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Vaughan's towering new ambitions

The process by which the Greater Toronto Area will ultimately become one enormous cosmopolis is well underway. Though it started with amalgamation, the next steps will not be nearly so Torontocentric, as the towns traditionally known as suburbs not only grow, but become genuine urban entities in their own right.
Markham started building more densely a couple of years ago, with developments like Rouge Bijou, Sierra and Uptown Markham providing hundreds of multi-residential units specifically designed to be within walking distance of everything required in the daily course of events. That includes transit, thereby cutting down on the need for cars, and the sort of highway-based road-building that has been one of Markham's hallmarks.
Now it's Vaughan's turn. Developer and Vaughan native Mario Cortellucci, Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua and YYZed architect Alan Tregebov have thrown their energies behind a project called Expo City. The five towers on nine acres—part of a 20-acre lot owned by Cortellucci and his son and vice president Peter Cortellucci—are being developed by their Cortel Group, whose previous de-suburbanization credentials include partnering with Fernbrook Homes to build the Absolute World towers in Mississauga.
Those 20 Expo City acres are themselves part of a 300-acre parcel, centred near the intersection of Highways 7 and 400, much of which has never been built up, which has been designated and zoned to become Vaughan Metropolitan Centre. It’s a part of the city that will slowly transform over the next decade and beyond into something the mayor says will evolve into "a very vibrant, active downtown core."
"Right now, we definitely embody what we would refer to as the suburban lifestyle, as opposed to quote unquote what you would refer to as the city's lifestyle," Bevilacqua says. "What's going to emerge more as the centre core develops is going to be very city-like."
The current zoning allows for 1,933 units, with the probable addition of another 1,000 when the lot next door—which currently houses the Riviera Parque banquet hall and also belongs to Cortellucci—is added into the mix.
"This quadrant will be looking at 4,000 to 5,000 people," Tregebov says, including towers that will all be in the 35- to 37-storey range.
Very city-like, indeed. With a current population of 303,058, Vaughan is expected to grow to about 416,600 by 2031—an increase of more than 35 per cent.  The number of jobs, currently sitting at about 160,000, is expected to increase by more than 65 per cent during the same period. With its current population scattered among bedroom communities like Concord, Kleinburg, Maple, Thornhill and Woodbridge, the city will have to rely on more than single-family homes to accommodate its new residents.
Though Bevilacqua says he and Cortellucci have been talking about ideas for his property for about a decade, one of the things that's given shape to this particular urban venture is the imminent opening of Vaughan Centre station, the first TTC encroachment on non-TO turf. This will connect VIVA, York region's transit system, to the whole TTC network and, more importantly for Bevilacqua and Cortellucci, Expo City to employment and shopping centres like Yonge and Sheppard and the downtown core. For those of us who base our renting and property purchasing decisions on subway accessibility, this development could give us our first real incentive to look north of Steeles.
"The genesis of this development is really the brainchild of Mario Cortellucci," Bevilacqua says. "He very much believed that it was time to transform the city of Vaughan into a world class city." The question of whether that world-class city will be Vaughan or an extra-mega version of the Megacity remains open.
Urbanity, of course, goes beyond the density. You could even say it’s a state of mind, cultivated through a series of decisions that result in proximity: people to shops, sidewalks to front doors, living places to working places, and transit to everything. It’s something Tregebov is aware of and the Cortelluccis are aspiring to. Tregebov has ensured that the first buildings in the project, towers number one through five, vary little from what's become the urban norm.
"It would not be very different from downtown Toronto," he says, describing the podiums as uniformly five storeys high and, "emerging out of the podiums, the towers that will be defining the skyline. It would not be very different from most cities. It's not a suburban form, it's very urban."
The stamp the architect is putting on the first tower is something he's calling "expressed tectonic walls"—essentially vertical fins from top to bottom, representing the structural work done to make the building resistant to various lateral pressures, including wind and earthquakes. "Rather than hide the basic structure of the building, we thought we'd pull it out a bit and make it part of the architectural expression of the building, to have a playful exaggeration of the shear walls," he says. "It's like a counterpoint to the glass railings, balustrades and glass envelopes."
Those five-storey podiums will also be creating a grid of streets, some of them pedestrian-only, with retail, glass-covered walkways for inclement weather and, of course, the sort of proximity to shopping, parks and transit that encourages walking and cycling over suburban driving. Tregebov even has plans to rename the part of Highway 7 that runs through the development Avenue 7. "We're hoping the change in name will be a bit of a symbol," he says, adding that the intention is to make the relevant stretch of it into a boulevard.
The current plans notably include no big parking lots at the subway station. "It's very much like if you go to the subway at Yonge and St. Clair or Yonge and Eglinton," says Tregebov. That would make Vaughan Centre even less suburban than current outlying TTC stations like Finch and Kipling.
“My dad has really loved the idea,” says Peter Cortellucci, 24, who expects the first of the five towers will likely begin construction in February. “He’s travelled all over the world and he sees how these areas work, and when you have the infrastructure that Vaughan has, it just makes sense to put in these type of urban centres and try to develop this type of urban development.”
The whole clutch of towers are expected to be completed within five to seven years, if sales go well. Bevilacqua says it's time for other developers and city builders in Vaughan to follow the Cortelluccis’ lead. Given that urban development is inherently more profitable—higher density means more units for sale per acre, with economies of scale coming to the rescue of anyone deciding to build big—it’s not hard to imagine the Cortelluccis’ peers doing just that.
Bert Archer is Yonge Street's Development News editor.

Expo City development site photos by Voula Monoholias.
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