Hazel McCallion’s endorsement of smart growth was characterized as something of an epiphany at the turn of the 21st century when the then Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs appointed her to chair a panel on the future direction of regions across central Ontario. Today, this perceived turnabout may trigger corresponding eureka moments about her city. Mississauga is not your parents’ suburb.
As Harold Madi, senior principal and lead of Stantec’s urban places division, submitted to PM Expo attendees in Toronto last week, nearly five decades of lower-density development will take some time to fill in to more compact neighbourhoods and pedestrian-oriented commercial streets, but the vitality of the city’s condominium market demonstrates that single-family residential is no longer the default built form. Just five per cent or 100 of the dwellings granted development approval in 2016 were single or semi-detached homes, compared to nearly 1,200 apartments and mixed-use units.
“Is vertical density resulting in urbanity? It’s a work in progress,” he mused.
Madi and co-presenters, Lesley Pavan and Sharon Mittmann from the City of Mississauga’s planning and development department, provided a historical overview and a look at some pending projects in an urban setting that is still very young compared to many similarly sized cities.
“Downtown Mississauga was really just a cornfield in the early ’70s,” observed Pavan, the director of development and design for the city, which was incorporated from component municipalities in 1974 and now tallies more than 720,000 residents.
The seminar title, Mississauga in Transition: Far from Built, reiterates a vision for continued growth even though its green fields are almost entirely built out. Madi — who first arrived in Mississauga as a three-year-old immigrant to Canada and recently joined the city’s urban design advisory panel — traced a rural/suburban-to-urban trajectory that has occurred in sync with his own passage from childhood to middle age.
Setting the bar
He tagged FRAM Building Group’s infill project in Port Credit Village and the international design competition and resulting “Marilyn Monroe towers” for Fernbrook Homes/Cityzen Development Group’s condominium development at Burnhamthorpe Road and Hurontario Street as key projects that have helped overcome resistance to change through design excellence, appropriate fit with surroundings and positive impact on property values.
“Early projects have got to be of a certain quality that is going to set the bar,” Madi advised. “We have to get the scale right — do something well and let it infect others.”
Similarly, he sees the now 30-year-old City Hall as a bold, postmodernist choice. “If there was an architectural attempt to create a landmark, they succeeded tremendously at that,” he said.
Earlier still, the aptly named Square One was the first piece of the puzzle built within 4,000 acres of land that developer Bruce McLaughlin had assembled in an effort to “build a city from scratch”. Arguably, only the typeface in the circa 1970s promotional literature Pavan and Mittmann shared in their presentation would be dated in a 2017 discussion of urban planning objectives.
“When you don’t structure your city’s growth, it sprawls. The most expensive, soul-destroying problems of today’s cities can be traced to urban sprawl. If the community is designed for tomorrow and all the tomorrows to follow, the problems and the waste can be avoided,” McLaughlin’s message states. “Mississauga City will be flexible. It will be expansible. It will have diversity and choice.”
Pavan outlined the ensuing combination of municipal and provincially imposed policies that underpin today’s development platform, as well as the role of market forces. Notably, the absence of height restrictions in the downtown might be seen as something of an oversight dating to the time when proposals for 40- or 50-storey towers simply weren’t expected, while, now, it would be politically onerous to try to retroactively impose limitations.
Madi suggested the city faced “a moment of truth” as it neared the end of its supply of green field land for new development and then quickly found a solution. “It immediately embraced growing up,” he maintained.
Pending and missing pieces
Two major downtown residential projects, approved and pending or in progress, include: Amacon Parkside Village, slated to deliver more than 5,300 units in 17 towers ranging from 17 to 55 storeys; and Rogers-M City’s plan for approximately 5,000 units in 10 towers, ranging from 21 to 60 storeys. Two smaller scale projects set for the area known as the Lower Exchange District, south of Burnhamthorpe Road, will add another 750 downtown residential units in a 30-storey and a 25-storey tower.
Like its urban neighbours, Mississauga has goals to boost public transit, improve access to Lake Ontario, enhance the employment base and provide more postsecondary education opportunities. Construction of the Hurontario light rail transit (LRT) line is scheduled to begin next year to forge a dedicated spine of frequent north-south service across the city. Outside the downtown core, master plans for the Lakeview and Port Credit waterfronts foresee a mix of residential, commercial and recreational uses and productive reclamation of currently derelict brownfield sites.
All this helps connect the new vertical density to the low-rise built form that preceded it and supports what Madi termed a “heroic effort” to make a downtown. “‘Downtown’ conjures up an entirely different notion of the city versus a ‘city centre’,” he asserted.
Among some still missing and interrelated ingredients for urbanity, he identified: improved mobility in the so-called last mile to people’s homes; walkability and the range of businesses and services in neighbourhoods and along arterial streets that would give residents cause to walk; a critical mass of residents to support those businesses and services; and a wider range of housing types in which those residents can live.
“We are really focusing on the missing middle,” Pavan reported.
As for McLaughlin’s long ago promise for diversity and choice, one seminar attendee expressed her appreciation for the ability to openly practice, in Mississauga’s civic square, the faith for which she had been persecuted in her country of origin.
“That’s how we see the city — as a welcoming space for everyone,” Pavan affirmed.
Illustration: Developer Bruce McLaughlin’s vision for Mississauga, beginning with Square One.