Intensification is commonly associated with the building of housing at higher densities in neighbourhoods, but intensification of office, industrial and retail space is equally important to combat sprawl, developers say.
“The key to intensification is to move from the single use for a property [such as a mall] toward integrated community building,” says Ken Greenberg, principal at Greenberg Consultants Inc.
The reimagining of downtown Brampton, Ont. – Canada’s ninth-largest city – is just one example of the urban planning trend seen across the country, says Mr. Greenberg, who is a strategic adviser to the city.
Keeping growth within existing urban boundaries delivers [a] better fiscal outcome compared to business-as-usual sprawl— Pamela Blais, principal at Metropole Consultants
The redevelopment includes the replacement of its centrepiece – the 53-year-old Shoppers World Mall – with a mixed-use neighbourhood featuring about 800,000 square feet of commercial space.
“It’s happening in a lot of places – elsewhere in Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton and more,” says Benjamin Shinewald, president and chief executive officer of BOMA Canada, an umbrella group for builders, owners and maintenance operators. “There is no lack of ambition to promote [intensification] in Canada’s commercial real estate community.”
The Well, a project now under construction in Toronto that spreads over 7.7 acres in the city’s King Street West neighbourhood (including the site of the former headquarters of The Globe and Mail), is another example. While much attention is being paid to the site’s 1,700 residential units, it also includes more than one million square feet of office space and 420,000 square feet of retail and food services.
According to former Toronto mayor and federal cabinet minister David Crombie, cities are recognizing the importance of finding the right mix of non-residential space – workplaces, recreation and entertainment and parks – in addition to housing.
“If you don’t build the workplaces in the areas where people live, you end up just warehousing people,” he says.
Winnipeg’s True North Square is another massive project designed to breathe life into a downtown core through intensification. Scheduled to be completed next year, the approximately $500-million project is designed as a centrepiece of a downtown entertainment district that includes the home of the National Hockey League’s Winnipeg Jets.
True North will feature four towers, with a total of one million square feet of class A office, retail, hotel and public space as well as affordable housing. The first building, opened in 2017, was the first privately constructed office building built in Winnipeg since 1990.
Edmonton’s Ice District is another hockey team-centred intensification project, in this case a $2.5-billion, 25-acre mixed-use district that includes the home of the Edmonton Oilers. The mixed-use district will also have a 50,000-square-foot public plaza, a climate-controlled winter garden, a hotel, a casino and three new office buildings, with the third one scheduled to be completed in 2025.
Commercial intensification is not a particularly new idea, Mr. Shinewald says, but it’s gaining more positive attention as planners and the public question the economics, efficiency and the lifestyles that come from urban sprawl.
“Everything old is new again. Not long ago, people lived and worked nearby because of a lack of transportation. So, everything was cheek by jowl,” he explains.
“The automobile enabled distance between work and play, but many in the new generation want density – they want to walk or cycle to work or take an efficient train. They want to meet their friends for lunch or dinner and live a vibrant urban life, 24/7.”
It’s no easy task overcoming many decades of ingrained planning ideas that encouraged sprawling development, Mr. Greenberg says. Cities like Brampton are re-examining these ideas as their populations explode and their infrastructure struggles to keep up, he explains.
He notes how Brampton, for example, is using the reconstruction of its core mall site to promote a “2040 vision to reimagine a future Brampton that grows not only in population size.”
The vision, which Mr. Greenberg collaborated on with the city, is based on Brampton growing from its current population of 600,000 to a projected one million, with the creation of 185,000 jobs that won’t necessarily require commuting.
Stopping sprawl is becoming a hot political issue in places like Ontario, where a wide coalition of planners, environmentalists, residents groups and others has been urging the provincial government to favour intensification.
So far, Premier Doug Ford has instead proposed a $10-billion highway that will cut across wilderness, wetlands and farms and the Ontario Greenbelt around Toronto.
Yet, intensification is cost-effective, says planner Pamela Blais, principal at Metropole Consultants. In early April, she published an analysis of Edmonton that shows that “keeping growth within existing urban boundaries delivers [a] better fiscal outcome compared to business-as-usual sprawl, not to mention quality-of-life benefits too.”
The analysis shows that using Edmonton’s urban land more intensely for development (including commercial properties) would allow the city to keep its property taxes 10 per cent lower by 2065 than if new builds sprawl outside the city’s boundaries, where it can’t levy taxes.
It’s better for quality of life, too, Mr. Greenberg says. Brampton, for example, “will be a neighbourhood including office, residential, a main street with local shopping and a community hub,” he explains.
“It all works together.”