Although the brown brick, semi-Brutalist Toronto Fire Station at 441 Bloor St. E. has existed longer than I have – and I therefore have driven past it thousands of times – it was only last week I learned that children play on its roof as part of the Glen Road Early Learning & Child Care Centre.
And that is only because the University of Toronto’s School of Cities’ Matti Siemiatycki asked me to meet him there on a warm Saturday morning in May. Had it not been for our walk around the building and the peekaboo of playground equipment from Redrocket Lane, I never would have guessed.
“These types of buildings are hidden in plain sight; I think that’s what’s so interesting about them,” says Mr. Siemiatycki, who heads up the Infrastructure Institute and has been conducting some serious research into mixed-use buildings. “And what we’ve been finding is that they’re around, and there are some older examples and other some newer ones, and we’ve never talked about them or celebrated them as a made-in-Toronto approach to city building.”
Because the sun was shining and former urban planner Candice Leung had joined us, we decided to start the celebration ourselves. The two-storey fire station, it should be noted, has been surrounded by high-rise towers in recent years, and is ripe for redevelopment. And, if redevelopment does happen, says Mr. Siemiatycki, the new building should mix even more uses together. But it’s a complicated site: wide and slightly triangular, it abuts an alleyway to the west, backs onto restored heritage homes, and, on its east side, it’s raised about 10 feet from Glen Road. In fact, one can stand on the fire station’s little patch of lawn and peer down at people entering and exiting the auxiliary entrance to Sherbourne subway station.
While it’s still “early days,” the School of Cities is in talks with the city’s real estate agency, CreateTO, and the fire department, and hopes to bring the TTC to the table as well. The plan is to “reuse the site in a way that we’re going to put the station back in,” Mr. Siemiatycki says.
“And then build housing above, and my preference would be affordable housing, and we’ll see how the economics work; the nice thing is there’s a real interest in seeing how far we can push this.”
But, in addition to the child care centre, what else? A café? A greengrocer? Are there any mixes that are too strange to work with a fire station? Well, a “global scan” turned up plenty with housing (some in other Canadian cities) and one in Washington, with an athletic centre on top. While synergies help – such as church-food bank-women’s shelter – the School of Cities thinks that we’ve been too narrow in what we’ve allowed thus far.
“We didn’t think a school could go in a condo,” says Mr. Siemiatycki, thinking of North Toronto Collegiate, “or we didn’t think you could have a theatre that goes on the main floor [of a condo] because, you know, maybe there’d be too many people around. And it turns out that’s actually an amenity, people want to be where the action is.” The action in this case is at 345 Carlaw Ave., where Crow’s Nest Theatre partnered with Streetcar Developments to build their permanent home at the base of a 12-storey residential tower.
So how can a university think tank leave the ivy-covered tower and help developers or property owners get creative?
“We’ve created an accelerator program and are doing training and ecosystem development,” Mr. Siemiatycki says. “A lot of this is a matchmaking problem, right? Someone has space, someone has need and they don’t always know how to find each other. … We work with organizations to get them ready to do these types of social purpose real estate projects.”
And once the relatively new School of Cities has helped make more and more matches, the next step would be to streamline the process, perhaps even to design boilerplate documentation or procedures, since too often these architectural marriages come with “drama and heartache.”
There was plenty of drama at our next stop. While today there are nothing but happy moms with strollers going in and out of 21 Carlaw Ave., the rebirth of Red Door Family Shelter after WoodGreen United Church was demolished in 2017 was “forged in fire.”
“There’s a long convoluted story about what happened, but the building actually went into receivership, and the developer bought the building,” Mr. Siemiatycki says. “And so the Red Door was really close to being [kicked] out. And this is when the ‘Save the Red Door’ campaign started, and 50,000 names on a petition, and the local Councillor Paula Fletcher got really deeply involved.”
While too much to recount, the point is that without massive community effort and municipal government involvement, the “pretty seamless” residential-retail-shelter would not have happened, and that’s a shame. Walk around the Harhay Developments building and it’s quite handsome: the southeast corner incorporates an 1888 façade, big-windowed retail faces Queen Street, and, turn the corner at Booth Avenue and it takes a minute until one spies the entrance to Red Door.
But that’s not because Red Door is a second-class citizen, it’s so eyes are on the alleyway and residents benefit from more quietude: “It’s important the social part isn’t an afterthought, that they are intentionally part of it, and each of them gets the part of the building that works best for them,” Mr. Siemiatycki says. “It’s not like one is the junior partner to the to the other.”
It turns out these kinds of partnerships have a history. At the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood – a masterful 1970s community that took the co-operation of all levels of government, urban planners and architects – the three of us admire how well the Downtown Alternative School and St. Michael Catholic School blend into the façade of the red-brick apartment at the southwest corner of The Esplanade and Jarvis Streeet.
Unfortunately, that sort of government co-operation is rare these days. The dozens and dozens of mixed-use buildings the School of Cities have studied are hard-won one-offs.
“We don’t need that,” Mr. Siemiatycki says. “Now that we know this works, we don’t have to do each of them as a one of one … it will exhaust everyone, it will frustrate everyone, and it’ll take too long and we won’t get the results we need.”
To see case studies of mixed-use buildings prepared by Mr. Siemiatycki and Clara Shipman, go to: www.schoolofcities.utoronto.ca/creative-mixed-use/case-studies
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