Designed in 1952 to be a self-sufficient ‘new town’, Don Mills was a manifestation of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept deeply rooted in mid-century modernist ideology. Originally conceived as an outdoor mall, Don Mills Centre quickly became a popular retail destination, expanding to include Canada’s first suburban department store in 1961. The open-air mall was a key component of the central block in Don Mills ‘garden city’ which included all public amenities such as: a freestanding curling rink, a movie theatre, and an ice rink. It has acted as a central gathering place for Don Mills residents for generations.
Don Mills Redevelopment Project
New Garden City
The redevelopment of the Don Mills Centre is the first of its kind in the GTA. A watershed mall redevelopment project, it tested our ability to skillfully re-conceptualize the existing suburban shopping mall into a multi-faceted, inclusive, mixed-use experience. Via planning and architectural innovation, the aim is to transform the existing typology into a new model of hybridized and layered urban and suburban orders. The result is a precedent setting planned community located 11 kilometers from downtown Toronto.
Like others of its kind, over time the long-enclosed mall surrounded by asphalt parking lots lost its major retail anchor, the curling rink, and movie theater, making it a prime candidate for revitalization. Having dispensed with other similar “B” level malls, Cadillac Fairview reserved this one to create a new retail-focused development model. After travelling across North America to study about 30 new retail/mixed-use developments, our job was to create a new original – one that embraced the elements of our winter city in the mid-century context of Don Mills. The scheme introduces a mixed-use residential typology to the site with its new outdoor retail component utilizing critical design elements such as: a public square, a high-street, cultural and leisure amenities, and pedestrian-scaled layered urban devises.
The newly conceived Don Mills Centre finally completes the vision of connectivity to the ‘garden city’ that surrounds it seventy years later, with a whole new intensity and contemporary spirit. The ‘new town’ original principals of connecting the four neighbourhood quadrants, applying the principals of modernism in a contemporary setting, developing a greenbelt linking a system of neighbourhood parks, and integrating industry into the community for residents to live and work in the same neighbourhood are now kneaded into the 21st C. vision of Don Mills Centre. Perhaps the one 1950’s precept that we invert rather than embrace is the strategy to separate vehicles from pedestrians with a ring road that isolates the car-centric Don Mills Centre from its surrounding, pedestrian-centric quadrants.
The new concept now depends on the mall turned inside out as an outdoor experience rooted firmly in a pedestrian narrative with deep canopies, generous sidewalks, layered porticoes, and green squares with ice rinks in winter and fountains in summer, all infused with precedent-setting intensity of mixed uses in an ex-urban model that now creatively structures parking while maintaining accessibility.
The design incorporated transitional spaces between indoors and outdoors, forming a new symbolic relationship between the heritage and contemporary defining elements of the site which layers a scenographic master plan of residential, industrial, commercial, recreational, and institutional uses into the Garden City plan.
The design team was determined to integrate the Don Mills Centre with the rest of iconic Don Mills, with improvements to pedestrian street connections, significant landscaping and greening of the site, and community amenities. While respecting the character and significance of the original modern architecture, the new image for the center was designed to be consistently contemporary and timeless.
Key to our design approach is the long term ‘chess game’ of strategic phasing that saw to create a framework where the center of the site is built first along with a series of open public spaces to allow retail-driven mixed use to be built and enjoyed as soon as possible. These lived commercial and collective spaces are then leveraged in the second phase to introduce a residential-driven mixed use allowing a gentle nurturing of select suburban orders into urban ones.
Key to our design approach is the long term ‘chess game’ of strategic phasing that saw to create a framework where the centre of the site is built first along with a series of open public spaces to allow retail-driven mixed use to be built and enjoyed as soon as possible. These lived commercial and collective spaces are then leveraged in the second phase to introduce a residential-driven mixed use allowing a gentle nurturing of select suburban orders into urban ones.
Phase I: The first phase was a large-scale urban infill project replacing the outdated indoor shopping center with a 38.5‑acre outdoor mixed-use development. As Design Architect for this phase, which opened in Spring 2009, GPA led the effort for Shops at Don Mills to set a new standard for Canadian retailing. It has since established a lively, pedestrian-friendly all-season experience.
Phase II: The second phase of the redevelopment expanded GPA’s role as Master Plan Architect for the mixed-use intensification of the site; as well as Lead Architect for two of its seven new residential buildings – Flaire, and Liv Lofts, which repurposed a 1970’s Don Mills office building into a new residential model. This phase focused on the design of a large-scale masterplan, driven by residential intensification, that scaffolds and complements Shops at Don Mills.
The Don Mills Centre Redevelopment project allowed us to test our multi-scaled approach to urban design as a scenographic hybrid of existing + new, urban + suburban, picturesque + axial parts that together define a narrative of contemporary experience.
Phase III: In 2015, GPA was engaged once again for Phase III of the Don Mills Redevelopment project. This phase involved the renovation and amplification of public spaces within the Shops at Don Mills. The work served to improve the decorative and cultural aspects of the public amenities, as well as to provide better opportunities for pedestrians to engage with the space.
Several retail storefronts undertook façade improvements, utilizing brightly colored materials and contrasting textures like powder coated steel fins. A third pedestrian mews was added, reinforcing the walkability of the retail blocks, and providing space for additional storefront displays, lighting, and seating areas. The Parkade was updated with improved wayfinding including a unified color-coded system on the stairwells, columns, and walkways, as well as decorative lighting installations and our custom-designed public wall-art in the entryways.
Additionally, steel canopy gateways with illuminated signage were added to the street entrances, creating aesthetic unity, and underscoring the destination experience. Expanded planters, new street trees, seating areas, decorative canopies, and catenary lighting were installed to enhance the ‘outdoor living room’ feel of the main streets, as well as an updated fountain in the main square with additional seating and a unique infinity edge water feature. These placemaking improvements continue to elevate the pedestrian experience.
The redevelopment of Don Mills has spanned over a decade and has been celebrated by various international award programs and publications. It was previously awarded the ICSC Award for Innovative Design and Development of a New Retail Project, as well as the Gold Urban Design Award by the Design Exchange. Featured in Canadian Architect, Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Designlines, and many more, Don Mills is a testament to GPA’s inventive approach to the integration of urban design, building design, and the elements that define public space. Its lessons have significantly informed our diverse portfolio of multi-scale intensification projects.
Cadillac Fairview Corporation Ltd.
Don Mills, Toronto, Ontario
37 Acres, +1500 Units, +500,000 sq.ft commercial
Design Architect — Giannone Petricone Associates
in collaboration with WZMH Architects and Rudy Adlaf, Cadillac Fairview Corporation
Architect of Record — WZMH Architects
Landscape — Quinn Design Associates Inc.
Harold Clark Photography
Artist / Graphics