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What if a new development could be weird?

That’s the promise of a proposed project at 888 Dupont St. in Toronto. Imagine a 13-storey tower with a restaurant on the roof. Then add shops on the first floor – and in the basement. In between, add 99 live-work apartments, 13 of them affordable rentals. And tack a “vertical farm” to the back of the tower.

This recipe, designed by Suulin Architects for the developers TAS, is about as weird as new developments get. And that’s before you see the exterior panels in three shades of green and the off-centre protuberances on three sides of the building.

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A rendering of a proposed project at 888 Dupont St. in Toronto.

Handout

The developers’ goal was simple: “How do we create the most intensely mixed-use building possible?” Mazyar Mortazavi, principal of TAS, said in an interview.

A for-profit development rarely delivers on that. But here, TAS is making a bold effort to deliver architecture with the messiness and melange that makes a city a city.

The project at Dupont and Ossington replaces a century-old loft that has been home to many artists and makers. It is half-ruined, and therefore cheap. I live nearby, and I’ve heard numerous complaints about the building being redeveloped. But the landlord has chosen to cash out.

How to design a fitting replacement? The architects are taking that challenge to heart. “We’re not trying to do the normal here,” Suulin Architects principal James Chavel said in a recent interview.

Indeed, his partner Amy Lin acknowledged the live-work status of the apartments is a crucial ingredient. Since some residents could run design practices or tech startups from their units, bringing more traffic into the building, “the lines between public and private become more difficult to draw,” she said.

A proposed publicly accessible stair to the top of the building, and that restaurant, would also bring public life deep into the building. Likewise the basement commercial units, which would be market-rent but relatively cheap. (Mr. Mortazavi is passionate about the value of such lower-rent spaces to spur commerce and innovation.)

As to the architectural language, the building shows Suulin wisely exploring a variety of textures and materials. The use of green echoes the colour of the existing building, and also some of Suulin’s other work; Mr. Chavel and Ms. Lin picked up a love of green while working with award-winning Shim-Sutcliffe Architects. The design needs more work; in composition and colour, the current proposal is ungainly. But Suulin are good architects, and they will need to polish it up. The building will need city approvals, including an official plan amendment, before it proceeds.

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In any case, what matters most is the mix. An ideal urban street has variety: small-scale retail, owned by a diverse set of people, and offered to diverse occupants at a range of rents.

Today’s development economics cut against every piece of that equation. New developments are in large buildings. And large buildings mean large units, with high rents, which means corporate tenants that nobody loves. (Another Shoppers Drug Mart? A Sobeys?)

Planning doesn’t help. Small developments and corner stores have been regulated out of existence. Toronto’s planning policies ban the “missing middle” projects that would create more varied forms of housing. And the city’s built form guidelines don’t even ask for smaller storefronts.

Mid-rise buildings such as 888 Dupont are a big part of Toronto’s future, and they tend to embody this problem. There are a half-dozen of them in the works along Dupont Street, most of them dire.

For instance: the site next door to 888. Developers Tridel have teamed up with Sobeys for a nine-storey condo with 393 homes (zero affordable). Its main floor will be anchored by a new grocery store (big and boring). Its materials will be mostly glass, stucco and aluminum (cheap). The architects, Turner Fleischer, have tried to visually divide the building with changes of colour (black, white and grey). The camouflage won’t work. This nine-storey slab will fill most of a block with graceless bulk.

That sort of building combines aesthetic grimness with corporate expediency. Nobody likes it. And while Toronto is growing rapidly, I’d still like to see fewer formulaic boxes and more fresh greens.

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