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Real Estate Sheppard Centre overhaul a welcome cure for concrete overload

The Sheppard Centre will be brought back to life, both visually and with people – a 375-unit rental tower is planned.

The current vogue for the haute couture, disillusioned politics, and TV programs of the 1970s is the mass-cultural bubble-up of a more serious interest that's been simmering in the studios of North American artists and architects for some time.

For example: the physical expression of concrete's heft and massiveness – the hallmark of much advanced building design in the seventies – has become stylish again. In the past few years, talented Toronto architects have celebrated cement in at least two significant books. The stuff is on people's minds.

But is Toronto's concrete legacy from 40 years ago really worth the bother?

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Last week, to find out if the city will lose anything when North York's very 1970s Sheppard Centre is overhauled by Quadrangle Architects, I trekked out to this concrete mixed-use development at the corner of Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue and had a look.

No, I decided, we won't lose a thing worth saving when it's changed and relaunched as the Yonge Sheppard Centre.

Nobody will miss, for instance, the deep, dry concrete moats that stretch between sidewalks and façades along Yonge, on the west side of the complex, and along Sheppard, to the south. To get into a store or bank or restaurant from the outside, you have to cross the moat, either by climbing down steps and making your way on the basement level or by going up a bridge to an exterior sidewalk perched well above grade. Good luck to anyone who has trouble with stairs. Why the architect would think it smart to cut off the shops from the street in this way beats me.

In the revision they are doing for the centre's co-owners, RioCan and KingSett Capital, Quadrangle principals Brian Curtner and Anna Madeira propose filling in the crevasses and pulling out the retail spaces toward the sidewalks. These moves will unite inside and outside, opening up the possibility, at least, of new street life at this deeply suburban, high-speed crossroads.

But before Mr. Curtner and Ms. Madeira do away with the moats – demolition could begin as early as August, they said – architectural aficionados should drop by and take a look at these features, just because they so aptly express in architecture the retailing orthodoxy of their time. Perhaps the whole idea was to discourage people from coming in off the sidewalks, since each retail outlet had a more convenient entrance in the large two-level mall. The Sheppard Centre opened in 1976, after all, when malls were in, cars ruled and big-city sidewalks were considered dangerous or otherwise unwalkable. The mall here is stuck in its period: low ceilings, windowless, ill-connected to the city, a bunker-like refuge from Toronto streets that, because of the recent intensification of downtown, people no longer want to escape.

That said, the enclosed shopping mall still plays a substantial role in contemporary retailing beyond the urban core. So instead of eliminating this basically suburban mall outright, the Quadrangle scheme foresees its expansion to more than 450,000 square feet from about 368,000 square feet, and its upgrade to bright from dull. The two levels of the present-day mall will be joined more elegantly, and an additional two floors, hosting a new grocery store and a spacious fitness facility, will be carved out of territory formerly occupied by a multiplex cinema. The interior of this galleria will be illuminated by large skylights, which are intended, the architects say, to usher inside a sense of the street.

Which brings me back to the outside. It's hardly surprising, given the project's date of origin, to find the Sheppard Centre's steel frame is weighed down with concrete cladding and trim, all of it clumsy and ugly.

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Unfortunately for those who like their skylines lively, the owners' brief to Quadrangle did not include doing something about the humdrum precast exteriors of the mid-rise office towers in the complex.

But the commission did include the order to knit together, as well as possible, the jumbled 1970s architecture on the site. Between the short towers on the Yonge Street side, for instance, the plan created by Mr. Curtner and Ms. Madeira will replace slabs and clots of concrete with cascades of glass in boxy frames. A horizontal ceramic ribbon, running around the base of the project, and extensive glazing at grade, should lend unity to the various components where it matters most, even in car-cultured North York: at the pedestrian level.

It will take people to bring the renovated Sheppard Centre to life, and the place will have several hundred of them at its heart. Quadrangle's new 39-storey, 375-unit rental tower will rise on the north side of the site.

Residents can connect immediately with the shopping mall and the two subway lines that meet at the crossing of Yonge and Sheppard – a spot, when you think about it, that development is making look a little less like sprawl and more like a piece of city all the time.

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