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Looks like time’s up for Yorkville’s old guard

In the summer of 1969, when I moved from the United States to Toronto, the intoxicating haze of rock music, incense, pot fumes and flower-power politics hung heavy over the little Victorian streets of the Yorkville district.

Head shops and vintage clothing emporia and coffee houses served a cosmopolitan clientele made up of young drifters and seekers, draft dodgers, outlaws and students. Though I was not a very convincing hippie – I never did get the hang of smoking weed – I enjoyed wandering along the neighbourhood's byways and browsing in the Book Cellar, on the corner of Avenue Road and Yorkville Avenue.

The Book Cellar is gone, of course, and so is the run-down folksiness that once gave central Yorkville a kind of faded charm. The district's transformation into a spiffy, high-end shopping and residential area began in the early 1970s, but this process is only nearing completion now, as new condominium towers go up, one after another, on the edges and main thoroughfares of the former village.

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But if rezoning permission is granted by city hall, one tall building complex in particular will spell the end of old Yorkville as we've long known it. This mixed-use project by Empire Communities is slated to rise 38 storeys from the corner of Yorkville and Avenue Road (the location of the now-defunct Book Cellar).

According to documents filed with the city, it will feature 342 residential units, retail on the lowest storeys and five levels of underground parking. The architects (at the Zeidler Partnership's Toronto studio) have not yet produced final drawings. But from information that's currently available, I gather the structure will have a familiar shape: A stout podium four or five storeys high, with a slender point tower rising from this base. In other words, it promises to be just another high-rise that simply does its humdrum job, adding nothing to the ongoing story of building tall.

But, right now, I am less concerned with the aesthetic merits of this tower than I am with what its construction will sweep away.

The corner site is currently occupied by a small retail and courtyard complex known as York Square. Designed by Toronto architects A. J. Diamond and Barton Myers in 1968, this mingling of Victorian house-forms and modernist façade and interior treatments was an early, excellent instance of the "adaptive reuse" of old buildings that would later become a preservationist mantra. It is an object-lesson from the past that speaks eloquently to the present, and it deserves to be saved for that reason alone.

But York Square is more than taxidermy. The elderly houses Mr. Diamond and Mr. Myers inherited on the site were actively recycled, not merely pickled where they stood. The architects used the deeply sculpted upper storeys and roof fabric of the antique dwellings to create a picturesque skyline for their commercial project, which, in turn, anchored the development in its neighbourhood of low-rise skylines.

In contrast to all that, the bottom storeys, where the storefronts meet the sidewalk, are clad in a broad ribbon of brick that binds the separate houses together and is unapologetically modernist in appearance. Large circular openings in the brick surfaces showcase what's for sale inside. This alternation of round windows and sturdy brick planes spared York Square from the monotony of the blank glass wall that had become (and still is) standard in big-city store design.

In these and other moves, Mr. Diamond and Mr. Myers showed that our ancestors' venerable way of making houses meet the sky can be honoured without a resort to fakery or pastiche, and that shops can be made to meet the city in a way that avoids the cliché of the all-glass store front. Though the years have not been kind to the place, the melding of old and new that the designers brought off at York Square is memorable and smart. The complex is also an expression of patient, careful urbanism that needs to be kept intact, just so young architects and the architecturally interested public can learn from its good example.

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Perhaps it is too late to save York Square. But this much should be clear: Toronto will surely be diminished a little, if we allow this small, fine work of modern architectural imagination to fall before the bulldozers.

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