She has been quietly transforming the city for decades. Toronto’s top urban planner opens up about her wins and regrets
Nov. 14, 2022
In her 33-years with the City of Toronto, planner Lynda Macdonald has played a key role in transforming once neglected and abandoned acres into some of the city’s most exciting new neighbourhoods.
Fort York, CityPlace, the central waterfront -- they have all bloomed under her watch, sprouting gleaming towers full of thousands of homes, shops and offices.
But it’s the space between the towers that most interest Macdonald.
“That’s where people experience the city,” she says, citing “enough space on the sidewalks and having a little park you can sit in, or room for the outdoor café or a bench that you can sit down (on) because you’re tired, … also being beautiful and having room for trees and, having shops that open on the street so you feel like your city is engaging.”
As a director of community planning for the Toronto-East York district Macdonald has, for the last five years, been leading a team of about 55 staff that oversees about half of the city’s rampant development. At any given time they can be handling 300 active files in what is Toronto’s heaviest development territory.
Now Macdonald, 65, has made a difficult decision to retire. A new term of city council this fall makes this a good time for someone else to transition into the job. She wants to pursue her passion for environmental advocacy. Although she has already left the job her retirement isn’t official until the New Year.
Macdonald, who is known as a grafter, routinely working six-day a week, is the first to admit that when it comes to Toronto’s development there have been compromises -- too many glass towers that aren’t compatible with the city’s sustainability ambitions and heritage losses.
Underpinning almost every aspect of the job has been the drive for intensification -- creating places where people want to live close to parks, schools, community centres, daycares and beautiful streets.
“It’s even more important for people in affordable housing because the people who have the resources can go to the cottage for the weekend, send kids to private schools,” she said.
One new community that Macdonald helped realize while still a senior planner resonates for her because of the community’s influence and the close collaboration among the city, the residents, the landowners and developers.
The Fort York neighbourhood, now a dense condo community, was seeded by Molson in the early 1990s. It wanted to replace its brewery near Bathurst St. and Lake Shore Blvd. with a mixed use development. It brought other nearby land owners on board and approached the city. Foundational studies were commenced, new streets and green spaces drawn.
Then a group called The Friends of Fort York suggested that the city might have it wrong, that a new road in the plan would run too close to the ramparts of the War of 1812 fort. The city and the developers joined the community for a workshop at the armoury and the plan was altered.
“We changed the alignment of the road. We created what’s now June Callwood Park. Then the city ended up acquiring some of the land under the expressway that was owned by the railway. So it expanded the land around the fort and the idea of creating this brand new visitor centre emerged,” said Macdonald.
Today the fort is the centrepiece of a 43-acre archeological park. The visitor centre attracts thousands of people annually -- all within steps of a growing neighbourhood of more than 9,000 residents, 27 per cent more people than five years earlier.
Fort York also informed the creation of another highrise community to the west, CityPlace, which she calls a “pretty extraordinary brand new neighbourhood.”
According to former city councillor Joe Cressy, Macdonald played a role in negotiating an agreement for a groundbreaking special development levee on Concord Adex, the developer that bought up the 45 acres near the Rogers Centre.
“It was a very simple premise. The city said, ‘We will rezone the land to allow you to add 18,000 to 20,000 new residents on the condition that you provide the funding for the amenities to make it livable,’” said Cressy.
“They articulated what those amenities were to be: two child care facilities, two schools, a community centre, parkland and a library.”
Cressy jokes that in his first term as a downtown city councillor for Ward 10, Spadina--Fort York, from 2014 to 2018, he spent more evenings with MacDonald than he did with his wife.
Many of those evenings were expended on the Bathurst Quay Neighbourhood Plan. The area at the foot of Bathurst St., the launch site for travellers using the Toronto Island Airport, has a park, a school and a community centre. For decades, says Cressy, it was an area “where big ideas went but were never implemented.”
Macdonald must have led 60 meetings on that plan, not just the required meetings “where everybody comes and throws darts and pitchforks,” he said. But meetings with the residents of Toronto Community housing buildings, the co-ops -- there was even a meeting with the children at The Waterfront School to find out what they wanted in their neighbourhood.
“There was nothing in her job description that said, ‘one must hold 60 meetings and be sure to consult those living in subsidized housing and the six-year-olds in Grade One,’” said Cressy, now a senior vice-president at George Brown College.
“Nothing said she had to. But she wanted to,” he said.
Cressy credits her vision for a Rail Deck Park to run along the train tracks through the downtown that ultimately became one of the bigger disappointments of her career.
“Not only did (Macdonald) have the vision right, not only did Lynda put in the hard work, but it all came to naught because of an unelected, appointed body, which I think got it wrong,” said Cressy.
An Ontario Land Tribunal last year ruled in favour of a developer’s appeal to build a series of office and condo towers over the train tracks instead of a park. The cost and scarcity of land downtown makes it unlikely Toronto will realize its own version of Chicago’s Millenium Park or New York’s Hudson Yards that has dedicated 50 per cent of its site to parkland, including decking over the train yards.
Macdonald says, “It would have been just an amazing legacy for the city and for the future of the city.” But she leaves room for hope that a mini version of a rail deck park could still happen, “which would still be a win.”