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Neighbourhood news: Markham in motion

Excerpt from story published in National Post, March 23, 2013
By Lindsay Forsey, Special to National Post

Everyone wants to love their neighbourhood. It’s about more than the streets you drive along to get home after work, more than how far you are from transit or the dentist. It’s about connecting with the place and the people. This multi-part series explores some of the many vibrant neighbourhoods in and around the GTA and what makes them thrive.

Frank Scarpitti grew up exploring the brooks and brush of Milne Dam Conservation Park in Markham. Like most kids, he got a kick out of nature. (Remember fishing for tadpoles and climbing trees?) Lucky for Mr. Scarpitti, he practically lived next door to a 123-hectare protected forest with the Rouge River running through it. “We moved here in 1965,” he says. “I remember riding my bike through the wide open spaces. It was fantastic.”

Fast-forward nearly 50 years and, though the conservation area remains lush and teeming with wildlife, a whole lot else has changed. The rural mill town north of Toronto has become a city (officially, as of July 1, 2012) with 320,000 residents and dozens of corporate headquarters. The boy on the bicycle is now a husband, father-of-three and the proud mayor of his hometown — Canada’s most diverse city, according to Statistics Canada.

Having spent most of his life here and worked 25 years as a municipal councillor prior to his mayorship, Mayor Scarpitti has witnessed the city’s transformation. “More than 55% of Markham residents were born outside of Canada,” he says. “About 40% of our community is of Asian background and we welcome people from every corner of the world. It makes Markham truly dynamic.”

The city is recognized internationally for its excellent Chinese food, from crispy Peking duck to dim sum dumplings to savoury noodle soups. Folks across Canada and around the globe flock to Markham for its annual cultural festivals, such as the two-day food and performance celebration, Taste of Asia (June 29-30), and Night It Up (July 12-14), an outdoor night market of trinket- and street-food vendors, complete with authentic stinky tofu, a deep-fried fermented tofu dish with a side of pickled veg.

MayorFrankScarpiti_Groundbreaking.jpgBeyond being remarkably diverse, Markham is also one of the fastest growing cities in North America. The total value of all construction in the city for 2012, including residential, office, commercial and new public facilities, reached a record high of $1.5-billion. “Over the past several years we’ve typically added about 3,200 new housing units annually,” Mr. Scarpitti says. “In 2012, we surpassed that growth, adding 4,200 new units.”

There’s no denying those figures reflect a building bonanza, but Markham isn’t just cranes and concrete galore. This burgeoning mini-metropolis boasts the GTA’s largest outdoor skating rink (yep, bigger than the pad at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square), a gnarly skateboard park kitted out with rust-resistant stainless steel rails and a Trees for Tomorrow planting program that has plunked more than 150,000 trunks into the ground over the past six years.

Markham’s public recreational facilities are abundant and, in the true meaning of the word, awesome. The shiny new Cornell Community Centre and Library at Bur Oak Avenue and Church Street, which opened in February, includes a 13,057-square-foot triple gymnasium with bleacher seating; an 18,556-sq.-ft. aquatic centre with an indoor splash pad; and a 25,000-sq.-ft. library with a special medical section operated in partnership with the nearby Markham-Stouffville Hospital. There’s also an indoor playground — finally, something for Timmy to do while Sally takes her karate lesson, or while waiting for gramps playing mah-jong at the older adults centre. Not surprisingly, Markham’s Cornell area was ranked in Canadian Real Estate Wealth Magazine’s Top 100 Neighbourhoods to Invest for 2013.

“We plan comprehensive communities in a way that allows us to minimize property tax increases,” Mr. Scarpitti says. There was no increase in 2009, 2010 and 2011. A 1.5% hike in 2012 and 2013 is still one of the lowest rates in the country. “Provincial policies obligate developers to pay back to the municipality to help build parks, community centres and such,” he says. “We’re fortunate to have developers that go beyond what they are required to do, and hats off to them.”

DM_Full_Buildout.jpgMaintaining green space in the midst of major development is a priority for the city. Markham Centre, the emerging downtown neighbourhood, covers the area north of Highway 407, east of Warden, west of Kennedy and south of Highway 7. The vast space is in the throes of becoming a dense hub of integrated transit lines, massive master-planned communities, spectacular civic developments and plenty of parkland.

Remington Group’s Downtown Markham project at Warden and Highway 7 spans 98 hectares, 29 of which will become parks. This is suburbia reimagined 10,000 townhomes and condos, two million square feet of retail space, 3.4-million square feet of commercial office space, 5,000 parking spaces, a Boutique Marriott Hotel, a 2,400-seat Cineplex and more to be announced.

“We’ve handled master-planned communities before, but watching the development over this huge expanse of land has been impressive. There has been so much attention to detail,” says Barbara Lawlor, president of Baker Real Estate, handling sales for Remington. “The vision that goes into creating a mixed-use development like this is incredible. Markham Centre is growing into a very important place in the GTA.”

"Over the next 20 years, our population is projected to grow to 420,000 and Markham Centre will be a big part of that,” Mr. Scarpitti says. “When it’s all built out, it will be home to 40,000 people and 39,000 jobs.”

With so many people planned to live and work in the area, a transit makeover has been top of the to-do list. Markham Centre residents have easy access to GO Transit at Unionville Station as well as York Regional Transit buses. Plus, the city’s VIVA bus rapid transit network cruises right through the ’hood. Currently under construction throughout Markham, VIVA is the sort of public transit system Torontonians can only dream of, where dedicated lanes allow buses to zip along, even in the crush of rush-hour traffic.

Traffic management is important in a city preparing to host a high-profile international sporting event. When the 2015 Pan Am Games comes to Toronto, the water polo, badminton and table tennis competitions will be held here. Construction has begun on a new facility, The Markham Pan Am Centre, located on Main Street in Unionville, in the heart of Markham Centre. If it gets approval, the proposed 20,000-seat, $325-million NHL arena, too, will be built in this new downtown zone, at Highway 7 and Kennedy Road.

“Markham is growing and changing. It has become very livable,” says Saeid Aghai, a principal of Times Group, the developer behind Uptown Markham, another large master-planned community in Markham Centre, between Kennedy and Warden, north of Highway 7.

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