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Courtesy of Oxford Properties Group

When you think of a “buzzy, energetic place” in a city, do you imagine the lobby of an office tower?

Of course you don’t, and neither do I. Yet this is what the Canadian megadeveloper Oxford Properties is thinking of on Front Street West in Toronto. Their recently announced Union Park project represents a big investment in the centre of Canada’s largest city, and some positive contributions. But the project neglects the street. And the developers’ recipe for what makes a good urban place is fundamentally wrong.

First, the promise. Within the booming central core of Toronto, this would be a big addition at 4.3-million square feet in total. Designed by architects Pelli Clarke Pelli and landscape architects OJB, it would include two office towers, 58 and 48 storeys tall; two residential buildings with 800 rental apartments; and 200,000 square feet at the base for retail and other uses including a daycare. And a park – or a quasi-park – on a new deck above the rail corridor next door.

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The plan would replace two existing office towers, near the CN Tower and the Rogers Centre, a block from the transit hub of Toronto’s Union Station. And it would also improve an existing one-acre park on the site.

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A park – or a quasi-park – is being planned on a new deck above the rail corridor next door.

Courtesy of Oxford Properties Group

I met Oxford vice-president Carlo Timpano to look at the plans in an existing office building on the site, a former data centre. Timpano emphasized that this structure is nearly windowless; the new Union Park would be very different, he said. “On the ground, the keys are transparency, thoroughfares and gathering places,” he said. “We envision this site as being an energetic meeting place.”

This is a good idea in theory. The architecture by Pelli undermines it, however. The building complex will land along Front Street in a long expanse of tall, glassed-in lobbies, with restaurants within. The developers present this as a positive; it’s not.

Here we’re getting into the discipline of urban design: In simple terms, how buildings are organized in space and how they relate to the spaces around them. You don’t need to be an expert to think in urban-design terms; just imagine one block made up of short storefronts, each occupied by a shop or restaurant, and another block filled up by an office tower with a single, cavernous lobby. Where would you rather walk?

There’s a strong consensus, over the past 50 years, that the first option is more attractive. William H. Whyte, Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl all moved the discussion along. Varied, lively streetscapes are the ones people want to walk down and spend time in.

But Oxford and their architects seem to disagree. In the Union Park design, they are pitching a vast expanse of climate-controlled lobby space, centred on a tall “winter garden.” This would give the area’s many tourists a place to hang out and, Timpano suggests, a space that could be programmed with cultural activities, say for the Toronto International Film Festival, whose headquarters is nearby. “In this area, there’s no natural space for people to get together, to buzz, to celebrate,” he said. “We envision the type of place where people gather or walk through to celebrate the things the city considers important.”

In the Union Park design, Oxford and their architects are pitching a vast expanse of climate-controlled lobby space, centred on a tall 'winter garden.'

Courtesy of Oxford Properties Group

But such celebrations happen in the street or square, in genuinely public space. Toronto demonstrated that recently during the Raptors playoff run in Jurassic Park, a stone’s throw away, and communities across Canada followed suit. Streets belong to everyone. They’re where the party goes.

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If you’re a developer who’s trying to drive retail and restaurant sales, however, it makes sense to send people indoors into space that you control. Oxford’s done this before; they are partly responsible for the $25-billion Hudson Yards project in Manhattan, which opened this spring, and which was booed by almost every architecture critic in North America, including me, precisely for its lack of good public space.

Have they learned any lessons? Timpano and a colleague danced around the question. Apparently, no.

To be fair, Union Park offers several positive contributions. Chief among them are rental housing and a sort of park: Oxford hopes to deck over part of the rail corridor behind its site and add open space, designed by OJB, which would be a mix of greenery and hard-surfaced plaza. The early drawings are a dog’s breakfast, but it could be good; and if it comes to pass, the city should insist that it is truly a public park, not privately policed and controlled. (You can imagine what the developers will want.)

In Toronto, there’s a weird agreement among some city planners that inward, corporately owned space somehow benefits the public. The central business district sends much of its activity and money to an underground mall, of which the city officially approves. It’s time for that destructive practice to come to an end. What makes good business doesn’t always make good places.

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