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The five heritage retail stores on Yonge street that will be saved largely intact in the redevelopment that stretches around the corner onto St. Thomas. (Dave LeBlanc for The Globe and Mail/Dave LeBlanc for The Globe and Mail)
The five heritage retail stores on Yonge street that will be saved largely intact in the redevelopment that stretches around the corner onto St. Thomas. (Dave LeBlanc for The Globe and Mail/Dave LeBlanc for The Globe and Mail)

Yonge Street's oldsters make room for a glitzy neighbour Add to ...

If Don Shebib's Pete and Joey from the seminal 1970 film Goin' Down the Road were to go down Yonge Street today, they might mistake it for Bay Street.

Well, perhaps not yet, but very soon.

First off, there are all the high-rise condominium projects currently reaching for the sky, such as the sculpted balcony behemoth at 1 Bloor East and what will be Canada's tallest residential tower, Aura, at College Park, but what's more interesting is the scene unfolding at Yonge and St. Joseph streets.

While a tower will eventually go up there as well, about a third of the low-rise, 1880s retail block running south on Yonge – where typical, er, “colourful” businesses once stood – is about to undergo a metamorphosis. Suffice it to say that once newcomer MOD Developments Inc. and veteran partner Graywood Developments Ltd. (fresh from partnering at the Ritz-Carlton) have incorporated them into “FIVE – Condos at 5 St. Joseph,” our friends from Nova Scotia would become even more disoriented.

And it won't stop there: Also getting a makeover is the south side of St. Joseph all the way to cobblestoned St. Nicholas Street, and a good portion of that street as well.

It's not often developers get to play with such a large chunk of Toronto's most famous street and a handful of heritage architecture, and, thankfully, MOD's Gary Switzer and Graywood's Stephen Price have decided to sidestep the path of least resistance.

That means retaining full building shells from 606 to 618 Yonge rather than just façades, and, where façadism is a necessary evil along St. Joseph, the face of a 1905 warehouse is being held up by an enormous, bridge-like structure so that it can remain in situ while the foundation for the Hariri Pontarini-designed 45-storey tower is dug directly underneath it. On St. Nicholas, the warehouse wall will be disassembled and trucked off-site until the tower has been erected.

To ensure authenticity, heritage heavyweights ERA Architects will oversee brick repair, paint removal, the reintroduction of period-specific windows (double-hung wood frame) and the recreation of shop-front niceties such as metal canopies, cornices or corbels that were removed decades ago.

This attention to detail has generated “a lot of interest from [retailers]that you wouldn't normally think would want to come into Yonge and Wellesley,” says Mr. Switzer. “We all know what the retail has been like, but I think there is a real transformation about to happen from all these projects on Yonge; I think Yonge is going to be the next Ossington in a sense.”

And, since all of that second and third floor space above the restored retail is being sold as 14 condo suites (called “The Yonge Street Collection”), a new type of resident, it's hoped, will be attracted as well.

This is good, because the site has an interesting history.

Stand at the corner of St. Nicholas and Wellesley and look north. Lining the top of a six-storey brick building in huge letters is “M. Rawlinson Limited” and, to the right, “Moving Packing Storage.” While this particular building is not part of the FIVE project, it does give an indication of the sprawling footprint of the Rawlinson cartage complex a century ago. In a bird's eye illustration complete with horse-drawn delivery wagons, streetcars and 1930s automobiles, seven buildings ranging from the logoed building (listed as “No. 1”) to a Yonge-facing, three-storey office (“No. 4”) and the four-storey warehouse on St. Joseph that will “wrap” around the new tower (“No. 5”) are shown. Other buildings (which are also not part of the present-day project) extend the site to the west.

The St. Joseph building provides direct evidence of Rawlinson's prominent position in Toronto at the time. Not just a standard warehouse structure, the main entrance is framed by an eight-course brick Gothic arch pierced by thick limestone banding; on either side of this imposing entrance are two smaller archways. Top floor windows are also Gothic and brickwork, overall, is top notch. This quality, says ERA's Scott Weir, is why the cheaper route of disassembly was dismissed: “There's a lot of skill that needs to go into [reconstruction] so it's less easy to convince the city,” he says.

As a result, this is considered to be “one of the largest façade retentions attempted in Toronto,” says Mr. Switzer, who was with Great Gulf Homes before starting MOD in 2009, and the impressive steel assembly will be a feature on St. Joseph St. for about a year. “It is a bit of a work of art, eh?” asks Mr. Switzer. “What I find is people are taking pictures of the structure and I've even been asked ‘Is that going to stay?'” he finishes with a laugh.

The project has already won numerous awards, but can it, and other projects along Yonge, really change things from tawdry to tony? One street to the east, the Church-Wellesley Village is packed with chic boutiques, so it's possible some will spill over. Also, one street west is Bay Street, which is over-condoed and under-retailed.

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