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A three-storey, glass-walled extension to the Manulife Centre's exterior will add floor space and visibility for retailers at the ground levels.Wallace Immen/The Globe and Mail

The Manulife Centre is an iconic mixed-use complex on Toronto’s most fashionable shopping street, but it’s also a creature of its time.

Built in the Brutalist style in vogue in the early 1970s, the three levels of retail at the base of the office, retail and residential complex focused inward and had minimal street presence. Set far back from the busy intersection of Bloor and Bay streets, it was designed as an internal galleria that people would arrive at by car, and it had little to attract pedestrians.

“It wasn’t in keeping with what has become Toronto’s premier high street,” says Patrick Fejér, principal with B+H Architects in Toronto, which has designed a dramatic face lift.

The landlord, Manulife Real Estate, first asked the architects to give the building at 55 Bloor St. W. a more prominent main entrance, but the plan evolved into a triple-glazed curtain-walled extension around three sides of the block that would not only increase the building’s street presence but significantly increase the overall rentable area, he says.

Making Brutalist buildings more street friendly is a trend that’s happening across Canada, says Stéphane Raymond, principal and project manager for B+H. “From a retailer standpoint, frontage on streets in urban centres is becoming more valuable.”

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The Manulife Centre, built in the 1970s in the Brutalist style, originally had small retail windows on walls recessed from the street. It looked inward to its interior atrium.Manulife

Retailers want more visibility to appeal to shoppers who increasingly arrive by foot or transit as populations of city cores increase, particularly in Toronto and Vancouver. Other projects B+H is involved in to increase retail visibility from the street include Rideau Centre in Ottawa and 60 Bloor West, across Bloor Street from the Manulife Centre, he says.

The Manulife Centre redesign provided a perfect opportunity for Indigo Books & Music Inc. to expand its offerings and gain more visibility for its flagship store on the Bay Street side of the complex, says Paul Filek, managing partner of Burdifilek interior design in Toronto, which did the redesign for Indigo.

As Indigo’s product mix has evolved into more merchandise other than books, its stores no longer feel like libraries, but more like department stores, with rooms and nooks dedicated to themes including children, cuisine and wellness. Burdifilek also recently designed Indigo stores in Vancouver and New Jersey, and the rebuilding of the Manulife Centre provided an opportunity to do a complete redesign, Mr. Filek says. To keep the store open as normal during a year of reconstruction meant preplanning, briefing of every department and working in stages to minimize disruption.

Almost everything in the store had to be rebuilt or relocated. Drop ceilings were removed to add height and the mechanicals in the ceilings were painted flat black to give more drama and a sense of openness to the spaces.

At the moment, the Bay Street exterior of Indigo is shrouded by hoarding, with just a narrow walkway between construction equipment leading to the store. Keeping customers aware that the store remains open was a challenge and there were promotions to draw people into the new spaces. Barriers around work areas were built as home-like walls to screen disruption and construction dust.

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Indigo Books & Music is among the retailers undergoing major changes to its footprint. The far wall is actually a hoarding along Bay Street that will eventually be replaced with floor-to-ceiling glass walls.Wallace Immen/The Globe and Mail

“The customer support has been phenomenal, and I think they’re happy to live through a little dust to get their store upgraded,” Mr. Filek says.

In the next phase after the holidays, the temporary wall on Bay Street is to be removed and the floors expanded toward the new glass curtain wall, creating an extra 3.6 metres of interior retail space along the west end of the store. A wellness shop is one of the new features Burdifilek has designed for Indigo’s additional square footage. A Starbucks within Indigo is being relocated to the lower level of the store from the upper level, and it will have its own separate entrance to the interior mall concourse.

The Manulife Centre’s rebuilding has required major surgery to the base of the building whose notable design element was a 45-degree cutback in its lower floors. A significant challenge was that a recess with stepped terraces, planters and ventilation for the parking garage below on the Bay Street side was almost like a moat around the building. Emergency exits and exhaust systems had to be rerouted to bring the edges of the building to grade.

Three of the four existing faces of the building had to be removed, and the new steel framework around three sides of the building is creating as much as 4.6 metres of extra internal depth in the stores that face the streets.

It was a giant shell game in terms of balancing the needs of retailers, contractors and customers, Mr. Raymond at B+H says. Most of the tenants stayed through the entire project and Manulife negotiated the shuffling of several tenants, including Birks jewellers, into temporary spaces for the duration of the work.

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The hoarding along Bay Street, south of Bloor, is expected to be pulled down next spring to reveal the retailers, including Indigo, within. 'The customer support has been phenomenal, and I think they’re happy to live through a little dust to get their store upgraded,' one of the architects says.Wallace Immen/The Globe and Mail

Noise has been a continual challenge since construction began in 2017. There were bylaw curfews that meant work could run only from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Even during that time, work had to defer to the needs for quiet time of tenants that include a Cineplex Odeon multiplex theatre, Mr. Raymond says.

There are 40 storeys of offices in the tower above the complex and the redesign includes an upgraded main entrance on Bloor and a relocated lobby for Bank of Montreal, a major corporate tenant. “Automated sliding glass doors and new escalators and elevators will make the complex more accessible. Before, there were a lot of steps and terraces that were not really usable,” he says.

And there’s a substantial improvement in prominence of stores. For instance, the Bloor Street face of the Birks store that formerly had small display windows in a concrete wall will have substantially more prominence with its new glass walls. On Bay Street, Indigo will have signage across the second storey of its glass frontage.

A new tenant presented unique structural and technical challenges, Mr. Raymond says. Italian food marketplace Eataly’s first Canadian location required reinforcing floors to accommodate heavy kitchen equipment, giant pizza ovens and a brewery, and the installation of new mechanical, ventilation and electrical cabling. The timeline for completing the new-look Manulife Centre is late spring of 2019, but the complex buildout of Eataly’s 50,000 square feet on three storeys means its opening is scheduled for the fall.

The rebuilding of the centre is budgeted to cost $100-million. “The goal was to give the overall project a serious street presence, and I think this will succeed in spectacular fashion,” Mr. Fejér says.

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Italian food marketplace Eataly is moving into the Manulife Centre next fall. Its heavy ovens and other equipment required reinforcement of the floor.Manulife

The remaking of Manulife Centre

– 45,000 square feet of new triple-glazed curtain wall at grade and second-floor levels.

– 36,000 square feet of additional space for retail.

– 7,200 square feet of new green roof.

– Three new public elevators at key circulation points.

– Three new tenant and service elevators.

– 22 new bicycle parking spaces.

– Sidewalks of from five to 10 metres wide along Bay Street and eight metres wide along Bloor Street.