. It is a win-win-win; all the players get what they want.

Hume goes on to discuss the proposal at Leslieville, which according to his description is not the 2 or 3 storey development described in Rusk’s article. I have no idea who is right — but Hume definitely has the right idea:

In the case of the Eastern Ave. scheme, which comes complete with surface parking for 1,900 cars, minimum height requirements would fundamentally alter the form of the proposal. It would force designers – if indeed any are involved – to reconfigure these retail behemoths, to make them part of something larger, something more urban in its form and content. Adding one, two or three floors would mean more and varied uses.

After all, the essential difference between cities and suburbs lies in the diversity and density of the former, the lack thereof in the latter. Since most growth occurs in the suburbs, perhaps it’s not surprising that corporate thinking has become lazy and one-dimensional.

Clearly, operating in the city requires they learn to walk and chew gum at the same time. In a city, they can’t just throw up boxes that sit dumbly in the middle of a parking lot. As much as business prefers that model, it doesn’t apply, or at least it shouldn’t. To build downtown is to build within a context. It requires intelligence, creativity and a little sophistication. That may be asking a lot of these corporations, but then, they take a lot from Toronto. That’s why they want to be here.

The insanity of putting surface parking lots on site –and 1,900 of them, at that! — instead of putting parking underground makes this project profoundly wrong. Even Victoria (Saanich, actually) is eliminating surface parking at the Town and Country redevelopment here (which had just over 1,000 surface parking spaces), and frankly, it’s still no prize.

Here are two other articles on the Toronto subject: Hey, Richard Florida, pick up that picket sign in the National Post; Rejuvenating the waterfront, one big box store at a time in Spacing Toronto.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Randall April 9, 2008 at 12:21 am

This sounds vaguely like Saanich’s Tuscany Village, albeit a smaller version with its single small/medium-box store.

It would appear a development is either car oriented or pedestrian oriented. It can’t be both successfully.

Yule April 9, 2008 at 9:26 am

Do you mean that it sounds vaguely like Tuscany Village in terms of height? Because surely the proposed SmartCentres project in T.O. is much larger, square-footage-wise, than anything around here. The area it’s supposed to occupy must be practically the size of Dockside Green — and 1,900 surface parking spaces (vs. just over 1,000 for Town & Country in Saanich). This is hectares of space, and it sounds like much of it will be asphalted over for parking.

I wonder if Hume will do a follow-up article.

Do you know if this thing have a thread on the SSP forum?

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