David Mirvish owns the nicest Tim Hortons in Toronto – or at least the space it’s in. To find it, visit the corner of King and John downtown; walk up the century-old stone steps, turn left and enter a long loft space. Here the Tims tables and donut cases rest under a ceiling of Douglas fir the creamy colour of maple frosting.
But both the Tims and the loft could give way to Mr. Mirvish’s dreams: So long, Tim, and hello, Frank. Mr. Mirvish has proposed a grand redevelopment of this site, designed by the architect Frank Gehry, that would replace four loft buildings and the Princess of Wales Theatre with high-end retail space, a private gallery for Mr. Mirvish’s collection of paintings, facilities for OCAD University and 1.5 million square feet of condominiums in three very tall towers.
When Toronto City Council looks at it this month, they will be deciding whether to approve the proposal – which, in its current state, would break the city’s guidelines for the positioning of tall buildings, rules for heritage preservation, expectations of a public space, and requirements for private amenity space. Not to mention its size, which would smash the zoning precedents for the area.
On the other hand, the complex could make an exciting impact on the city. Mr. Mirvish, who has made important contributions to to the city, is explicitly trying to change our skyline for the better. This would add three towers by the brilliant Mr. Gehry plus the cultural components and, in Mr. Mirvish’s view, a new centre for “luxury retail” and high-quality residents. In broad strokes, he is right. If the project is refined, it would set a new bar for the architecture of tall buildings in Toronto. But it’s not a building yet. What is it, really?
1. It’s a bit of a bluff
Mr. Mirvish, who did not reply to interview requests this week, is asking for the moon: He wants permission to build in a manner that would dwarf other developments in the area and would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in profit. Last month, Mr. Mirvish told me that he is seriously committed to adding his mark on the skyline. “I think the world outside of Toronto could see us in a new light. That’s what Gehry does for us.”
So far, after a year of discussions with the city, he has been adamant about preserving the integrity of the design from ‘a made-in-Toronto solution’ that is small, and, he implies, parochial. He claimed to be “bemused” that the city is opposing his project.
“This project raises a bunch of serious issues that are intertwined,” said Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s chief planner, in an interview this week. “It’s not only one thing. There are so many challenges, so many misses, in this project.” She points to the size and orientation of the buildings, the lack of a meaningful heritage strategy, the “completely deficient” private amenity space and the lack of a contribution to community facilities. “We simply do not have enough public space in this area,” she says. “And a new project that’s deficient just creates a bigger problem, and a bigger burden for the neighbourhood.”
Is Mr. Mirvish really surprised at this reception? Or is he engaging in a bit of showmanship? Bluffing is part of the game for developers in Toronto. Because the city’s development approval process is so murky, the final outcome for any given site is determined by a negotiation. Developers routinely ask for the moon and then compromise. It is very likely that this is what’s happening here, with a new version of the project being hashed out in advance of the council meeting.
The proposal is best understood as a bold opening bid, which leaves a lot of room for a negotiation toward a more modest and generous building.
2. It’s hugely dense.
The proposal includes 2,709 condo units in three towers that soar as high as 86 storeys, not to mention the retail and cultural components. By contrast, the tallest existing building in the neighbourhood – TIFF Bell Lightbox and the Festival Tower condos above it – is barely half as tall, at 47 storeys, with 373 residential units.
If it were built as proposed, selling that volume of real estate would be a challenge. And if it happened, it would impose hugely on the infrastructure of the area, adding 3,000-odd residents to an area whose public spaces and transit lines are badly overcrowded. The area, which the city dubs the Entertainment District East Precinct, has seen a radical transformation in the past decade that has added thousands of new residents, and it will see 15,000 more condo units completed in the next few years. Local councillor Adam Vaughan has been pushing district-wide studies of the area to get a handle on the residents’ needs in terms of parks and community space, and on the scale and arrangement of the many new buildings. “When we see a project that’s this much bigger, it exacerbates the problems in the neighbourhood that already exist,” Ms. Keesmaat says. And if the city approves Mirvish Gehry at this scale, it opens the door for similarly massive proposals from other developers.