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Home & Design Groceterias redux: Turning a decrepit icon into a mixed-use hub

Writer Dave LeBlanc, left, and Scott Weir of ERA Architects observe the crumbling exterior of the old Loblaw Groceterias building.

Writer Dave LeBlanc, left, and Scott Weir of ERA Architects observe the crumbling exterior of the old Loblaw Groceterias building.

Robert Fantinatto for The Globe and Mail

Redevelopment

Groceterias redux: Turning a decrepit icon into a mixed-use hub

Brick by brick, the old Loblaws warehouse at Lakeshore and Bathurst is ready to be rebuilt, restoring its Art Deco glory for a changing waterfront

When the shelves are stocked and the doors swing open in spring, 2019, I, for one, would love to see High Park Coffee, Cherry Valley Butter, Blue Bell Eggs and Alpine Club Ginger Ale on offer.

Other folks, I suspect, will care less about these defunct Loblaws house brands and instead cheer that life, activity, and a grocery store have replaced the abandoned warehouse at the corner of Lake Shore Boulevard and and Bathurst Street.

It has been a long road for the Loblaws grocery store. In the 1930s, it was the king of a new neighbourhood created with landfill by the Toronto Harbour Commission 10 years earlier; in 1960, it survived the Gardiner Expressway. The last tenant, the Daily Bread Food Bank, moved out in 2000. Since then, rumours have run rampant as owner Wittington Properties waited for a confluence of conditions that would make a mixed-use development possible. Late last month, the city finally granted a construction permit and a work crew descended on the Art Deco gem to begin the investigative poking that precedes rehabilitation.

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Loblaw Groceterias, the company’s head office and warehouse, circa 1940. Maple Leaf Stadium appears in the foreground.

Loblaw Groceterias, the company’s head office and warehouse, circa 1940. Maple Leaf Stadium appears in the foreground.

Loblaw Groceterias with centennial regalia, 1967.

Loblaw Groceterias with centennial regalia, 1967.

An artist’s concept of the Loblaw Groceterias redevelopment, to be named West Block.

An artist’s concept of the Loblaw Groceterias redevelopment, to be named West Block.

The four-storey structure, designed in 1927 by Sparling Martin and Forbes, architects of the 1929 Pierce-Arrow Showroom at Yonge and Marlborough, needs much rehab. "You've had 50 years of salt-spray coming off of the Gardiner [and] settling on the building," says Scott Weir of ERA Architects, heritage consultants to the project. "At this point, most of the metalwork that holds everything together is all rusted; you have brick and stone in relatively decent condition, but everything holding it together – all the little metal ties, all the lintels – are all rusted."

So, after much hand-wringing and back-and-forth with the city, owner Wittington Properties decided to have the west and south walls, and a small portion of the east wall, disassembled rather than kept in situ; after each brick and chunk of carved limestone has been numbered, stacked and sent to Port Hope, Ont. for storage, demolition will begin. And when Choice Properties has created a spanking-new shell for a Loblaws grocery store, office space and retail, and Concord-Adex builds two condo towers, the old warehouse walls will rise again to reclaim their rightful street corner.

"It's all about the DNA to be here," says Wittington president Tony Grossi. "There's a continuity of what [Loblaws] did in the past, and what they're going to do in the future, so it's a reinterpretation of everything that went on in this building since [it opened in] 1928."

A lot did go on: 120,000 pounds of Cherry Valley butter was sliced and wrapped weekly; rail cars parked inside the building to unload coffee from around the world (it was blended and packaged as High Park); pork bellies were smoked on the bottom floor, and bread and cookies were baked on the third. In other areas, executives in wood-panelled rooms debated strategy over charts and graphs while office-workers sent memorandums through a complex pneumatic tube system. Workaday Joes and Janes could take a break in the building's bowling alley or billiards room.

In fact, what was then known as Loblaw Groceteria Co. Ltd. became so successful while headquartered here, it had to move the office component across the street to the Crosse & Blackwell building in 1950 (a food products manufacturer had moved out in the mid-1930s; today, it's home to Rogers Media). Even the construction of the Gardiner Expressway in 1960 didn't affect the powerhouse: Rather than accepting the city's offer to purchase the building, an easement was signed that allowed the new highway to pass directly over the one-storey portion.

That portion has since been demolished. In its place, however, a pedestrian "court" with an "amphitheatre" will be created, says Mr. Grossi, where events ranging from food truck festivals to fashion shows can take place. Because it's anticipated that most people will enter from Housey Street to the north and walk into the Gardiner's shadow, much will be done with light to create a friendly pathway.

In fact, Mr. Grossi mentions his love of artist James Turrell, who did the glowing panels at Bay-Adelaide Centre, and Teresita Fernández, whose art installation, Fata Morgana, creates light patterns on a pathway in New York's Madison Square Park. "I looked at this and I said to our team you've got to investigate this because perhaps this becomes an inspiration," he says.

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While little remains inside the building, it didn't take much to persuade Mr. Weir and Mr. Grossi to allow filmmaker Robert Fantinatto and I to take one last peek. Besides, I had asked about the metal strapping on the raised parts of the castellated parapet, and the only way to see those was on the roof.

The terrazzo staircase and wood panelling in the main lobby are perhaps all that's left of the glory days; up the stairs, we're treated with hand-painted lettering on a door. Through that door, there is a warped, fun-house-like wooden floor, and orderly rows of massive concrete columns (spaced too closely together for current retail use, I'm told). Above our heads, there are countless pipes that were part of the 22,000 feet that once circulated ammonia for the cold storage rooms.

We poke into broken, filthy washrooms, men's and women's cloak rooms, and an employee cafeteria on the third floor before stumbling upon massive chunks of cork insulation that have fallen from the ceiling – here, then, was the location of the cold rooms.

Up on the roof, it's clear that the closer one gets to the elevated highway, the worse the condition of the carved limestone; however, when ERA Architects are finished, new and old will be indistinguishable. What will be strikingly new is a three-storey glass box tucked behind the parapet that will house officeworkers: "We thought long and hard about what we could do on these upper levels," Mr. Grossi says.

And to heritage aficionados who think more glass-walled condo towers or office spaces are the last thing Toronto needs, consider that this mixed-use project paid for the restoration of the old groceteria walls, says ERA's Scott Weir.

"In Canada, there's no money for heritage conservation work, but there was a requirement on the site to incorporate this building.

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"If this was the States, there'd be a tax rebate or some kind of system like that – here, it's all private money."

In other words, keep buying coffee, butter, and eggs, no matter what the brand.

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