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Plans for a lost piece of Bloor East Add to ...

“Toronto is not ready to become a big city,” tall-building architect Peter Clewes told me last week in his downtown office. “It’s uncertain about whether it wants to take the next step.”

Mr. Clewes wasn’t talking about population here. In terms of numbers, Toronto is already big, and we’re going to get considerably bigger, due to immigration from across Canada and the world, over the next couple of decades.

No, the architect was speaking of Toronto’s shortcomings in the department of big-city attitude. He wants to see, for example, an active public “embrace of intensification” in the downtown core, not the grudging, reluctant stance toward towers too often taken, in his view, by city planners and neighbourhood groups. He wants to see residential tall-building architecture that operates at a “metropolitan scale” – big, as in artistic heft as well as size – and that makes bold imprints on the skyline and the street grid.

In other words, Peter Clewes wants a favourable public reception for the kind of design he does, and that he is now proposing to do again, more forcefully than before, on the hard urban edge where genteel Rosedale meets the inner city.



 







From whatever angle you look at it, the site of this proposed condominium project by Lanterra Developments is complicated.

Immediately north of the long, narrow strip of land stretching east from Sherbourne to Parliament streets lies wide, busy Bloor Street East and, beyond and below the thoroughfare, a lovely ravine that marks the boundary of Rosedale. Immediately south of the strip is the dense cluster of 19 low-rent residential towers known as St. James Town, which replaced, hastily and not very well, a former slum in the 1960s.

For some reason – and the venerable presence of St. Simon’s Anglican Church may have had something to do with it – the parcel of properties along Bloor East that Lanterra now wants to develop was untouched by the bulldozers that levelled the dilapidated Victorian neighbourhood round about to make way for St. James Town. Which leaves the spot as we find it today: one of Toronto’s nowhere lands, neither an extension of Rosedale nor part of downtown, a hodge-podge that features, in addition to St. Simon’s church, a lot of Victorian bric-a-brac and many vacant lots. Few nooks in Toronto’s urban core are in greater need of creative place-making.

And place-making is exactly what Lanterra intends to do on the site, by adding homes for several hundreds of people and thus stitching this orphaned patch of the city into the living urban fabric.

If Mr. Clewes’ architectural scheme is eventually accepted by the city (so far, it has gotten a cold shoulder from municipal planning staff), a 50-storey residential tower will go up on the corner of Sherbourne Street and Bloor Street East. This move will have the effect of extending eastward the complex of high-rise homes and office blocks that now stops at Sherbourne.



 





However, the more imposing, and potentially more controversial, aspect of the plan has to do with the eastern end of the site – at Parliament Street. Mr. Clewes has proposed designs for three slender, sleekly modernist towers there, at 56, 53 and 46 storeys, respectively. The heights of these buildings are impressive, but they strike me as appropriate. Viewed in profile, the upper east side of downtown would then rise from short, single-family Victorian homes south of Wellesley Street, through the modernist high-rises of St. James Town, to these very tall buildings along Bloor Street East – yielding an interesting sequence of scales, shapes and textures.

But what makes these towers work on a desirable “metropolitan scale” is the treatment at the bottom. Instead of putting down a multi-level podium at the foot of each building – a lamentable cliché in the vocabulary of Toronto architecture, Mr. Clewes thinks he would have a four-storey base that runs under and between the three towers. This platform would be faced with limestone and glass, and the glassed-in segments between the buildings would be devoted to year-round gardens. If built out as proposed, the base of the three towers will be massively tough, calm and unperturbed. (To help keep the façade clear, for example, the loading dock for all the high-rises will be hidden in a small pavilion detached at grade from the base.)

With this proposal, Mr. Clewes’ urbane modernism, already familiar to many Torontonians in 18 Yorkville, Spire and numerous other residential projects, reaches a new level of monumentality – and audacity. “I am hoping for architectural debate,” the architect said.

He will likely get his wish, when this attractive scheme emerges from the shadows of city bureaucracy and comes under public scrutiny, as is due to happen shortly.

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