Jason Lester and Ken Tanenbaum talk Canary District

NextHome chats with Jason Lester, president of Dundee Kilmer, and Ken Tanenbaum, president of the Kilmer Group – the partners behind the 35-acre master-planned Canary District in Toronto’s downtown east.

NextHome: Major international sporting events have not always left a positive legacy once they depart the host city. What did the Canary District get right in creating an entirely new neighbourhood after the 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games?

Ken Tanenbaum: First, there was a very well-constructed public-private partnership initiated by Infrastructure Ontario to effectively transfer delivery and revenue risk to the private sector. Second was the detailed and thoughtful planning completed by Waterfront Toronto in deep consultation with the West Don Lands neighbourhood committee. And, third, the assembly of an effective team with the capital, resources and experience to execute the plan. This team was committed to design excellence and flawless project delivery.

NH: When Dundee Kilmer was presented with the opportunity to become involved with Canary District, which ideas behind the mixed-use development excited the company the most?

Jason Lester: The 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games Athlete’s Village was an opportunity to take part in accelerating the revitalization of the West Don Lands with Waterfront Toronto’s award-winning Precinct Plan, a unique chance to design and develop an urban mixed-use master-planned community. Of particular interest was the opportunity to design a complete downtown community comprising midrise buildings and showcasing some of Canada’s best-in-class architecture. Development of the Canary District allowed Dundee Kilmer to create vibrancy to a long-neglected area in the city, leaving a legacy and positive impact after the Games. We envisioned a transformation of the 35-acre, former industrial lands into a resilient, sustainable, LEED Gold certified community that connects with some of Toronto’s most vibrant neighbourhoods. Similar to the adjacent Distillery District, the Canary District was an opportunity to design and develop a dynamic walkable community with multiple parks and a network of biking paths that includes the award-winning Corktown Commons. Dundee Kilmer was attracted by the opportunity to curate the retail into a destination community of health and wellness shops and restaurants.

NH: What do you feel was the most visionary or unique aspect of the Canary District development?

Lester: The transformation of the neighbourhood, from its beginnings and colourful history to the gateway of the Front Street Promenade that it has become today. Dundee Kilmer was able to bring together a team of visionary planners, architects and consultants to amplify the potential of the site. Most would agree that Front Street Promenade is a visionary element to the success of Canary District. Its diverse and unique retailers, coupled with themes of health and wellness, alongside the community pillars such as the Toronto Cooper Koo Family Cherry Street YMCA Centre and George Brown College residence, speak to the inclusiveness and liveliness that the Canary District offers.

NH: Families are attracted to the parks and other amenities. But how important is it for developers to be creating affordable housing for Millennials close to where they wish to work?

Lester: Many of our clients are not only families, but also first-time homebuyers and young professionals. The fourth and most recent phase, Canary Commons, was designed with this market in mind. Today’s Millennials want to be close to work and the financial core, but cannot afford to purchase a freehold home in the current landscape. Canary Commons’ suite mix included two- and three-bedroom suites for more than 66 per cent of the inventory. Very few condominium buildings in the market offer such a wide variety of larger suites at various price points. We believe in creating homes that reflect the wants and needs of the people who live and work in the greater community, so that they can grow and flourish in their neighbourhood through their many stages of life.

For example, the TTC 514 Cherry Streetcar stops in the Canary District and provides direct access to the downtown core in less than 12 minutes. Our residents can live, work, shop, dine and play at their doorstep without the burden of owning a car. This paints an image of what many millennials aspire to, and can now easily attain in the Canary District.


NH: The 2015 Games were the impetus behind Canary District. What other downtown neighbourhoods could be transformed organically without the spark of such an event?

Tanenbaum: We have a supply issue in the housing market in the GTA, and see great opportunity for the Province and the City to leverage their land holdings and adopt a model similar to what was utilized in the Canary District. We see the masterful work completed by Daniels in Regent Park, and Kilmer and Dream are involved with an outstanding team in Port Credit on the former Imperial Oil refinery site to develop a complete community at scale, in deep collaboration with The City of Mississauga and neighbouring community groups. Recognizing that we have a housing supply issue should be enough of
an impetus to get things done
at scale.

NH: What is the Canary District’s biggest lesson in city-building that it gave to Toronto?

Tanenbaum: It demonstrated that the “power of the moment” is an incredible and positive force. All stakeholders were aligned in getting the project done so that athletes would be in beds when they arrived in Toronto in the summer of 2015. We need to aspire to more such “moments.” World Cup 2026, Expo 2030, a global showcase for Google’s Sidewalk Labs, and Amazon’s HQ2 are examples of (such) possibilities. We have to be bold and be willing to reach towards our best selves as
a city.

NH: Do you see Canary District providing a template for other major urban neighbourhood reinventions in North America?

Tanenbaum: The Canary District holds many lessons for other jurisdictions. Both Infrastructure Ontario and Waterfront Toronto are thought leaders in this area, and I am confident they, like us, would be willing to share their intellectual property and experiences.

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