Saturday, 17 April 2010

Toronto Star: Turning Starch Into Award Winning Homes along Port Credit's waterfront.

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Washington’s Urban Land Institute believes you can’t take
the starch out of lakeside Port Credit condominium project


By Stephen Weir


When the US research organization Urban Land Institute (ULI), set out to pick the ten best land-use projects in North America, Europe and Asia, one of the 21 finalists was the Port Credit Village development on Lake Ontario's north shore. The Washington based nonprofit association vigorously likes how the privately owned Fram Building Group has transformed a demolished starch factory into a lakeside condominium project which, through its design, encourages residents to work at home, walk, ride bikes and use mass transit.
The annual competition is based on ULI’s guiding principle that the “achievement of excellence in land use practice should be recognized and rewarded.” Its Awards for Excellence makes an all-encompassing holistic examination of each nominated project, looking beyond its architectural design. The criteria include: “leadership, contribution to the community, innovations, public/private partnership, environmental protection and enhancement, response to societal needs, and financial success.”
The nominating principal has a definite downtown Toronto ring to it but it is in fact all about Mississauga’s undiscovered waterfront. Port Credit Village is a major condominium project that includes 167 townhouses, 18 live/work residences and three waterfront condominium buildings. The new community is near the Port Credit River and its namesake Yacht Club built on land that was for over 100 years used by the “Starch Works”.
Back in the early days of Canada, The St Lawrence Starch Factory was the major employer in Port Credit (which is now part of Mississauga). Built in 1891 at what is now the foot of Hurontario St, the factory was a large sprawling brick complex where millions of bushels of Ontario corn was crushed and ground into starch and corn syrup. The massive brick factory was shut down in 1991, and all but the “Starch Work” office building on Lakeshore Road was demolished.
St Lawrence took the buildings down to ground level, leaving -- well almost --a 26acre clean slate of land for the family operated Fram Building Group to build a community on. “ When we started digging in 2000 we found they had left the foundations buried. When we were done the removal there was a pile of concrete as high and as big as our six-storey Regatta condominium,” explained Fram president Frank Giannone. “We took it out, crushed it and used as roadbed. We managed to recycle almost all the concrete we found above and below the ground.”
Given a site of virgin waterfront land, Mr. Giannone and his architect brother Ralph Giannone could probably have designed and built a wildly profitable megaplex condo that would be high on density and low on sight lines, open space and public access to the water. Fram didn’t do that, working with the city, the Port Credit Village now includes 4 acres of walking trails, Starch Work historic monuments, lakeside pavilions, public squares and parkland. The 3 small condominium buildings, the grouping of the luxury townhouses, storefront live/work units are built with brick and stones and blend well with the small-town style of Lakeshore Road, Port Credit’s main drag.
Along Lakeshore Rd there is a block long three-story building with eighteen shops on the ground level. All of the businesses have living quarters attached; the commute to work is the time it takes to walk down a flight of stairs. The Live/Work building has been open for about 3 years and all of the 18-condo units are spoken for.
Nearby is the original Starch Works headquarters. It has been restored and now is the headquarters for Fram’s international operation. Within sight of the Frank Giannone’s building you can see three recently completed condominiums, 70 Ports, 80 Ports and The Regatta. All of the buildings are set back from the lake and there is a large public square that plays host almost every weekend to jazz concerts, blues festivals and even a busker festival!
“ Here everyone has one common goal – community,” said Mrs. Margaret Dalzell, the past president of one of eight condo associations that controls the project and an owner of a million dollar 3-story waterfront townhouse in the development. “ All of our neighbours arrived in at the same time, so, no one had to prove anything to be part of the community. We have a newsletter, a book club and walking group to take advantage of the trail and we have regular get-togethers. This month we (people living in the townhouses) will be holding a Bocce Ball Party in memory of one of our dearest neighbours who died of cancer.”
The brick condo townhouses are built in small blocks. Walking past the units one can’t help but notice that there are no fences, garages, nor driveways. Cars are parked underground and the garage is actually under the common backyard that links the townhouse blocks. The development eschews fences as trees and shrubs act as property lines and barriers.
“Everyone tries to walk here,” said Mrs. Dalzell. “Mississauga Transit stops right round the corner. The Go Train is a 5-minute walk away, and we have the best lakeside trail in the province! Of course, if you do have drive the QEW is right over there (pointing north) and Sherway Gardens is a 9 minute drive … I know, I’ve have had to do that.”
Between the development and the lake there is a large concrete promenade, wide enough so that the dog walkers, stroller pushing parents and joggers, don’t nip, bang and sneer at each other in passing. The 15 km path, which links into Toronto’s own Martin Goodman bike path, has several pavilions where people can sit down and take in the lake. A giant iron whistle, grinding stones and steam pipes from the Starch Works are installed along the route with Heritage Mississauga plaques explaining what the preserved machinery was once use.
It took Fram seven years to take the rubble of the Starch Factory and make it into a showcase community. While the site was being prepared and the builder was getting the necessary government approvals, potential buyers were canvassed to see what they wanted in a new home, be it a townhouse or live/work unit. “We have developed a concept, not just built a building, and that is probably reason in part why we were recognized by the ULI,” said Mr. Giannone.
Although the project is now completed, there is a Phase Two just north of Port Credit Village in the works. Fram will be building another condo and a second building that will be geared to seniors. The company is also building communities in Houston, Caledon, Markham and Toronto. There is another similar reclamation project on the go in Collingwood on the site of a long closed Great Lakes shipbuilding yard.
In May, the ULT announced its winners – the Fram development wasn’t in the top ten. “Looking at the competition from Europe, Asia and America we were all proud to be one of just two Canadian companies (The River Project in Toronto was the other) to make the top 21 list,” said Frank Giannone.
Not winning didn’t take the starch out of the Fram president. Weeks after learning that his company didn’t win, organizers for the Urban Land Institute’s Award of Excellence, informed Mr. Giannone that the Port Credit Village condominium was nominated again for their 2007 awards!

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