Globe Real Estate
The Perfect House

JOHN BENTLEY MAYS
3 October 2003
The Globe and Mail


 

Like any residential construction site in mid-build, Metrontario Group's development known as Oak Park is a very mixed bag.

Large swatches of the 200-acre tract in northern Oakville are still muddy, bleak construction zones, or weedy vacant lots. Of the structures that will define the project's main street, only one — a 60,000-square-foot building for shops and offices — is on the go. The area slated to become the retail mecca for Oak Park's 5,000 middle-income residents nowadays features a depressing cluster of dollar stores and budget outlets.

But looking past the usual dreariness and fragmentation of such places-in-progress, we can make out what Oak Park wants to be, and perhaps will be, when all the work is done.

The houses and low condominium buildings on completed avenues line up to form refined, old-fashioned streetscapes, with dormers and welcoming front porches and many a gracious autumn garden out front. Corner houses take themselves seriously, adding a touch of ceremony to street crossings. While there is monotony in the housing types available to customers so far, the architectural design — a kind of reinvented Ontario Victorian, for the most part — is robust and urbane.

Garages have been sternly banished to rear lanes. The confusing, twisting thoroughfares, cul-de-sacs and traffic traps of suburban sprawl have been banished from the site altogether. The streets and sidewalks are lined up on a strong, open grid, with clearly marked links to the city beyond.

Like the houses, the four-storey office block now under construction at 231 Oak Park Blvd. is a promise of things to come: A firmly designed neighbourhood of good streets and good houses, doing all that architecture can do to reinforce community.

While you've probably guessed this already, I should add that Oak Park is an instance of New Urbanism aborning. It's also the most recent attempt in the Greater Toronto Area to put into practice the controversial theories of the U.S.-based New Urbanist movement. (One precedent: Cornell, in Markham.)

The name of this bright faction is odd, since there's little new about it, and much that's old. Launched some 20 years ago by Miami architect and planner Andrés Duany, and now a large force wherever people think about the future of cities, New Urbanism is, at heart, a sympathetic study of things that made North America's best old towns and neighbourhoods work. It's a bold, ambitious stab at over-throwing the planning ideas that gave us the nightmare of suburban sprawl, and replacing them with principles grounded in thoughtful architectural traditionalism.

Mr. Duany (who concluded a series of lively public discussions on Oakville's future last week) likes such things as shops within walking distance of the front porch, firm street grids, green squares, garages hidden in laneways. He and his comrades intensely dislike single-use agglomerations such as shopping plazas, industrial parks, and residential neighbourhoods cut off from the vitality of urban life. When challenged by their enemies, who are legion among orthodox planners, the New Urbanists point to a long list of old American towns that have survived and thrived without malls and a garage in every front yard.

While New Urbanism has broad popular appeal, its principles remain a hard sell to an odd couple of adversaries. On one hand, there are the social activists who believe New Urbanism is about creating the look of community, not building the real thing. (They've got a point, by the way.) On the other hand, there are the real estate developers.

In the latter group is Lawrie Lubin, an executive in the family-owned Metrontario Group. A self-described “traditional developer of non-urbanist subdivisions,” Mr. Lubin began planning for Oak Park more than 20 years ago. For most of the intervening time, the project was on its way to becoming just another patch of sprawl.

Then he heard about New Urbanism, liked what he heard — and flinched. “Cornell was only on the drawing board, nothing was a proven success,” he told me. “It was an opportunity and a risk for our company to proceed with this.” He might not have done so, had the right builder not come along. But it did: Tribute Communities, a company with popular products in the GTA . “It was refreshing because here were people who not only understood building New Urbanist, but relished it.”

So what will become of Oak Park? As long as workplaces, excellent shopping and other neighbourhood amenities remain in the distance, the residents will be chained to their cars. Its attractive streets will be good for little more than evening strolls in summer, and nothing in winter. But with Tribute's sensible architecture and Metrontario's basic planning, Oak Park has a better than even chance to become a successful example of neo-traditionalist thinking applied to the real world.

 

 

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