What an interest idea, a European-style cathedral town in Markham!
Apr.*7, 2005. 01:00*AM
RICK MADONIK/TORONTO STAR
Cathedraltown is being built near the Cathedral of the Transfiguration in Markham, which was blessed by the Pope.
New community has lofty goals
to historical flavour
Whether residents of Cathedraltown will be closer to God remains to be seen, but at least they might feel they are.
The sprawling community, now beginning construction in Markham, will have 1,500 living units when it's completed in 2008. Many of those units will be in the shadow of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, the gold-domed church built on Woodbine Ave. north of Major Mackenzie Dr. by the late Stephen Roman before he died in 1988.
Though the cathedral is still unfinished inside, it's the only church in North America consecrated by Pope John Paul II. The pontiff visited the site in '84, when it was little more than a few walls, and blessed the cornerstone. Since then it has sat, rather ingloriously, in the middle of 121 hectares of empty land, the remnants of Romandale Farm, where Roman once raised his prized Holsteins.
The land won't be empty much longer. Helen Roman-Barber, daughter of the mining magnate, is heading the consortium that will realize the project.
"I looked at what's happening all around the cathedral and decided I had to protect it from all this awful, disgusting sprawl," she explains. "I want to build Cathedraltown with consistent and honest architecture. It will be based on the idea of a European cathedral town."
That means urban densities and pedestrian-scale development. Buildings will range from single-family houses to six-storey condos. The cathedral will be surrounded by open space — piazzas in the lingo of the marketers — filled with cafés, restaurants and shops on the north, and a market to the south.
"It's absolutely European," echoes project co-ordinator Martin Mahoney. "Buildings will be quite close to the cathedral. That's the inspiration. This won't be Disney World; our buildings are being designed in a clean and elegant way. There won't be any fake shutters."
The style, he says, will be contemporary Georgian, "but with an old Toronto feel."
Roughly speaking, Georgian architecture, which was popular in the U.K. in the 18th century, later in Canada, is characterized by simple boxy buildings largely devoid of embellishment. Georgian architects, renowned for their understanding of urbanity, designed parts of Edinburgh, London and even Toronto. Unlike Victorian designers, who couldn't resist decorative clutter, the Georgians admired classicism and practised restraint.
How that gets translated into a mega-development in the hinterland north of Toronto will be interesting to see. According to Mahoney, so far so good.
"The response has been fantastic," he reports. "There are still a few townhomes available, but the rest of the 190 units of Phase One have sold out."
Though neither Roman-Barber nor Mahoney use the term New Urbanism, that describes Cathedraltown. The name refers to the international U.S.-based movement founded in 1993 dedicated to remaking the suburbs in the image of something that more closely resembles a city.
Cathedraltown, in the artist's rendering at least, has a decidedly historical flavour that would seem to be at odds with the very contemporary, though old-fashioned, approach espoused by its promoters. But the Canadian market is known for its appalling conservatism. As far as many Torontonians are concerned, it seems the 19th century has only just ended and the Group of Seven, which disbanded shortly after World War I, is the last word in modern art.
The buyers, Mahoney says, represent a cross-section of multicultural Canada.
"We have Italians, Portuguese and Spanish, and regular Canadians," says sales manager Ralph Tomasone. "There are also lots of Chinese. Everybody loves the set-up. Everything's within walking distance. It's like in Europe."
And, he also points out, the garages are in the back, accessible from a lane. That avoids the typical suburban aesthetic, one where a house looks like a life-support system for a two-car garage.
Indeed, if there's one way to sum up the difference between Cathedraltown and the surrounding sprawl, it is that the emphasis has shifted from automobiles to people.
Look across the road to the east and you can see car culture at its worst. Endless identical houses line streets that go nowhere.
These are the slums of tomorrow, but for the price of gasoline, a social disaster waiting to happen. This is why suburbia has become a dirty word.
With its manmade lake, arboretum, village-style main streets and connectedness, Cathedraltown will be a more pleasant place to sit out the coming storm.
You don't have to be Catholic to live there, but — who knows? — it might help.