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Earlier this month, development company TAS won the right to a long-term lease on the 'Wellington Destructor' building, near King and Bathurst, and its two-acre site.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The door rolled up, and the grey light of day spilled across a floor of pockmarked wooden blocks. City Councillor Joe Cressy held up the door with his umbrella, and we took in the vast space in which we were standing: brick-walled, high-roofed, waiting for a new purpose.

This was the so-called “Wellington Destructor,” created by the Toronto city architects’ office in 1925. Roughly 40,000 square feet, it is a vast structure designed as a garbage incinerator on the west side of downtown Toronto. After 20 years standing dark, it is poised to become a gathering place for the neighbourhood. And it will likely become a landmark in a city that needs new landmarks.

Earlier this month, development company TAS won the right to a long-term lease on the building, near King and Bathurst, and its two-acre site. They’ve hired a first-rate team, including design architects SvN, heritage architects ERA and landscape architects PUBLIC WORK.

This deal (subject to city council approval) is unusual: it’s essentially a joint venture between the city and the developer to renovate the place, then run it with a mix of public and private functions.

Why? The building is surrounded on three sides by a former abbatoir at 2 Tecumseth St., which is now being redeveloped by TAS into a mix of office, retail and housing, including what Mr. Cressy called a “substantial” portion of non-market housing, and very few cars. Thousands of people will join the neighbourhood and travel mostly by bike, on foot or by transit.

The Destructor opened in 1925, and it was designed by the City of Toronto architects’ office under J.J. Woolnough.SvN

That area will have a variety of needs, Mr. Cressy said. “To achieve the vision we have, we need people with different expertise,” he explained. “The city can run a community centre and a museum pretty well. But to choreograph a dynamic arts-cultural-retail-performance space,” he said, “we actually need to partner.”

The city is contributing $32-million to capital costs, and the private partners an undisclosed sum. This is a big investment in a big, unusual, extremely decrepit building. The Destructor opened in 1925, and it was designed by the City of Toronto architects’ office under J.J. Woolnough.

The structure is a tall box, dressed up in red brick and a few Romanesque arches. A brick-paved ramp begins at nearby Wellington Street and leads up to the third level, what was the “tipping floor.” Here, horses pulled carts of trash, and workers emptied these into pits where the waste burned up. Workers on the two levels below would feed great furnaces – still there today, their steel doors chapped and mottled – and haul out the ash.

“The building is basically a giant fireplace,” said the architect Sam Dufaux of SvN. “And if you put the wrong sort of activity in there” – a museum, say, which would require extensive climate control and insulation – “then you completely ruin the building.”

The city of Toronto is contributing $32-million to capital costs for the revitalization of the Destructor, and the private partners an undisclosed sum.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Instead, the design team came up with a list of activities that would fit “the spirit of the structure,” Mr. Dufaux says. SvN and ERA’s ingenious scheme includes a multi-level event and performance space, postsecondary classrooms, a café, and a year-round “indoor park” in which aspens reach for the sky in an open-topped, enclosed room. The latter will be designed by PUBLIC WORK, who created the nearby Bentway space under the Gardiner Expressway and are also working on the adjacent development.

The Destructor will be publicly accessible, framed by gardens, and a magnet for events. The result should echo the Evergreen Brick Works and Artscape Wychwood Barns – two of Toronto’s most interesting places, both created through collaborations between government and other (albeit not-for-profit) organizations.

The 2 Tecumseth development site will frame the Destructor to the west, south and east. To the north, TAS and SvN will construct a new building in the Destructor’s front yard. They plan for this to be a mass-timber structure with a sawtooth roof, a low-carbon twist on a 19th-century factory building. This will contain offices, studios and a cafe, with industrial space in the basement. Mazyar Mortazavi, the CEO of the development company TAS, suggests the underground space could accommodate the city’s store of road salt and the trucks that distribute it – allowing the city works yard next door to be turned into a park.

Such complexity (even without the salt trucks) is highly unusual. But Mr. Cressy is enthusiastic about the arrangement, and what will come of it. “You need affordability, you need culture, and you need weird, unexpected spaces,” he said. “Imagine you were trying to build Kensington Market from the ground up in a dense, vertical downtown community. That is what we’re going after.”

The Destructor will be publicly accessible, framed by gardens, and a magnet for events, with the planned result echoing the Evergreen Brick Works and Artscape Wychwood Barns.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

But how? Kensington Market was a product of small-scale entrepreneurship and zero regulation. A century ago, mostly Jewish immigrants settled into a neighbourhood of houses and set up stores, stalls and workshops. People built new homes in back alleys. Spicemongers co-existed with bars and rooming houses. They still do now, to a degree.

Unfortunately city planning in general, and Toronto city planning in particular, is allergic to this sort of masala. Toronto planning claims to like “mixed use”; but its policies usually create condos with nine-figure construction budgets and an A&W downstairs. This is not a recipe for economic or social diversity, or for good places.

Breaking that pattern requires creativity from designers, planners and developers. All that seems to be present here. Mortazavi says TAS’s model here is based on variety and flexibility. “You need to create the opportunity for the unexpected,” he said, “which to us is really the magic of city-building.”

If the plan works, it will take everything critical to good city-building – density, diversity, an absence of cars, and a dash of weird spaces – and use them to stoke the flame of a new city.

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