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When Waterfront Toronto announced Sidewalk Labs as its partner to develop a prime parcel of land adjacent to the city’s downtown, the moment was marked by a sad combination of Canadian self-effacement and tech utopianism. Sidewalk had zero experience in city-building, and its vague plans – heavy on marketing, light on blueprints – promised an experiment in surveillance capitalism on steroids. But Sidewalk was an arm of the deep-pocketed Google empire, so the politicians could not have been more pleased. The Prime Minister was there. The mayor declared the city was “building up our credentials as the place to be in the world.”

It was fall of 2017. In the midst of a long real estate boom in Toronto, Sidewalk said it would transform the mostly vacant 12 acres of Quayside into a 21st-century residential-commercial showcase.

Then, in 2019, Sidewalk surprised Waterfront Toronto, representing three levels of government, with a demand to be put in charge of all the adjacent brownfield land – an area 16 times larger, next to the downtown of one of the world’s expensive cities. Public suspicions grew. Sidewalk scaled back its ambitions and then, after the pandemic hit, it pulled out entirely. It was a chance for a new beginning.

Last month, Waterfront Toronto returned with a new plan for Quayside. There’s no more talk of garbage collection by underground robots. The focus is on building a real residential community through old-fashioned architectural design and urban planning. Waterfront Toronto has chosen two developers, both potential partners in the Sidewalk project.

Yes, there is still some marketing bumf. Quayside (2.0) is billed as Canada’s “first all-electric, zero-carbon community at this scale.” Okay, whatever. But the highlights are about people, from five towers and a large low-rise mass timber building, to affordable housing and a “community forest” – you mean a park? – on one-sixth of the land.

Quayside is a rare bit of real estate – an L-shaped plot in a corner of the Inner Harbour. But there are similar spaces across the country. In this era of runaway housing prices and the need for new supply, governments need to seize these opportunities to build, and build well. Canada Lands, a Crown corporation, is often involved, because the land is often federally owned.

In Ottawa, there is Confederation Heights – the epitome of the mid-20th-century, car-based, office park. It is a sprawling campus of nearly 500 acres on the Rideau River, halfway between downtown and the airport. There are a number of federal buildings, large swaths of green space, and for decades people had no choice but to drive there. A transit line, the O-Train, now connects with downtown (and soon the airport, when construction is done). Last fall, work started on a redevelopment plan. The buzzwords are “sustainable,” “transit-orientated” and “urban mixed-use.” The challenge is to avoid a repeat of Quayside’s first rodeo. Simple is a virtue.

In Vancouver, there are several Canada Lands sites, including former military (Jericho) and RCMP (Heather) real estate. Jericho – on English Bay, not far from the city centre, and a likely stop on the future UBC Subway – could more than double the density of the surrounding community. This is what Vancouver and other cities badly need: building up in the core of the region, rather than more expensive sprawl.

Vancouver also has an unusual development, Senakw. The land fully belongs to the Squamish Nation so, even though it’s in the heart of the city, it stands apart from City of Vancouver rules and byzantine approvals. A dozen towers are proposed across from downtown by the Burrard Bridge, with lots of green space and very little parking. This is the right kind of experiment in 21st-century city-building.

Back in Toronto, in the northern part of the city, there is Downsview, an old airstrip that serviced industry and the armed forces. Plans are in motion to build homes for 80,000 people in the coming decades. It’s already well served by several subway stops.

These examples are not one-stop answers to Canada’s housing problems. Fundamental changes, like reworking old zoning rules for greater density, are still crucial across Canada. But in or near the core of Canada’s biggest cities there are pieces of land, sometimes big pieces, ripe for redevelopment into new neighbourhoods. To do the job well, keep the focus on what’s most important: designing the kinds of places where people want to live.

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