Politics Transit Urban Planning

The subway is coming. Let’s improve Scarborough Centre

As the readers of my blog probably know, I am not a fan of the Scarborough Subway extension. Even though the subway will be expensive and less useful than a fully-funded light rail replacement of the ageing Scarborough RT, politicians from all three major parties have backed the subway, promising “respect” and “fairness” for Scarborough.

Neethan Shan, the New Democratic Party’s candidate in Thursday’s provincial by-election in Scarborough-Rouge River, has been pushing this messaging hard, though all three candidates — including City Councillor Raymond Cho, running for the Progressive Conservatives — are all in favour of the extension. That conveniently ignores the fact that the subway won’t even stop in Scarborough-Rouge River — though the LRT would have.

But it’s now time to move on. Scarborough is going to get a six kilometre long, one-stop subway extension, which was confirmed by a vote at city council in July. The focus should now be on getting the best value out of the $3.2 billion project. That must include improving Scarborough Centre.

The subway extension is currently in the environmental assessment/detailed design stage. I expect that construction will actually begin probably just before the next provincial election is called in 2018. It won’t open for another four to five years after that, in 2022 or 2023. That is plenty of time to make some necessary changes to the street grid, the built form, and the public realm.

A few weeks ago (during a rare summer rain storm), I explored Scarborough Centre. With too many surface parking lots and a hostile road network, there’s a lot of work that has to be done to make the improve this suburban hub. Employment and residential growth is currently stagnant; that has to be addressed. All that said, there are also a lot of great community assets already in place, and there are some opportunities to make it better.

Scarborough Centre is one of many suburban hubs in the Greater Toronto Area, built around a shopping mall, but also including municipal offices, recreational facilities, offices and high-density residential towers. Bramalea was the first (the Civic Centre opened in 1972), Scarborough Town Centre opened one year later. Mississauga and Pickering followed the same model. Today Mississauga City Centre, which made many improvements over the last decade, is the most successful of these suburban hubs.

Scarborough Civic Centre, opened 1973

These new suburban nodes were built for the car, first and foremost. Scarborough Town Centre and the Civic Centre opened in 1973 in a farmfield near the Highway 401/McCowan Road interchange, close to the geographic centre of the rapidly growing municipality. There were plans for a rapid transit line — originally envisioned as a high-speed streetcar line — to connect Scarborough Centre to the rest of Metro Toronto, this link opened in 1985 as the Scarborough RT.

The new Scarborough Centre subway stop will probably be built near the corner of Borough Drive and Town Centre Court, just northwest of the intersection of McCowan and Ellesmere Roads. The Scarborough Centre Secondary Plan area is identified by the City of Toronto as an “urban focal point for eastern Toronto where employment, housing, institutional, cultural, recreational, commercial, and community services and transit will be concentrated in a dynamic mixeduse location.”

Scarborough Centre Secondary Plan boundary and the proposed new subway stop

There’s a long way to go before Scarborough Centre can live up to that ideal. While there’s some promising new development, including a beautiful new library branch, the mall – the focal point of Scarborough Centre – is surrounded by parking lots, and on the north side, near Highway 401, big-box stores and chain restaurants that are difficult to get to without a car. East of McCowan Road and west of Brimley Road, warehouses, factories and parking lots dominate the landscape, with the exception of a high-rise condominium cluster on Corporate Drive near Highway 401.

When the same 1.7 kilometre Secondary Plan area is superimposed on the Downtown Toronto street grid, one can see both the contrast between the suburban, auto-dominated landscape of Scarborough Centre and the dense city centre of Toronto, and the potential of the Scarborough lands. The boundaries extend from Union Station to City Hall, and from John Street to east of Jarvis Street. Five subway stations are contained within this area, the highest concentration of jobs in the country.

Unfortunately, Scarborough Centre never attracted many private-sector office employment. The federal government has an office building near the RT station; there are three mid-rise office towers called Consilium Place on the east side of McCowan Road. Most jobs here are found within the shopping mall.

The Scarbrorough Centre boundary superimposed on Downtown Toronto

On a walk through Scarborough Centre, one can see how hostile the environment is for pedestrians as it’s currently laid out. Wide four-lane streets are difficult to cross, especially without adequate crosswalks. Traffic hurries by in all directions; McCowan and Brimley Roads in particular are dangerous as traffic hurries to and from Highway 401.

IMG_4651-001The corner of Borough Drive and Town Centre Court, where the new subway station may go

At McCowan RT station, things are even worse. Pedestrians and cyclists are banned from proceeding north on McCowan Road from the main station entrance. Instead, there’s a overhead walkway — that’s well-hidden and not accessible for pedestrians with disabilities — to get around a wide turning ram meant to speed cars and trucks towards Highway 401. It’s nearly as bad for the poor pedestrian attempting to walk east towards Grangeway Drive.

The street system needs to be completely re-thought. Parking lots should disappear, replaced with above ground and underground garages, bike facilites need to appear, and the transit system strengthened. It isn’t enough to build a subway station here (there’s been rapid transit at Scarborough Centre for over 30 years), but to ensure that transit is a viable option for getting to and from the Scarborough Centre from all over Toronto.

IMG_4645-001Pedestrians are banned from walking north from McCowan Station

IMG_4648-001The pedestrian environment walking east from McCowan Station towards Grangeway Drive

IMG_4638-001The 1980s covered walkway to McCowan Station. It is only accessible by stairs.

That all said, there are some great assets, however, that can be leveraged to make Scarborough Centre a better, more urban place. The Toronto Public Library opened its 100th branch here in 2015, and it is a beautiful new structure, and a vital part of any community.


South of the library and civic centre is the Frank Faubert Woodlot. Glenn De Baremaeker, environmental activist, helped to save the beautiful natural asset. But the woodlot stands in the way of the subway that Glenn De Baremaeker, City Councillor and Subway Champion, has been pushing. Thankfully, the woodlot will likely remain untouched, but at the cost of expropriating homes and businesses to the south of Ellesmere Avenue.


Finally, there’s the mall. Scarborough Town Centre serves the community well with a mix of lower and mid-range retailers, many catering to the diverse population that makes Scarborough home. Wal-Mart and Dollarama co-exist with a renovated Hudson’s Bay with new Top Shop/Top Man locations. When I visited, the Olympic Games were being shown on large screens in the centre court. And a new, fancy food court just opened. The mall is a major draw, and with imagination, can be part of the urbanization of Scarborough Centre.

IMG_0676.JPGScarborough Town Centre on a Saturday afternoon

I’m still unhappy about the Scarborough Subway Extension, but politicians from all three major parties, from all levels of government, are backing the project. But if Scarborough Centre is rebuilt in such a way that it’s easy to walk and cycle around, and new urban residential and commercial build upon the existing assets, then maybe the subway project will make a little bit more sense.

And hopefully the next subway priority for Toronto will remain the Relief Line, and not, say another debate about a subway on Sheppard Avenue.

One reply on “The subway is coming. Let’s improve Scarborough Centre”

Great article. Hopefully you’re wrong about the Sheppard line, we need both, and your de-promotion of one over another seems a bit early.

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