ULI Toronto Shapes a New Vision for Weston Village
September 23, 2015
Held in 2011, ULI Toronto’s very first Technical Assistance Program (TAP) panel played a critical role in the city’s plans to revitalize Weston, a once-thriving village that had seen no new large-scale development since the 1970s. Now, a public/private partnership among the city of Toronto, Toronto’s transportation authority Metrolinx, a nonprofit group dedicated to providing low-cost housing for artists, and a private developer are on the verge of turning Weston’s fortunes around and making it a viable place to invest.
Weston has a storied past. It began as a settlement for British soldiers in the 1790s and grew into a bustling outpost on the Humber River, serviced by several railway lines. A major bicycle company, Canada Cycle and Motor Co. Ltd. (CCM), got its start in Weston, which subsequently became known as “the home of the bicycle.”
By the time it was incorporated into Toronto in the 1990s, Weston had left its better days behind. Major industries had departed, although several mom-and-pop businesses remained. Unemployment increased, as did questions about public safety and crime. Cheaper rents in unsightly high rises attracted recent immigrants, which added to Weston’s cultural vibrancy while also placing a strain on social services. As a result, Weston sat on the sidelines of a real estate boom that swept—and continues to sweep—the rest of Toronto.
Then, in the mid-2000s, Metrolinx decided to make major investments in Weston’s transit infrastructure, which many perceived as a game changer for the neighborhood.
Metrolinx’s plans included relocating and expanding the Weston GO train station a block to the south where it could occupy a larger footprint. The new Union-Pearson Express, a high-speed rail line connecting downtown Toronto to Pearson International Airport, would include a stop in Weston, which would require additional rail infrastructure.
In addition, Metrolinx wanted to create a master plan for the area, and the city had already turned its attention to Weston as a community in need of revitalization: it was identified as one of the city’s 21 neighborhood improvement areas.
In May 2011, a design charrette with Weston residents was held to seek their feedback on future development scenarios and their overall vision for the neighborhood in the wake of transit expansion. While eager for new development to come to their neighborhood, residents were also dismayed by the disruption Metrolinx would create. As a follow-up to the charrette, ULI Toronto was called on to bring an industry perspective and test the ideas discussed at the charrette against market realities.
The resulting TAP panel was a milestone for ULI Toronto because it was the first such panel the district council had convened. “It was significant for the district council,” says Mark Noskiewicz, former ULI Toronto chair and partner at Goodmans LLP. “At the time, we weren’t that well known. It helped our brand recognition and presented us as honest brokers and thought leaders to the city and the Weston community.”
ULI Panel: Transit Alone Will Not Spur Investment in Weston One assumption the charrette made was that the new high-speed rail service and a new station would automatically attract private investment. The TAP panel, however, reached a far different conclusion.
Transit would not automatically attract developers because Weston had an image problem. Although it is home to a popular farmers market, Weston offers little reason for outsiders to visit. Its reputation as a low-rent, unsafe area meant that few developers would risk investment without a guaranteed return.
“Everyone wondered when developers would ‘discover’ Weston,” says Robert Freedman, TAP panel cochair and former director of urban design with the city of Toronto. “But no investment had occurred, and business groups were saying that a change of image was needed.”
The panel recommended a series of community initiatives—image-enhancing projects like community events and public art, along with long-range plans like a branding campaign, and incentives or fee waivers to encourage development, public safety measures, and streetscape improvements. The panel also said the village of Weston would have to do a better job of marketing its assets: proximity to the Humber River, its role as a midway point between downtown and the airport, and an established heritage community focused on preserving and promoting Weston’s historic architecture.
Along with the vision expressed at the charrette, the ULI panel created the building blocks for Weston 2021, the city’s official blueprint for revitalizing the neighborhood. The Toronto City Council adopted the plan in March 2012.
“Suddenly we were on the map because of transit, but the panel helped us understand what would be needed to draw investment from developers,” says Councilor Frances Nunziata, who represents Weston on the City Council. “[The panelists] were amazing. They sat with the community; they sat with the Weston BIA [Business Improvement Association]. They did a lot of work.”
Walking the Walk: John Street Streetscape Project But ULI Toronto’s work did not stop with the TAP panel. To demonstrate the kind of quick, high-impact projects it had recommended, the council applied for and won an Urban Innovation Grant during ULI’s 75th anniversary in 2011 to support a streetscape project. The district council proposed turning John Street, a drab commercial strip next to the old GO station, into a walkable, inviting plaza.
Historically, John Street served as a gateway from Weston’s residential streets to the east and the commercial corridor of Weston Road. The street was split in two by the rail corridor, but still serves as an access point to Weston’s farmers market, held each Saturday from May to October on a Toronto Parking Authority (TPA) parking lot. ULI Toronto felt strongly that John Street had the potential to be turned into a destination instead of merely a street on which to pass through the neighborhood.
In summer 2012, John Street was turned into a pedestrian-oriented, outdoor café. Under a canopy of LED lights, the street was transformed with furniture, foliage in planters, and colorful sidewalk chalk drawings. Residents were invited to beautify the street. “Everyone got really excited about the festival atmosphere,” says Freedman.
The project was in place for two months, after which ULI Toronto gave the LED lights to the Weston BIA for future place-making projects. ULI Toronto also engaged DTAH, a Toronto-based architecture firm, to create a public improvement plan for John Street and several other streets surrounding the new GO train station.
2015: Private and Nonprofit Investment Comes to Weston Four years after the ULI panel, several forces have aligned in Weston’s favor, suggesting a new turning point for the village. In March, the Toronto City Council approved an ambitious proposal for new development on underused parcels near the GO station, which opened in 2013.
Toronto-based Rockport Group plans to construct a 370-unit, market-rate rental building at 22 John Street, the site of an old TPA parking lot, which will be the first new multifamily building Weston has seen in several decades.
Rockport Group is partnering with Artscape, a nonprofit developer of cultural spaces, to build 26 affordable live/work units for artists and an 8,300-square-foot (771 sq m) community cultural hub for arts and cultural programming on nearby King Street. In addition, a 12,400-square-foot (1,150 sq m) outdoor space will be created to host the Weston Farmers’ Market and other events. Metrolinx intends to build a pedestrian bridge to reconnect John Street to the residential areas, creating pedestrian access to the market and other downtown amenities.
Reflecting on the experience, Freedman says it was the ULI TAP panel—not his officialrole with the city government—that created momentum for Weston’s revitalization, through both the TAP panel and the John Street pilot project. “Had I not been involved in ULI, I wouldn’t have been able to make any of this happen,” he says. “It made it possible to be more nimble. It wouldn’t have happened on its own, just by the city.”
In June, the Union-Pearson Express line officially opened, offering residents and visitors high-speed rail service from downtown to the airport. If they give themselves enough time, they can stop in Weston to see a little village that could.