In Toronto’s financial district, three aging office buildings, two of them nearly a century old, were considered well worth the effort to restore for the needs of modern tenants as part of a large-scale redevelopment in the area.
Meanwhile uptown at the Yonge and Eglinton transit crossroads, a trio of commercial buildings, including two that are taller and half as old, have been deemed replaceable and are proposed for demolition.
Both district transformations are being steered by Oxford Properties Group. Andrew O’Neil, the company’s vice-president of development, says there’s no simple formula for calculating whether it makes more sense to renovate office buildings as opposed to tearing down and starting fresh.
“Each decision is made on the basis of the specific building characteristics and a range of factors,” Mr. O’Neil says. “The foremost question is always: How can we create a dynamic user experience that meets future needs?”
The character and history of Toronto’s financial district weighed heavily in the redevelopment of the Richmond-Adelaide Centre complex west of Bay Street.
Meanwhile, changing needs of the uptown Toronto community around Oxford’s complex at the southwest corner of Yonge and Eglinton – known as Canada Square – rendered the buildings there impractical to keep long-term as the corner becomes a major transit hub.
“The markets are also different,” Mr. O’Neil adds. “With Richmond-Adelaide Centre being in the financial district, it is attractive to a wide range of tenants, while at Yonge and Eglinton the target market of tenants is much smaller, which means the importance of delivering new space is even more important.”
Both practical and policy issues led to the decision to tear down and build a new Canada Square on the 9.2-acre site, which will include five mixed-use towers with over 650,000 square feet of office space and retail, as well as 2,700 residential units. Community consultation emphasized the need for landscaped open spaces, improved transit infrastructure and dedicated community facilities.
The buildings have served their purpose over the years, Mr. O’Neil says, but the needs of the site are changing as it becomes a transit hub of the Yonge subway and the Eglinton Crosstown LRT.
The buildings, which straddle the subway line, also constrained any changes to building footprints. “You can change mechanical systems, but it becomes more difficult to change elevators and core elements,” Mr. O’Neil says. “Things like elevator performance, floor-plate designs and workplace strategy weren’t as evolved when those buildings were developed.”
Another significant factor is the buildings’ lack of curb appeal. The tower at 2200 Yonge St. dates back to 1962 and the companion at 2180 to the south was built in 1972. A six-storey retail building, which includes a Cineplex, was added between them in 1986.
“The designs of the existing three buildings feature very brutal podium elements in heavy precast, and the retail is all tucked inside and doesn’t address the street very well,” Mr. O’Neil points out. “There’s really not a lot of potential to redesign them.”
With the planned new TTC bus terminal to the west, there is an opportunity to construct a deck over the top and create a courtyard and better transit access at one of the busiest corners in the city.
Oxford and CT Real Estate Investment Trust portfolio includes primarily properties of Canadian Tire Corp., whose current head office is at 2180 Yonge, which is due to be replaced in the redevelopment. Five different architects were invited to enter a master plan design competition to assess the existing conditions and arrive at a new vision for the site.
The design team for the redevelopment, which will be done in two phases, includes Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects on the north precinct of the site and Hariri Pontarini Architects, which is designing the south precinct. Adamson Associates Architects will serve as executive architect and OJB Landscape Architecture will design the public spaces.
In addition to the mixed-use tower in the north precinct, four residential towers with street-front office and retail space will be built around a central courtyard accessible from a new public street. Those buildings will overlook a new park along Duplex Avenue on the west. A new street entrance to the subway, LRT and buses on Eglinton Avenue is also proposed.
The calculations were quite different in the heritage buildings in the financial district.
“The buildings at 85 and 111 Richmond St. W. were small by modern standards, but they have significant character and just by virtue of the way they were built, so they could be modified to suit the needs of modern tenants,” Mr. O’Neil says.
At 85 Richmond St. W., the handsome 11-storey building from 1923 was designed by noted Detroit-based American architect C. Howard Crane, whose buildings included many elaborate movie palaces for the Fox Theatre chain and Olympia Stadium. It’s Crane’s only documented office building in Canada.
The heritage restoration by WZMH Architects and +VG Architects (formerly the Ventin Group Ltd.) recreated decorative Beaux-Arts style cornice work and trim, but also reinstated red-brick façades that had been destroyed by decades of paint coatings.
It was possible to expand floor plates across a former light well to create an additional 2,000 square feet of space on each floor. The restoration also included the renovation of the lobby and the modernization of the building’s mechanical and electrical systems, and an upgrade to energy-efficient windows that recreate the look of the original ones. Oxford is currently pursuing LEED certification for the building.
At 111 Richmond St. W., on the same block, a historically designated 15-storey building, designed by Toronto architect Peter Dickinson and opened in 1954, lent itself well to exterior restoration and re-engineering of technology and environmental systems to LEED Gold standards. The restoration won tenants over even before construction began, with 60 per cent of the building pre-leased, including 89,000 square feet to Google.
A key part of the Richmond-Adelaide redevelopment plan was to build the new glass-clad, 40-storey EY Tower at 100 Adelaide St. W. to replace the 16-storey, 1928-built Concourse Building, which was outdated and not conducive to an interior renovation. Its façade, however, decorated with emblems of Canadian industry mosaics by Group of Seven artist J.E.H. MacDonald, was architecturally significant. It was methodically dismantled, the pieces were catalogued and rebuilt as the face of the modern tower.
“Some folks are not fans of what has been called ‘façade-ism,’ but in that instance, the building itself was obsolete and we were able to retain its character building by incorporating it into a high-performance office building that met the needs of modern tenants,” Mr. O’Neil says.
“We dismantled the 90,000-square-foot building and a parking structure, but we restored the character of the elevations and were able to accommodate a 900,000-square-foot building, 10 times larger than the original,” he explains.
Every aging building poses a unique set of challenges in a city that’s changing as quickly as Toronto, he says. “It’s great when you can retain a building; but it’s not always possible.”