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Theatre Park, King Street West, Toronto
Theatre Park, King Street West, Toronto

Architecture

Breaking free of 'podiumism' Add to ...

If you really want to get Brad Lamb's goat, show him a high-rise podium.

The celebrity Toronto realtor and condominium developer hates podiums so much he's even invented a word for Hogtown's affliction by them. It's podiumism.

"There's tremendous pressure from the planning department to create podiumism," Mr. Lamb told me last week at his corporate headquarters on King Street West. "You have to build a podium to your lot line, then you do a 10- or 20-foot setback, then you build a little more tower, then you do another setback. It creates the kind of wedding-cake architecture that exists in this city [and]that drives me mad."

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In fairness to the city planners Mr. Lamb complains about, it's worth remembering the reasons why tall-building podiums and set-back towers are popular among the public defenders of high-density downtowns such as the one Toronto's got.

Pushed out to the sidewalk, multistorey platforms provide strong definition of the streetscape at grade. The stepping-back of the tower from this concentrated mass at the bottom allows light and air to descend to the street, thus preventing canyon-like shadow from gathering thick in the intervals between buildings.

Though the actual things that get built according to such principles are rarely elegant or exciting, they do represent some success at keeping developers from putting up towers that loom over and darken the streets below.

That said, there are other ways to put residential density into the downtown core, and, for a new, interesting $100-million development in the theatre district of King Street West, Mr. Lamb has picked one. The strategy involves raising a very tall, slender, nearly podium-free condominium tower at the rear of its small, south-facing site, and planting a tiny urban park, with a fountain and benches for relaxing, between the tower and the sidewalk.

"We got a lot of push-back from the planning department," Mr. Lamb said. "But you don't have to build a building right out to the street. What's wrong with having some relief every now and then? A place where people can sit down for a minute, have a chat or have a sandwich, contemplate their navels, whatever?"

For my part, I can't think of anything wrong with having such an open spot in the core, so long as it's set down in our midst with great care. (A terrific, mindful example of a modernist tower-park combination, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Toronto-Dominion Centre, stands only a few blocks east of Mr. Lamb's project.) Theatre Park, as this ensemble is known, may well turn out to be a success, since its prolific architect, Peter Clewes, already has a good track record for shaping strong, effective modern spaces within Toronto's urban fabric.

The site Mr. Clewes worked with is a vacant lot only 62 feet wide and about 200 feet deep, tightly situated between historic buildings nobody would want to see disturbed. To the east along King Street is an old warehouse, long ago converted to modern uses. And on the west side is architect John M. Lyle's Royal Alexandra Theatre, a studiously Beaux-Arts confection from 1906-1907. Now a parking lot, but once part of the Victorian campus of Upper Canada College, the narrow Theatre Park site, Mr. Lamb said, is perhaps the only piece of property on this stretch of King West that has never been developed. Mr. Lamb purchased the spot for $10.8-million in 2008.

Mr. Clewes' 47-storey tower, containing 240 apartments, will rise from a conspicuous base (not a podium) that will house an upscale restaurant - "pricey, but tasty," the developer commented - a health club and other amenities. The exterior of the shaft should be visually striking. Powerful, light horizontal bands will surge across the south façade, while the east and west faces of the building will be crisscrossed by jaunty diagonal ribbons.

All the 350-square-foot studio suites have been sold, but larger condo units are still available for just under $500,000. The 3,300-square-foot penthouse apartment, which occupies the entire 47th floor, is for sale at $3.5-million.

"When I bought the property," Mr. Lamb said, "I went to Peter Clewes and told him: I want to build a crazy tower here, I want to build something I can remember until the day I die. But not just for me. We knew we had to offer something to the city, some social benefit."

Part of the benefit offered by the development is the park. Another part is Mr. Lamb's donation of more than $1.5-million to community projects, the price exacted by city council for its support of Theatre Park.

Yet another benefit, not mentioned by Mr. Lamb, is the fresh injection of new condominium housing in Toronto's deep downtown. We can hardly have too much of it.

"The apartments are going to cater to some young people who would want to live in a building that will offer them less space, but more style," Mr. Lamb said. "But mostly we think it will be for people who are affluent, who want a secondary home, or who work in the business district and want a place to crash at night, or are from New York and don't want to stay in a hotel. We wanted to offer an alternative to those people."

An alternative, needless to say, that doesn't include a podium.

 

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