Last Saturday, I explored the latest in the “instant downtowns” that now encircle Toronto, wedged in between Highways 7 and 407, Warden and Kennedy in Markham, specifically, a development called “Downtown Markham”.
Downtown Markham is the name of a development by Remington Homes, where the sole developer seeks to build an urban centre for this fast-growing suburb northeast of Toronto. However, it should be said that “Downtown Markham” is still a marketing name, the larger area surrounding it is called Markham Centre, and is also being intensified with townhouses and mid-rise and high-rise condo residences.
The largest and most well-known of these “instant downtowns” is Mississauga City Centre, where offices, condos and civic buildings followed the construction of the Square One shopping mall, itself built about the time that the towns of Port Credit and Streetsville were amalgamated with the once-rural but fast-growing Toronto Township/Town of Mississauga. As a city centre, Mississauga doesn’t quite work. Parking lots and six-to-eight lane arterials separate many older buildings not designed for an urban context, and all the shopping is indoors in the mall. New condos and townhouses to the west of the admittedly monumental city hall follow a more urban street grid, but there’s still little on the ground. The lack of rapid transit also hurts it.
Meanwhile other suburbs, such as Brampton, have seen some luck with intensifying their existent, yet struggling, downtown cores. North York took a middle approach, intensifying Yonge Street with offices and condos and new civic and arts centres, with mixed success (the remaining 1950s/1960s retail strips add life to the typical sterility of condo-base retail. (On streets like Bay, the retail landscape feels like Rabba, bank, Subway, cleaners, repeat).
So I visited the Downtown Markham site with some skepticism, especially it being a single-developer site that is currently isolated from the rest of central Markham. The first thing I note, is that on four-lane Enterprise Drive – the development’s main street has no sidewalks yet. And while almost completely devoid of auto traffic,Viva buses come by frequently. Three mid rise condo buildings are well under construction, and a second office building is nearing completion. But there are no sidewalks, and as likely the only pedestrian yet to walk along the entire length of Enterprise Drive, I found the walk uncomfortable – a general lack of pedestrians plus little traffic plus overcapacity makes drivers go fast. Nearly complete office building and new condos are the first phase of Downtown Markham
The master plan (for which it will take up to 15 years to complete, they are currently in year 2) is, at a glance, impressive, and will include a mix of residential condos and townhouses, offices (towards Highway 407) (you can read the discussion on Urban Toronto for more commentary), and an east-west pedestrian/transit mall. A commercial core, with renderings showing a covered pedestrian retail strip, is proposed for the centre. It is certainly different from previous corporate suburbs in form, such as Don Mills or Bramalea (both one-developer communities with some mixes of land use and a central commercial core), but has the same spirit that comes with any master-planned community. It will take years to find out if this rather bold experiment can work, and if it will be as urban and dynamic as civic officials hope and the developers promise. But reports on Urban Toronto have claimed that sales are brisk for the units now available for sale.
Meanwhile, Markham has two real downtowns, Unionville and “old” Markham, both small villages that were consumed by Toronto’s suburban growth. It is interesting that none of all the highrise development will be located here. All the development is planned for the immediate Highway 7 corridor, including Downtown Markham, between Kennedy and Woodbine.
Here’s some more photos I took exploring what is supposed to become an urban core. I would like to see it work, but I just have too much skepticism that it can be pulled off without the more organic development cycle of a true downtown.
At least unlike Mississauga Centre, there will be a GO station, Unionville, adjacent. That, plus the Viva bus routes, will help with the attempt to make this a walkable area. The suddenly appearing bike lane appears to be slightly optimistic, and the sidewalk appears and disappears here.
I just thought this photo was kind of neat, taken as I was waiting for a bus to Markham Road.
Next, I explore one of Markham’s two original downtowns, and a quirky attempt to preserve some of Markham’s old Victorian houses.