Skip to main content
the architourist

Pedestrians walk past the red-brick buildings of Toronto's Distillery District.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Writing in Canadian Architect the year before the provincial government shuttered Ontario Place, Brendan Cormier mused that, had architect Eberhard Zeidler been allowed to proceed with “Harbour City” – a government-commissioned, water-based, low-rise community of 60,000 residents that would’ve replaced the island airport with canals and bays – there would be no need to consider how to “re-energize” the area.

“Harbour City was an expression of the province’s vision to have Torontonians living by the lake,” he wrote. “Its failure has meant that the waterfront area around Ontario Place has remained without a significant residential base, perhaps contributing to the development’s attendance problems.”

I’ll say. And 10 years later, with residential considerations still off the table, I have little hope that this masterpiece will enjoy the kind of renaissance it deserves.

How do I know? Because, during a walkabout of the Distillery District with Neil Pattison of Graywood Developments and architectsAlliance’s Rob Cadeau last week, we found the place teeming. And, with the borders opened to Americans only recently, my guess is it was mostly local people.

“You have to have residential, always, to get that multi-use fusion,” Mr. Cadeau says. “Twenty-four hours a day, people in [the] space.”

“I look back what happened at Canary Wharf in London, because that’s where I grew up,” Mr. Pattison says. “I went as a planning student … we went to the 50th floor [of One Canada Square] and we looked around and there’s no residential around, and you go down to the beautiful marble plazas with fountains – after five o’clock, it’s deserted.”

Residential, then, is key. Shortly after Toronto’s amazing, Victorian-era industrial townscape was opened to the public in 2003 – after producing a zillion gallons of booze as Gooderham and Worts for a century and a half – shovels hit the ground for the first high-rise condominium, Pure Spirit (architectsAlliance). And, in a city that can still flounder when it comes to blending contemporary architecture with heritage, it found, and struck, a balance and garnered rave reviews.

Neil Pattison, left, of Graywood Developments and Rob Cadeau, of architectsAlliance.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

At left, the Pure Spirit building in the Distillery District.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Other buildings followed, including the deliciously wonky balcony walls of twins Clear Spirit and The Gooderham (2013 and 2014, also by architectsAlliance), which used heritage buildings for one podium and deftly created a new brick podium for the other.

And because red brick is what the pedestrian experiences – the towers are clad in milky-white glass – the human scale is preserved.

“It’s about the podium, the scale of the podium, and how it meets the street,” Mr. Cadeau says. “So it’s very important that that’s well detailed [and] materials are special.”

Thankfully, Mr. Cadeau is heading up the team to produce the newest residential building at the Distillery (yes, there are a few sites left to develop) for Graywood. Better yet, it’s going to “pull” the pedestrian experience to the south by occupying the site of a former one-storey building at 33 Parliament St., while also replacing asphalt with greenery and cobblestones.

A rendering of the development at 33 Parliament St.architectsAlliance/Graywood Developments

“We’re having a new, animated edge against Distillery Lane,” Mr. Pattison says. “It’s kind of just parking, no-man’s land with that dead edge to it. … So we’ve got 20,000 square feet of retail on our ground floor.”

And to ensure that retail jibes with the existing “no chains” policy, the Distillery District’s developer, Cityscape and Dream Unlimited, will purchase that space and “curate it the same as they’ve curated the [existing] retail.”

“That was a big, big win for us.”

Christened “The Goode” (better than “The Wort,” this author jokes), the 32-storey, 540-unit building will also feature a semi-enclosed courtyard at its base, which will add to the sense of discovery that already exists due to the network of heritage laneways and jiggity-jaggity building placement.

“It’s just this variety of space that encircles this building,” Mr. Cadeau says. “That’s very much indicative of the Distillery; there’s this kind of meandering sense to the spaces opening and closing, it has this serendipitous experiential quality, and that’s in a sense what we’re trying to create here.”

Nooks and crannys in the Distillery District.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

As we meander the site ourselves, we note that the Sudbury-based French school, Collège Boréal, will move into the yet-to-be-built “Ribbon Building” that will trace the southern border of the site – and how lovely to have students contribute to the vibrancy of the area – and discuss how the many fine restaurants have turned the area into a foodie destination.

We also count the other developments nearby, such as East Bayfront – ”You don’t realize how close it is because the rail corridor cuts it off,” Mr. Pattison says – or Parliament Slip, and the 3C Waterfront project, which includes the old Victory Soya Mills silos, and consider how those future residents will contribute to the health of the Distillery’s retailers.

What’s needed next, we agree, is a hotel (and that seems to be in the works) and, perhaps, a small grocery store.

When I lived in Montreal in the mid- to late-1990s, visitors would almost always ask me to take them to Old Montreal, and I’d happily oblige while concealing pangs of jealousy. As a proud Torontonian, I wished for a similar, compact, tourist-worthy destination filled with heritage architecture. When the Distillery District was born, I got my wish.

When heritage writers or thinkers look back upon Toronto in the first 50 years of this century, there is no doubt in my mind that the Distillery District will top the list as most significant. And because of the neighbourhood that’s been created around it, it will be around for those same advocates to enjoy long after that.

Your house is your most valuable asset. We have a weekly Real Estate newsletter to help you stay on top of news on the housing market, mortgages, the latest closings and more. Sign up today.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct