Will East Harbour be the city's hot new business hub?

Development calls for 10M square feet of office space, and 2M square feet of retail

Andrea Janus, CBC News Feb 25, 2017 5:00 AM

The city calls it the former Unilever site. But the developer that's taken over the 60 acres of land down near Lake Shore Boulevard and the Don Valley Parkway has a new name for the space it hopes to turn into a second city business hub: East Harbour.

The land, which is bordered by the DVP, Lake Shore, Eastern Avenue and Booth Avenue, currently hosts a mixed-bag of enterprises: there's a film studio, the city's vehicles for garbage pick-up and parks service that cover the east end, an Enbridge building and, of course, the old Unilever factory.

But First Gulf, the developer that has taken over the space, has big plans to turn the area into a major business hub to rival the downtown core.

The plan calls for more than 10 million square feet of office space, which could host more than 50,000 workers, to help alleviate the commercial space crunch in the heart of the city.

The redevelopment would also include about 2 million square feet of retail space, restaurants and spaces for entertainment and cultural events. Plenty of green space is also included in the plan.

On Thursday, the city's planning and growth management committee approved the recommendations in a preliminary report that called for a series of community consultations about the proposal. The committee's vote also gave the green light to an environmental assessment about flood protection.

David Gerofsky, CEO of First Gulf, said Toronto has the lowest commercial vacancy rate in North America, and that more than 100 million square feet of office space will be needed in the coming years to satisfy demand from employers.

"The question then is, 'how do we satisfy that?'" Gerofsky said. "Well, I can tell you, most of those employers want to be in downtown Toronto. It's where the workforce is, it's where the talent is, it's where the colleges and universities are, it's where the public transit is."

With real estate running out in the traditional business hubs, Gerofsky envisions East Harbour as "the last frontier of growth and development in the downtown area."

'Pretty big knot to untie'

While there may be questions about developing a site not currently well-served by public transit, other projects will make the site accessible via various transportation networks. The current proposal for the TTC's downtown relief subway line calls for a station at the site, and the proposed SmartTrack regional rail plan also runs through the neighbourhood.

There's also a proposal to extend Broadview Avenue, and its streetcar line, directly into the site, according to Coun. Paula Fletcher, whose ward includes East Harbour.

"There's no transit hub that has all three types of stations anywhere that's being built," Fletcher told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Thursday. "So this would be very new."

As Gerofsky points out, major cities around the world, including New York, London and Paris, all have more than one transit hub to get commuters around the city and surrounding areas.

As many as 80 per cent of people who go to the area will get there via subway, SmartTrack or GO Transit, he said.

"They try and balance it," he said. "So this helps to achieve that balance and will relieve some of the pressure on Union Station. But probably more importantly it will foster growth and economic development in and of itself."

Bike lanes will also connect with the east- and west-end bike trail networks, he added.

In addition to the new transit networks, other big changes have to take place for the development to move forward, according to Fletcher.

The hybrid plan for the redevelopment of the east end of the Gardiner Expressway, which was approved by council nearly a year ago, calls for the on-ramp to the DVP, which now goes right over the site, to be moved. Other changes would include replacing large sewers, she said, as well as the work to flood-proof the Don River.

Then there is the matter of having to relocate the city services that are based at the site, as well as the existing film studio.

"So there's a lot of other things it triggers," Fletcher said.

"This is a pretty big knot to untie in order to have a successful development, but I think everybody's up for it."

'We don't want them going to San Francisco or L.A.'

Among other major corporate projects, First Gulf developed Coca-Cola's Canadian head office on King Street East.

When it comes to East Harbour, the development has already sparked interest from a number of "some of the world's most impressive names" in business, Gerofsky said, but he would not divulge who they are.

According Gerofsky, downtown isn't just for the big banks anymore, and a diverse array of employers, including media and tech companies, want to be in the city.

Toronto is competing with other major cities, such as New York, Boston and Chicago, for corporate offices, as well as the "best and the brightest" of a workforce that has been educated at Toronto's top-ranked schools, he said.

"We don't want them going down to San Francisco and L.A. and we want to attract their employers to our city," Gerofsky said.

"The correct question is not how are we going to fill this space, the question is how are we going to accommodate employers if we don't build this space. Where are they going to go?"

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