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Turning the corner on University Avenue's institutional facade Add to ...

University Avenue is downtown Toronto's most spectacular failure of urban imagination. With thoughtful planning and a strong public will to make beautiful places, this magnificently broad boulevard could have become our city's Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Instead, the street was allowed to degenerate from one of Toronto's toniest addresses into the long, cheerless strip of hospitals and boring office buildings it is today.

The aesthetic damage done to University Avenue can't be corrected in a day, or in a century. But it seemed possible that a corner in the architectural fortunes of the boulevard might be about to turn when Tribute Communities, a development firm known best for its suburban projects, announced that it intended to put up University Avenue's first new residential building in living memory. That corner would be turned, of course, only if the proposed tower broke decisively with the tiresome knock-off modernism that has too long characterized its neighbourhood.

Now that I've seen renderings of what Tribute has in mind, I can testify that it doesn't break with anything. Even what's novel about this tower - evidence of the city-inspired craze for recycling traces of antiquated architecture into new structures - is a step backward in the design of tall buildings.

But before getting into all that, here are some facts about the proposed apartment complex and its location.

The slender 42-storey block will rise from a site currently occupied by the clubhouse of the Royal Canadian Military Institute, where members of the Forces have been gathering convivially for more than a hundred years. Several storeys at the bottom of the new tower will be in the hands of the Institute, and will contain dining rooms, a gym, a bar and other club facilities. The Institute's quarters will also house its large and important collection of rare military artifacts - guns, uniforms, medals and other paraphernalia - and its distinguished library of some 25,000 volumes.

Crafted by architect Tarek El-Khatib, senior partner in charge of design for the Toronto-based Zeidler Partnership, the tower will also feature 318 one-bedroom condominium suites ranging in size from 600 to 800 square feet in area. Controversially, no provision has been made for parking below grade, and none above: The city's planning staff refused to approve the scheme for this reason, but was overruled last month by the politicians.

The planners, in this instance, were right, but one could take their argument with this project farther.

No parking, plus the small sizes of the apartments, means no families - which means, in turn, that Tribute is merely following the hackneyed condo trend of serving investors and first-time buyers, and adding nothing to the inventory of high-rise properties for people who want to rear families in the downtown core. There are such people, and there could be a lot more of them, were developers to offer ample, affordable places for them to live. My hunch is that investors will snap up the residential suites in the tower and rent them out to students and other temporary residents, turning the structure above the venerable institution into a dormitory.

Whether that happens or not, the conflict between the good and unsatisfactory aspects of the building's styling will remain.

On the positive side of the ledger, Mr. El-Khatib's general tower design is a graceful solution to the problem of raising a tall edifice on a narrow site that is tightly hemmed in by office buildings on both sides. The expanse of dark grey translucent balcony fronts on the south elevation could give the structure a dour demeanor, but the horizontal strokes of emphasized, lighter floor-plate edges, widely spaced as the façade ascends, promise to brighten the overall mood.

Two design decisions, however, are troublesome.

The first is to leave the entire north face of the building windowless. Walking or driving down University Avenue, one will be confronted by a solid wall of back-painted glass. Whatever the reasons for this move, gleaming and utterly vacuous glass facades are already too common on this poor street.

The second has to do with the enshrining of a tatter of the Institute's much-revised and architecturally insignificant front on the street-side entrance.

Mr. El-Khatib told me he intends to treat this fragment "like an artifact, a two-dimensional piece of sculpture" surrounded by glass. Whether he achieves his goal remains to be seen. But in any case, what's lost in this lapse into crowd-pleasing nostalgia is the opportunity to create a new University Avenue threshold that is fresh, exciting and original. History is not well-served by such pointless preservationism. Neither is the street, nor the city.

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