Given Toronto’s rapidly changing skyline, just finding a plot of land to build on downtown is becoming a challenge in and of itself.
Gary Switzer, CEO of Toronto’s MOD Developments Inc., saw this first-hand two years ago when he bought the vacant Queen-Yonge branch of the Canadian Bank of Commerce at 197 Yonge St.
“I think there were a lot easier sites available, just empty parking lots surrounded by streets, but those sites are all gone, so now we’re more in a New York-style situation, where you have to make the sites,” he says. “This one, people would have walked away from in the old days.”
Squeezed in between its sister building to the north – a former Bank of Toronto branch – and the Heintzman Building to the south, and with the rear portions of and vital access routes to heritage performance spaces Massey Hall, the Elgin Theatre and Winter Gardens to the east, there wasn’t much of a footprint to work with when he envisioned the Massey Tower project.
The 60-storey mixed-use development will front onto Yonge, with the four-storey Beaux-Arts-style Bank of Commerce building acting as the lobby for the condominium tower.
The bank has sat shuttered and unused in a prime location across from the Eaton Centre since 1987. Mr. Switzer, in conjunction with Hariri Pontarini Architects and ERA Architects, felt the time was right to put some life back into the building, originally constructed in 1905 by Darling and Pearson Architects.
The City of Toronto owned the entire site at one point, and had grandiose plans in the 1980s to install a so-called theatre block between Dundas Street to the north and Queen Street to the south, but that proposal fell apart.
Given the hustle and bustle of the area – 42 million people walk north-south annually through the Yonge-Dundas intersection, making it Canada’s busiest intersection, according to the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area Association – the Massey Tower proposal to add about 700 residential units to an area more historically associated with retail has been warmly welcomed.
“It’s coming back,” says Mark Garner, executive director of the Downtown Yonge BIA, who also notes that 175,000 people live within a five- to eight-minute radius of Yonge and Dundas.
“This used to be not only a retail mecca but a performance mecca for music in Canada and you’re seeing that energy come back, so I think it’s an asset that we need to go back to and revisit and say this is where it needs to be, it needs to be on Yonge Street.”
MOD bought the Massey Tower site, which also includes the small plot of land on which the Colonial Tavern, a famed jazz venue, once sat between the two heritage bank buildings. MOD paid Salvatore Parasuco of Parasuco Jeans fame between $20-million and $30-million for the site in January of 2012.
After the land was assembled for the project, that’s when the fun really began. First, the state of the Bank of Commerce heritage building became a main cause for concern.
“It’s kind of scary when you see buildings 20 years, 30 years without occupancy, because you start to realize that they’ll get to a point of no return. They start falling apart,” says ERA founding partner Michael McClelland, whose company is responsible for the heritage aspect of the project. “This building was pretty heavily deteriorated on the interior.”
ERA Architects has begun to painstakingly remove and store every tile in the mosaic floor, as well as other historic fixtures. This has to be completed before work on the 60-storey condominium tower can begin. The historic elements will then be replaced once the tower is complete. Mr. McClelland described the project as “one of the most complex sites we’ve had to deal with.”
Mr. Switzer also had to think on his feet when it came to providing parking. With no room in the rear of the building to build a ramp, a traditional below-grade parking lot was out of the question. That’s when he looked abroad for ideas for above-ground parking, and stumbled upon an automated system similar to the one being used at The Eddy condominium development in Ottawa.
“The system we’re using is from Amsterdam,” he says, adding that they travelled there to investigate car elevators installed in buildings that are more than 400 years old. “Basically you drive in, into an elevator, the car’s on a [turntable], you put your key fob on a pad and you leave the elevator, the doors close and it takes your car away.”
But in Mr. Switzer’s eyes, that isn’t the most difficult problem facing the development, which won the 2013 BILD project-of-the-year award, is 90-per-cent sold and is set to be completed in four to five years.
Asked what the biggest challenge is, Mr. Switzer said that it’s not the new build or the restoration, “but all the complications with how unique this site is, surrounded by all these existing buildings, including Massey Hall, the back of the Elgin Theatre, the old bank at 205 Yonge [which is held by another land owner], of just fitting everything in on a block that is still operating.”
But the ability to tie multiple needs together was key to getting the project off the ground. MOD is bequeathing a 450-square-metre portion of land behind Massey Hall, valued at $6.5-million, to the concert venue so it can undergo a total restoration and expansion, while some of the below-grade area of Massey Tower will provide garbage and recyling space for the hall, the Elgin Theatre and the Heintzman Building. Planning permission for the Massey Tower project was originally rejected, but a motion to overturn by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam eventually saw the development being given approval.
“We did have some planning concerns from a technical perspective, because the Massey Tower was not in line with some urban design guidelines that we had in place, particularly to look at how properties relate to each other on a local basis,” says Sarah Henstock, senior planner for the City of Toronto. “But from an overall city building standpoint, we certainly thought of the project as a good thing.”
Another selling point that helped assuage the City of Toronto was the two storeys of retail space that will be built on the space between the two bank buildings. But make no mistake, the heritage aspect of this project was key to it getting the green light.
“It’s always sad when heritage buildings remain unloved, and that’s one of the reasons we have the heritage inventory is to try and recognize how important they are, and that was a critical component of this development,” Ms. Henstock says.
“You celebrate the past, but you also need to make it viable in the future.”