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David Mirvish and Frank Gehry explain their development project on King Street at a meeting of the Toronto Community Council on Nov. 19, 2013. (FERNANDO MORALES/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
David Mirvish and Frank Gehry explain their development project on King Street at a meeting of the Toronto Community Council on Nov. 19, 2013. (FERNANDO MORALES/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Gehry’s big dream not another condo project Add to ...

The City of Toronto’s motto is “diversity our strength.” Maybe it’s time for a change. Maybe “think small” would fit better.

Consider what is happening with the Mirvish-Gehry proposal. David Mirvish, son of “Honest Ed,” is one of Toronto’s most thoughtful business leaders, a theatre impresario and art collector with a hunger to build something unique and beautiful in his hometown. Frank Gehry is one of the world’s most renowned architects, famous for dramatic projects from the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles to the renovation of the Art Gallery of Ontario here in Toronto, where he was born.

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Together they are proposing something remarkable: a complex of three residential towers, each more than 80 storeys high, on the site of the Mirvish lands on King Street West. These are not the usual glass cereal boxes you see around downtown. Mr. Gehry envisions buildings fronted by metallic grids and then wrapped as if in tissue paper. Nor is this just another condo project. It would incorporate a private galley for the Mirvish collection and new space for the art students of OCAD University.

Inspired ideas like this don’t come along every day. A forward-looking city would grab it with both hands and make it happen. Instead, the city is threatening to turn extraordinary into mediocrity.

The city’s planning department says that the project is too big for the site. Jennifer Keesmaat, the city’s chief planner, worries that the building would block out the sky and cast massive shadows on the surrounding district. Heritage experts note that it would mean tearing down century-old warehouses.

City planners want to whittle down the project to something more, well, Toronto-ish. In a new report, they propose three towers of 60, 55 and 50 storeys instead of the 86, 84 and 82 in the current design. They would force Mr. Gehry and Mr. Mirvish to retain three of the unremarkable warehouse buildings and incorporate them into the design, in effect plopping the towers on top.

Attempting that in a project of this size and ambition would be an awful mistake. An architectural consultant for the developer found that “the warehouses could not be successfully integrated within the development without greatly compromising the functional and aesthetic design.”

Planners have a host of other complaints about the project. It doesn’t have enough parking (though, in such a central location, many residents would walk or take transit.) The area doesn’t have enough parks for all the new residents (though David Pecaut Square is right across the street). It would overwhelm local transit service (though the King streetcar goes right by and St. Andrew subway station is steps away).

The planners don’t stop there. They also say the plan violates city guidelines that ensure new projects are “compatible with the built-form context and heritage character of the adjacent buildings” and “that massing provides appropriate proportional relationships.”

Good grief. Faced with this kind of pettifogging, it is a wonder that Mr. Gehry wants to build in Toronto at all. He is 84 and impatient to make progress.

Now city council has voted to add another layer of complexity by setting up a 14-member community panel to forge a compromise between Mr. Mirvish and city hall. Architecture by public committee. Grand. Howard Roark would be spinning in his grave, if he weren’t an invention of Ayn Rand.

Saving old buildings is all very well, if they are worth saving. But a city of ambition has to think of the heritage it is building for the future, too. It would be a shame to drown Mr. Gehry’s big dream in a babble of planner-speak.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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