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A new St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts is not a bad idea, especially at a time when there are no other significant capital campaigns going on in the city’s performing arts sector for it to distract from.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the proposal, being voted on by Toronto City Council this week, to demolish the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts and build a new “state-of-the-art cultural and civic hub” (read: centre for the arts) in its place.

For starters, it’s unclear why TO Live, the jargon-loving city agency formed five years ago to amalgamate the operations of three city-owned theatre buildings, put only two ideas regarding the St. Lawrence Centre on the table in an “options review” report presented to the city this fall.

The first: a boring and basic $42-million renovation that would bring the building up to “current accessibility standards and an acceptable state of repair.” The second: this flashy new $200-million or so theatre complex now on the table.

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An option apparently not considered was a more extensive renovation and/or expansion of the existing St. Lawrence Centre. Also not considered: all the other potential projects the city could fund by selling off this heritage building on Front Street and its acre of prime real estate.

Putting that aside, however, a new St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts – long mooted by the not-for-profit company Canadian Stage that was originally created to occupy its largest theatre – is not a bad idea, especially at a time when there are no other significant capital campaigns going on in the city’s performing arts sector for it to distract from.

An up-to-date and affordable theatre complex with truly flexible stages and auditoriums that the city and perhaps the province’s not-for-profit performing arts companies could use to mount larger-scale work or transfer their most popular work? If it has a little momentum, it’s worth exploring.

That appears to be the feeling of Canadian Stage, which started last week concerned about its landlord and sometimes partner TO Live’s proposal, but ended it cautiously optimistic after clarifying meetings with Mayor John Tory and Councillor Gary Crawford, who sits on TO Live’s board.

Soulpepper, the biggest not-for-profit theatre company in town, also says it’s interested in seeing a revitalized St. Lawrence Centre, where it might transfer future projects.

The Stratford Festival, intriguingly, is also paying attention. Having found success co-producing work in Toronto in recent years, the festival has been poking around looking for venues to transfer or remount whole productions; a theatre space in town with the option of a thrust stage configuration would make that easier.

Despite a document that circulated with a particular building design, TO Live chief executive officer Clyde Wagner insists that what city council is voting on this week is only a plan to develop a real proposal through consultations – no partners are currently involved; no design has been decided on.

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The motion before council does emphasize that any new building must “in particular” serve not-for-profit performing arts groups – and it only endorses the idea “subject to satisfactory programmatic, community building, business and funding plans being developed."

Those are a lot of hoops to jump through, so city council should let TO Live go ahead and try out its circus skills and see if it can succeed in bringing a concrete plan with a clear funding strategy – not just for the building, but for its operation for the next few decades – to the table.

What Toronto City Council should absolutely avoid is building yet another theatre complex of nebulous purpose that is somehow magically also supposed to break even… like the original St. Lawrence Centre.

While I understand the heritage concerns about demolishing the brutalist building, the fact is that if the current underused facility were, in fact, featured in a Canadian Heritage Minute, the short film would end with the following narration: “Oversized and expensive public performing arts facilities that are opened to great fanfare and eventually sit mostly empty due to lack of a clear artistic mission matched with annual operational funding to fulfill it... A part of our heritage.”

There should be no illusions on Toronto City Council’s part; if it wants a new St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts that thrives and is a home for not-for-profits, TO Live will most likely have to subsidize the space.

No big ideas that the occasional commercial production will turn a profit that can be turned into subsidy; that’s just gambling. (Indeed, TO Live recently lost city tax dollars investing in commercial productions of Bend It Like Beckham at the St. Lawrence Centre and the SpongeBob SquarePants musical at the Meridian Hall.)

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It’s good news that the chair of TO Live’s St. Lawrence Centre redevelopment committee is Kevin Garland, the former executive director of the National Ballet; she led the planning and development of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, a big building downtown that is beautiful and functional.

It’s, well, interesting that Leslie Lester has been hired as the redevelopment’s project manager. As executive director at Soulpepper, she played a central role in getting its Young Centre for the Performing Arts – the smartest, most in-demand mid-sized theatre complex in the city – built.

Of course, Soulpepper, which must be consulted earlier and often in any St. Lawrence Centre redevelopment, also severed its ties with Ms. Lester just two years ago after a prominent sexual harassment scandal there.

Mr. Wagner says he doesn’t see a conflict there. Okay. Let’s move forward and see what this team comes up with.

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