To the casual eye, it's another glass tower lining Lake Ontario. But the RBC WaterPark Place III building marks a series of victories, big and small, for the City of Toronto, its waterfront dwellers and landlord Oxford Properties Group Inc.
The 30-storey complex, on Queens Quay across the street from the lake, will officially open in December. But it's already slowly filling with workers who'll take advantage of a Toronto first: a waterfront connection to the city's PATH pedestrian network, providing shelter from the Canadian elements northward to Union Station.
"In February, you don't want to be walking on Bay Street under the Gardiner [Expressway] when there's a north wind blowing," says Andrew McAllan, Oxford's senior vice-president in charge of real estate management. Ensuring the former parking lot at 85 Harbour St., which the company has owned since the '90s, was developed with a connection to the PATH "was a prerequisite for us."
The link means Toronto pedestrians will be able to walk from Yonge-Dundas Square to the waterfront without stepping outdoors. It's also a victory for the thousands of residents who've flocked to condo towers in the city's rapidly developing south core, the once-neglected swath of land south of Union Station.
But Oxford believes development makes downtown's north-south divide unnecessary: by establishing a link to the growing business community south of Union Station, it strengthens Toronto's core as a whole.
"By having connectivity, from Queens Quay to Queen Street, I see one [downtown] core," Mr. McAllan says.
The PATH extension – planned by the city and Oxford, with the consent of other private landowners, with bridges designed by WZMH architects – will be swiftly embraced by waterfront residents. Ulla Colgrass, a founder and board member of the York Quay Neighbourhood Association, says she first met with the city about the possibility 10 years ago. "We're elated. We always thought that it would be essential."
As the property of a pension fund – Oxford is the real-estate wing of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System – the new WaterPark tower is a build-and-hold investment that needs to keep paying dividends. The PATH link, set to open the first week of October, is just one element of Oxford's strategy to attract and retain top tenants and talent for the long term.
The demands of a young work force have been kept in mind. "We're recognizing that employers work differently now, and the real estate has to be able to adapt to that or it's quickly going to become redundant," Mr. McAllan says.
WaterPark Place features secure bike lockers and change rooms, floor-to-ceiling glass windows for a flood of natural light, with glass fins to deflect harsh rays and absorb heat without blocking the view of the city. Meanwhile, a fibre backbone runs through the tower, allowing numerous features to be connected and customized, including localized lighting and heating. Once an employee swipes his or her card to enter the building, an elevator will take them to their floor, as their work area is lit and its temperature adjusted. This kind of tracking can help conserve energy.
Other distinguishing features have sustainability in mind, too, reducing energy use and boosting the building's lifespan. This includes the sun-deflecting fins, a green roof, and deep-water cooling from the neighbouring Great Lake. "Instead of having huge chillers consuming electricity, the building operates using far less energy and more cost-effectively," Mr. McAllan says. "We have to constantly strive to marry the environmental demands with the economic demands."
The $420-million building, designed by WZMH Architects, was built to LEED Platinum standards, though it has not yet earned the designation from the Canada Green Building Council. But the two original buildings in the complex – WaterPark I and II, built in the '80s – have undergone $20-million in upgrades as part of the same project and have been officially recertified to LEED Platinum status, from Gold.
Close to 85 per cent of the building is now leased, largely by Cisco Systems Canada Co. and flagship tenant Royal Bank of Canada. The bank will occupy 65 per cent of the tower, which will become the headquarters for two of its divisions – technical and operations, and personal and commercial banking.
Most of the 4,200 RBC employees who will move into the centre this fall work in older buildings on Front Street. The bank is moving toward newer, sustainable office space, and expects to have 60 per cent of its non-client-facing Toronto employees in collaborative, open-concept workspaces by 2016.
Their space in the new tower was designed with all of this in mind. "It really fit into our wheelhouse of what we want to do with all our buildings in Toronto – and globally," says Nadeem Shabbar, RBC's vice-president of corporate real estate.
The PATH link to Union Station was a "critical" part of the negotiations for the space, Mr. Shabbar says. The new segment extends above ground from the Air Canada Centre in the north to WaterPark in the south. With so much infrastructure to navigate around, the bridge is a necessary anomaly to the pedestrian system that's closer in spirit to Calgary's +15 pedestrian system than Toronto's.
Extending it to the waterfront was a process with a lot of moving parts – literally. Numerous stakeholders were involved, from city councillors and departments to private landowners, including Oxford. But it also includes a feat of design never before seen in Toronto: a bridge over Lake Shore Boulevard, hooked under the Gardiner Expressway, that's capable of sliding over five metres to allow for repairs to the expressway.
The moving parts were largely co-ordinated by local councillor Pam McConnell, who told The Globe and Mail that a PATH link was "the most important public-realm improvement that could be made" in those blocks south of Union Station.
It was a crucial part of Toronto's PATH master plan, says James Parakh, the city's urban design manager in charge of downtown. "It's a very good project – great for the architects and great for the city."
The office complex also balances the area's numerous condo towers. That, says Oxford's development vice-president Mark Cote, was intentional. "We had a lot of offers – people knocking on our door, wanting to build condo towers on this site," says Mr. Cote. "But we intentionally held them off because we wanted to create a true commercial complex and enhance the mixed-use nature of Toronto's waterfront, which we think is very important."