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New Toronto development envisions the city of the future: corporate-artisanal urbanism

A rendering of the The Well, a mixed-use development at Front Street and Spadina Avenue in Toronto.

The ramp leads you up from the street into a long, narrow passageway, lined by brick columns. This passageway towers a level below you and a level above, lined by shops; it’s crossed by wooden bridges and capped by a sinuous glass roof above. A breeze washes past as you consider an espresso or a pair of earrings. What is this place?

It doesn’t look quite like a shopping mall. And it’s not a neighbourhood. It is the giant new project dubbed The Well, now under construction in downtown Toronto, which is trying to redefine a sort of urban place – privately owned, open to the public, porous to the city around it and yet unmistakably different.

The project poses an important question for prosperous cities: Whether big money, guided by thoughtful design, can recreate the vibrancy and vitality of a city on private property.

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The basic ingredients would be familiar to anyone who’s read Jane Jacobs: Many small storefronts, a varied streetscape that creates visual interest and a mix of users and activities including homes, workplaces, stores and restaurants. And yet, how real will it feel?

The stakes are high. The Well represents change on a massive scale. The project at Front Street and Spadina Avenue replaces the former headquarters of The Globe and Mail, plus some smaller adjacent properties. Where 500 of us worked a few years ago, the complex will bring 5,000 office jobs and about 1,800 apartments, plus 500,000 square feet of retail. When completed in about five years, it will be a village unto itself.

And it’s taken a village to design it, with five architecture firms co-ordinated by Adamson Associates. But in many ways, the most consequential job falls to the retail specialists at the London firm BDP, who will design many of the walls, fixtures and spaces you’ll see as you walk in off the street. So I spoke to Adrian Price, a principal at BDP, to ask how they’re doing so.

The Well “is incredibly complicated,” he told me, standing next to a room-sized model of the complex in a downtown sales centre. “You’ve got 1.5 million square feet of residential, you’ve got a million square feet of office, you’ve got six levels of basement, and they all come together in this three layers, which is retail. We’re the meat in the sandwich.”

A drawing of the retail concourse that will cut through the centre of the development.

MM43474/BDP

That meat includes the publicly accessible outdoor areas that feel like streets. And to their credit, the developers of The Well and city planners have created a set of pedestrian-only spaces that are open to the public (cars and loading are entirely underground).

Mr. Price and his team came on board in 2016 to massage the design of the retail, which is unusual in its character: It will be heavy on food, from grocery through prepared-to-order dishes, including a food hall that he says will rival the city’s historic St. Lawrence Market in its size.

The project consists of six mostly residential towers in a grid – two rows of three, running east-west – with taller ones on the south, and a 45-storey office tower tacked on to the southeast corner. The main passageway forms a curve from the office building up through the middle of the site, intersecting a north-south passageway.

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Hariri Pontarini Architects and the designers Urban Strategies aimed to create many small storefronts, framed by brick, so as to evoke the masonry buildings in the King Street West neighbourhood just to the north.

BDP, which was hired in 2016, altered The Well’s main passageway to make it a bit wider and to open it up to the lower level. “It’s a streetscape,” Mr. Price argues. “Rain might blow in, snow might blow in, but it keeps the worst of the weather off. You won’t get wet in this space, but you’ll need your coat.”

Together with the curvaceous glass roof on top, the design is for a space that is covered and yet evokes 18th- and 19th-century European streets – Mr. Price mentions Shad Thames, the picturesque warehouse district-turned-tourist-trap along the Thames in central London.

Accordingly, the outer surfaces of The Well buildings, near ground level, will be clad in a variety of materials – several different types of brick and terracotta tile. “There is a progression,” Mr. Price said, showing me images of ironspot brick, “from more hand-laid and tactile materials, moving to more machine-made and smooth.”

The complex will bring 5,000 office jobs and about 1,800 apartments, plus 500,000 square feet of retail.

The architecture in this complex will be detailed, as few new buildings are, to create a sense of variety and tactile pleasure.

There is a commercial reason for this: The developers feel that today’s white-collar workers will love it. BDP are specialists in urban retail and their masterwork thus far is the Liverpool One complex, a clear precedent for The Well. Its architecture made the list for the prestigious Stirling Prize in 2009 – although The Guardian’s Jonathan Glancey dismissed it as “banality … a scheme that has made this once hugely distinctive city look much like anywhere else.”

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Like it, The Well is a shopping complex that aspires to urbanity. Malls are not cool, and The Well “is not a mall,” Mr. Price argues. This is a point that the developers, in their marketing materials and PR campaign, continue to stress. “Our challenge was to create this brick-and-beam feel,” Mr. Price said, “and it should feel like it flows naturally from King West.”

By “King West” he meant the nearby stretch of that street where, between about 1880 and 1910, local entrepreneurs built grand brick buildings for manufacturing and warehousing, in a complex scattering of courtyards and laneways. It’s a spectacular ensemble, and now largely owned by developers Allied – who have filled it with professional office tenants and hipster-artisanal food offerings.

It’s easy to imagine The Well as a synthetic version of that: a lovely assemblage of stone and brick, but without a public street running through the middle of it. Its passageways will be open to the public, but under the watchful eyes of corporate security guards. And just a bit too orderly.

Even the architecture of the buildings themselves will, inevitably, have a Disney aspect. Mr. Price is particularly fond of one curvy building in The Well, which speaks the language of 1930s streamline moderne. In detailing part of that structure, he found inspiration in a long-gone Toronto building of this style, he told me.

He showed me a photograph of that building: It turned out to be The Globe and Mail’s previous home in downtown Toronto, designed by local architects Mathers & Haldenby, where the paper had its offices before moving to a modernist building on The Well site in 1974. Mr. Price was surprised to hear of this connection.

And although this is trivial, it struck me as symbolic: An architect tries to put a local stamp on some architectural ideas, and lands on something that almost – but not quite – resonates with local history.

After our interview, I grabbed a solo lunch from a Spanish food hall in one of those brick-and-beam buildings on King West: I selected a salad and juice from its gorgeous interior, and walked out, $22 lighter, to enjoy my lunch in the messy, noisy streets.

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