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Hummingbird to sing a new tune Add to ...

The Hummingbird Centre for the Performing Arts will be no more in 2006.

Not that the 44-year-old entertainment palace on the corner of Front Street East and Yonge in downtown Toronto is going the way of the wrecking ball. Rather, the name of the city-owned building is to be changed to something else, virtually simultaneous with the proposed erection of a 50-storey condominium tower on the centre's back end, among other radical changes to both its physical plant and its operating mandate.

What that something else will be is the $10-million or $15-million or $20-million question, those dollars being the possible price-tags for the entity (individual or corporate) that wants its name affixed to what was called O'Keefe Centre between 1960 and 1996.

The O'Keefe became the Hummingbird when the head of Toronto-based Hummingbird Ltd., Fred Sorkin, pledged $5-million to help cover the costs of some badly needed renovations to the centre. In return, he was granted naming rights for 20 years. However, after paying an initial instalment of $1.1-million, followed by annual disbursals of $650,000, he got into a feud in 2000 with then-Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman over plans to sell the arts centre to developers. Hummingbird stopped making payments to its namesake, and hasn't made any since.

Now, with the centre needing fresh sources of funding to realize its expansion program and Hummingbird Ltd. having refrained from honouring the balance of its $5-million pledge (it's paid less than $3-million to date), the software company and the centre's CEO, Dan Brambilla, are moving "amicably" toward an "understanding," in Brambilla's words, that the naming rights' deal will stand for only two more years and expire in 2006.

(A spokesman for Hummingbird said yesterday that "we have not reached an agreement with respect to the discontinuation of the name . . . but certainly it's understood ongoing that the name will change.") Ever since mid-2002, necessity has been the goad to the reinvention of the Hummingbird. That was when the federal and Ontario governments announced that they would be giving the Canadian Opera Company an estimated $56-million toward the purpose-built construction of an opera house. Until then, the COC had been one of two anchor tenants using the 3,200-seat Hummingbird for its annual programming. The other was the National Ballet of Canada. By September, 2002, the ballet said it, too, would be abandoning the Hummingbird to join forces with the COC in its new home, now called the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, beginning in 2006. (The Hummingbird Ltd. spokesman said these departures, in effect, sealed the company's non-participation in its pledge. "When we came on board, we envisaged it as a cultural centre, as the home to the ballet and the opera. But things have changed, drastically so, since then.")

Realizing that the Hummingbird couldn't survive in its incarnation as a theatre without anchor tenants, Brambilla, the Hummingbird board and the city set about trying to find a way to save the space, but in a way that wouldn't drain city coffers. Last spring, Brambilla unveiled something called CityCentre, a multiuse facility that, besides the theatre, would feature four or five new attractions, including the Canadian Music Hall of Fame (and possibly a Broadcasting Hall of Fame), a tourist information centre, and a dinner theatre featuring movies, TV shows, videos and new media works from around the world. (Yesterday, the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences formally announced it was looking for partners for the building of a hall of fame. The facility would have to be between 3,200 and 6,300 square metres. Initial expressions of interest have to be filed by Sept. 15. Brambilla said he'd "love to have [the hall]here," but he's "not prepared to give that much space to it" in the Hummingbird redesign. ) Foremost among the new features would be ArtsLab, a 1,600-square-metre state-of-the-art "interactive experience" zone that would permit patrons to explore the contributions to music, painting, drama and other arts by the 232 "cultures" in the GTA.

In the 2003 conceptual rendering for CityCentre, Thom Payne (of KPMB Architects) included a high-rise condominium or office tower at the current Hummingbird's south-east corner, at Scott Street and The Esplanade. At that time, Brambilla said the tower was "hypothetical." If he had his druthers, he'd prefer not to sell the air rights and instead get $60-million through a fundraising campaign, and build CityCentre sans tower.

But, as he noted during a recent interview, "money is tough today. . . . No one is writing me the cheque for what's been proposed. It's just the reality." Furthermore, money from the Canada-Ontario Infrastructure Agreement has been pretty much entirely spoken for by the COC, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario and other Toronto institutions.

Last July, Toronto city council acknowledged that it liked the general CityCentre concept, but it encouraged Brambilla to "seek out a potential development partner" to ensure its long-term viability. As a result, Brambilla called for expressions of interest from developers in Toronto in December. Five or six responded, and by late February, Brambilla, members of the Hummingbird board and city planners were citing one, Castlepoint Realty Partners Ltd. and their architect, HOK Canada, as the "preferred proponent."

The Castlepoint scheme retains many elements of the Payne design (although a plan to close Scott Street as the site for Marshall McLuhan's Global Village Square has been scrapped). One major new addition is a sort of box on the back end, above the Hummingbird's current stage, that would house both Hummingbird services and residential units. Furthermore, the Castlepoint design moves the high-rise tower, now targeted at 50 storeys, to the site's southwest corner, at The Esplanade and Yonge.

That corner "is the most developable area on the site," Alfredo Romano, Castlepoint's president, explained recently. "It's less intrusive" to neighbouring properties to have the tower there. The Yonge Street address also has more cachet than Scott Street, and with most CityCentre facilities located to the west, it ensures the entry and exit of crowds will be concentrated on the Yonge and Front Street East sides. Overall, Romano characterized the Hummingbird as "one of the most recognizable locations in the city" yet "an asset that's underutilized."

To make the tower a reality, Castlepoint is hoping to use a development tool common in the U.S. but so far little used in Canada. This is the TIF, or tax increment financing. If approved by city council, it would allow Castlepoint to refrain from paying the appreciated tax bill on the improved Yonge/Esplanade site until such time as it recovers its capital outlay. What taxes it would pay in the meantime would be based on the pre-improved assessed value of the property.

Brambilla hopes to present the overall business plan to the city's policy and finance committee next week or the week thereafter, then, if all goes smoothly, to place it before city council by the end of July. If approval is granted, Brambilla and Castlepoint will "move forward with negotiations" to realize the plan.

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