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An image from Frank Gehry’s designs for David Mirvish’s project to remake his properties at King Street West and John St. in Toronto. (Courtesy of Gehry International Inc.)
An image from Frank Gehry’s designs for David Mirvish’s project to remake his properties at King Street West and John St. in Toronto. (Courtesy of Gehry International Inc.)

KEN GREENBERG

Extreme makeover: Toronto’s density challenges Add to ...

David Mirvish’s proposal for a massive new project by architect Frank Gehry in the heart of Toronto’s theatre district seems to have caught the city off guard. But should it have?

Downtown Toronto (indeed, much of the city) is going through a metamorphosis of extraordinary proportions, both in the number of projects now eclipsing other North American cities and in the move to buildings of a scale we haven’t seen before. A flight into the island airport reveals a burgeoning forest of towers bringing huge infusions of new condos as well as new office buildings and new institutions growing and reshaping themselves.

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New hybrid combinations are appearing as we move to greater intensity and overlap. Mr. Mirvish’s proposal, for example, includes lower levels combing a new public gallery for his extraordinary private art collection, as well as exhibition and classroom space for nearby OCAD University. It will add 2,600 condo units in towers rising as high as 85 storeys, pushing the upper limit for the city and for North America.

The proposal also calls for the demolition of the Princess of Wales Theatre, which opened in 1993, to make way for this scheme. Some are exhilarated by this announcement, while others are horrified. Change at this scale and rate can be terrifying.

But, for better or worse, it’s happening. Like it or not, Toronto is becoming a different city. It’s now clear that we’re transitioning to a city with a vastly different level of intensity. There’s an echo of Manhattan in the mid-20th century, when wave after wave of building radically altered the form of New York and produced the kind of hyper-dense, hyper-animated environment that makes that city unique.

We admire the result but, if Toronto is going to become such a city, there are major obligations. People by and large don’t drive in Manhattan, which is criss-crossed by a dense network of subways, not to mention buses and fleets of taxis. And new areas are now being carved out for pedestrians and cyclists.

So how are we preparing for this scale of development and the services required to sustain it?

We have accumulated a serious infrastructure deficit. We have failed to make the investments in public transit that are urgently needed. Our narrow sidewalks and poorly designed streets are already jammed. We will need to invest in public services to accommodate the major increases in population. Our public spaces are meagre and poorly equipped and maintained. These are roles for the public sector, because the private sector can’t be relied on to solve these deficiencies alone.

And where exactly do we want this extreme intensification to occur?

Clearly not everywhere and not indiscriminately. Yet, our planning regime seems to lack the ability to make distinctions. One tower leads to another. No one wants to see this phenomenon marching up and down all the nearby streets in the neighbourhoods surrounding downtown. What about the heritage legacy? What are we going to protect? Can we protect areas where this isn’t appropriate and direct this growth to the right places?

Will there always be big-name architects and will they always do wonderful projects? In this case, we have a distinguished architect and a rich cultural program. But what about those situations where that isn’t the case? How can we be protected against “bait and switch”? How will we make key qualitative distinctions in reviewing design? Mixed use, yes, but does every new cultural venue have to be topped by condos? When is that appropriate? And how do we ensure that the thousands of new residential units provide a sustainable mix of options capable of forming viable communities over time, not just the repetition of tiny units serving a transient population?

How can the public weigh in on the cumulative impact of all these projects? We need to see the whole picture, including all the projects under construction and those in the wings on the same model (digital and/or physical), and this is clearly a job for city planning. What is the accumulated service demand? Can it be met? What new elements are needed? Most important, what’s the experience of the person at street level?

Toronto’s new chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, says: “Most cities are clamouring for growth. We’ve got it on our doorstep. Our challenge is managing it and ensuring we get the city we want as a result.” The extreme makeover of the King Street West entertainment strip may be the pretext or catalyst for exactly the kind of public conversation Toronto needs to have about the future of our city and its downtown.

Ken Greenberg is a Toronto-based urban designer and architect.

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