Published in The Globe & Mail, Monday, Marc 10, 2014
By Wallace Immen, Special to The Globe & Mail
When Aviva Canada Inc. employees head to lunch from their new office tower in 2017, all they’ll have to do is cross the street to stroll a sidewalk lined with restaurants. After work, they’ll walk to bars, shopping and a Cineplex.
That may not be remarkable for office workers in downtown Toronto, but this office will not be in Toronto. This is suburban Markham, northeast of Toronto, on a site that until recently was a cornfield.
Aviva’s new office building that broke ground in February is a core feature of Downtown Markham, a high-density commercial, retail and residential development clustered on pedestrian-friendly streets that will converge at a transit hub.
It’s a radical departure for suburban commercial buildings, says Sheldon Levitt, a partner with Toronto-based Quadrangle Architects Ltd., which is designing the 12-storey tower for Remington Group Inc., with Aviva as the tenant.
“It’s a suburban development in an urban context,” he says. “That seems basic, but it’s revolutionary for office buildings in Toronto’s suburbs, which traditionally tend to be low-rise campuses surrounded by parking.”
There are already close to 1 million square feet of office space built and planned for in the Downtown Markham area, but planners are optimistic they can eventually attract tenants for more than 3 million square feet.
The City of Markham is a 1971 fusion of three historic villages: Thornhill, Unionville and Markham. Each had its own main street, but there was no single downtown. The Downtown Markham plan first took shape 20 years ago and has been evolving toward higher density, says Markham’s Mayor, Frank Scarpitti.
The area south of Unionville to the east of Warden Avenue was frozen for development by the province during the planning and construction of express toll road Highway 407. In 1994, a plan was approved to develop the area with higher commercial density.
“The concept was a place where people could live, work and shop in a green setting that provided ample recreational opportunities,” he says of the area bounded by Warden Avenue, Highway 407 and the Rouge River.
“Markham was saying we don’t have a core we can grow from; can you look at doing it here?” says Chris Bratty, president of land development for the Remington Group Inc., Downtown Markham’s developer. “Originally we had a plan for semi-detached residential and a couple of industrial buildings and it would have looked like the rest of Markham. But we said let’s try something different.”
Since then, the plan has evolved to include the potential for significant commercial high-rise towers and a transportation hub that will create streets that are attractive to pedestrians and not just drivers, he says. Other buildings slated to open in 2016 include a stand-alone Marriott Hotel and an office-retail building that includes a Cineplex Odeon and VIP Cinema.
Mr. Bratty expects transit will be a big attraction in the future, with the development of a “mobility hub” around the Unionville GO station that’s three blocks away from the Aviva building. In addition to a planned upgrade to all-day GO train service from Toronto, it will become a locus for the regional Metrolinx system, which will have a dedicated transit way along Highway 407 and for the York Region’s Viva bus service.
A park belt has also been set aside for walking and bike trails leading to the Rouge River that runs north of the development.
It was important that Aviva’s building relate to the street, Mr. Levitt says. “We wanted a sophisticated look but also something that looks different from different angles and looks interesting from a pedestrian point of view.”
Glazing of black-toned glass will belt the second storey and that dark glass will also clad half of the east and west sides of the building, to give the impression from outside of the complex being two attached buildings.
Inside, though, the building is very integrated and reflects the latest thinking about office design, he says.
“Tenants want much higher office occupancy than in the past. Work stations are smaller and there’s a trend toward more collaborative work spaces and fewer private offices. So we’ve designed this building to have column-free, large floor plates with a centre core with eight elevators.” The building is mobility-scooter friendly from the front door to the offices, with washrooms beyond building code requirements for accessibility.
When the building is completed in early 2017, Aviva will move its 1,500 employees from the company’s current offices in Scarborough.
The insurance company looked at several options for a new Canadian headquarters and found the urban feel of the Markham plan and the design concept extremely compelling, says Stewart Hamilton, vice-president of business analytics for Aviva.
If employees want to go out to lunch from the company’s current location in a complex of three buildings in Scarborough, the options are very limited, he says. And at work, because the buildings are spread out it can take 10 minutes to go between offices for meetings.
“We are really looking at how we create something that will be more collaborative for our employees. It’s hard to argue with the amenities, the restaurants and park spaces, as well as the road and transit access here.”