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marcus gee

What? They're going to tear down a theatre to build condos?

Reaction was fast and sometimes furious when David Mirvish announced a plan to build three soaring condominiums on a strip of King Street West, tearing down the Princess of Wales theatre into the bargain.

"Just what Toronto needs, more condos," said one reader on the Globe website.

Oh, come on, Toronto. Think big for once. David Mirvish certainly is. His King West plan is far more than just another condo project.

It would remake the entertainment district and redraw the skyline with three striking towers by renowned architect Frank Gehry. It would include a 60,000-square-foot museum for the splendid Mirvish modern art collection. It would create a big new learning centre for OCAD University, bringing the visual arts into the heart of downtown.

In short, it is a once-in-a-generation chance to take architecture and the arts in Toronto to a new level. This is city building at its best and boldest – and it shouldn't cost taxpayers a cent.

City building is all about seizing opportunities, about looking into the future with confidence and seeing what could be. Only a city with a cramped, limited view of its own possibilities would turn up its nose at something as exciting as this.

The Mirvish-Gehry pairing is a match made in heaven. Both are Toronto boys who made good. Both want to build something great in the heart of downtown while they still have time.

"Frank's 83. I'm 68. We've been 40 years getting here. Why wouldn't you go for it?" Mr. Mirvish said as he got ready to unveil his project at the Art Gallery of Ontario on Monday.

As a boy, he bagged purchases for visitors to his dad's discount store, Honest Ed's. "And now I'm getting a chance to do something that transforms the city."

It's a chance he can't pass up, whatever the risks. What would have happened, he wonders, if he lived 100 years ago and had a chance to help Antoni Gaudi build Casa Mila, the bold – and then controversial – apartment block in Barcelona with its wave-like facade?

Mr. Gehry sees a chance too. He grew up blocks from the Mirvish site. He has pictures of his mother pumping gas near Queen Street and Spadina Avenue, where his grandfather had a hardware store. Now he has a shot at putting an unmistakable stamp on the city where he was raised. So he has no time for the carping. "I'm 83 years old. I've heard everything. I've been beaten up for everything. I've been called everything. So I'm kinda used to it." If critics talk the project into mediocrity and "it becomes Plain Jane," he told me, "we're not going to do it."

Good for him. Too often in Toronto, quibbling NIMBYism forces architects to curb their inspiration. The bold 70-storey tower becomes the modest 40-storey block. Give a good architect his head, and something brilliant can be born. Just look at what the curvaceous Marilyn Monroe towers have done for Mississauga.

For that matter, look at what David Mirvish's father, Ed, did for downtown when he renovated an old theatre on King West, the Royal Alexandra, bought up nearby warehouses and opened big, brassy restaurants. "People said Mirvish was crazy," says local councillor Adam Vaughan. But King West became a glittering entertainment district and tourist draw.

His son's plan aims to take the district to its next stage of urban evolution. The Mirvish-Gehry project would be a focal point for the new cultural district rising in the western downtown, with Roy Thomson Hall across the street and the TIFF Bell Lightbox down the way. The loss of the Princess of Wales – a nice enough building, but hardly the Taj Mahal – is a small price to pay for what the city would get from the project. (The Royal Alex will live on.)

I asked Mr. Mirvish if he thinks Toronto is really ready for such an dramatic project, whether the city has the maturity to carry it off. "We're not ready, we're not mature," he rejoined. "But if we wait till we're mature and ready, we'll die." Better to seize the day.

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