I have attended many community development meetings, in libraries, church basements, school cafeterias and gymnasiums. Most were raucous affairs, more like kangaroo courts than sober exchanges of views. The question of height is always the monster in the room, to an extent that equally important considerations, including engagement (or lack thereof) at street level, receive less attention than they deserve. In Toronto that discrepancy shows.
On Wednesday, March 11, I was directed to a place where I had never attended such a meeting: the Park Hyatt, where Mizrahi Developments’ plans for The One. the 80-storey, 318.6-metre tallest structure in Toronto, apart from the CN Tower, were unveiled.
The contrast in presentation was as stark as the contrast in location: coat check girls to die for (tips graciously accepted), canapés and cocktails, archipelagos of beautifully- dressed young people in an ocean of suits.
Sam Mizrahi launched the proceedings by clearing the foul air generated by his demolition of the beloved Stollery’s building at 1 Bloor West, beginning with the removal of its art deco masonry one Friday afternoon a few weeks back. Mizrahi insisted that, due to the building’s lack of heritage designation, his action was perfectly legal.
Fortunately for him, unfortunately for heritage, he’s right. It is remarkably easy to obtain a demolition permit for an undesignated commercial building in Toronto. If the recommendations proposed to Council by Councillors Josh Matlow and Kristyn Wong-Tam in response to the Stollerys demolition of are accepted, it may never be as easy again.
But with the destruction explained, Mizrahi introduced his trio of architects, members of the firm of Norman Foster. They took turns, describing the anatomy of what they promise will be a “game changer.”
If built as planned, Stollery’s replacement will be a game changer. Devoid of obstructive internal columns, meshed by an exterior lattice of girders, The One will be a giant. But, apart from its height and its striking appearance, The One’s greatest challenge to its high-end retail rivals will surely be its 8-storey retail podium, with walls of glass framed by the V-shaped trusses, that will be the visible foundation of the residential tower.
The podium of The One promises to be a crystal casket of luxury delights. Visible and easily accessible from the street, its aquarium-like transparency will be in stark contrast to the fortress-brutalism of the Hudson Bay Centre, kitty corner to The One.
The Hudson’s Bay Centre that has never seemed at home in its streetscape and will surely need a rebuild if it is to survive The One’s competition and that of the still only partially rented, strip-mall banality that is the street-level façade of the otherwise rather beautiful 78-storey Aura tower just south at Yonge and Gerrard.
The design of The One produced gasps but no dissent from the audience. But there were a few questions.
The stones of Stollery’s? Mizrahi was asked if they might be recovered, the day after they were crowbarred and sledgehammered away. This evening he sprung a surprise: He said he’d already provided Ed Whaley, President and CEO of the 114-year-old business, and the Stollery family, with a written promise that the stones will be incorporated into a monument that will be erected on the site of the new building, or in the Frank Stollery parkette at Davenport and Yonge, or both.
The rest of the questions that followed were as soft as butterfly kisses. Wind? Computer and wind-tunnel studies promised so no need for concern.
Height? Why build 80 storeys when you might build 140?
Footprint? Have you considered acquiring the H&M store and the ScotiaBank to the west (a cute little thing) so you can build larger? We are working with what we have, says Mizrah, but there does seem to be interest.)
And the clincher: Where do I register for an apartment?
That was about it, for questions. Every other comment from the audience, representative of two local residents’ associations included, was a paean of praise that brought rounds of applause.
Personally, I wonder how many high-end retail outlets Toronto has room for and I am a tad disturbed by The One’s elitist triumphalism.
But, like it or not, while there must be room and opportunities for all, a city cannot be a city without elitism, so long as “elitism” means yearning for the best rather than pretending to be the best. And if elitism cannot be allowed at Yonge and Bloor, where can it be in Toronto?
While I mourn the loss of Stollery’s, I am inclined to welcome the shock of the new that is promised by The One. I wished that a compromise similar to the one engineered by Foster and Partners in the Hearst Tower in Manhattan might be achieved.
But Mizrahi insists it can’t – the footprint of the site is too small. And, while it offers even less than the Hearst Tower’s facadist solution, I am pleased that the stones of Stollery’s will be preserved, with their memory of a period in Toronto’s history that has now all but vanished.
I am also pleased that the bold transparency of The One’s retail podium will force the builders of Toronto’s future – and its critics – to consider the importance, transparent or not, of engagement, grandeur, invitation, intrigue, at ground level, as well as height, in the shape of things to come.
But, how will The One mesh with City Planning’s ambitions for Historic Yonge Street that was published just one week after the Stollerys demolition? That will be interesting to see, as Yonge Street from the Frank Stollery parkette to College becomes a Heritage Conservation District, while elsewhere the canyonization of Toronto continues.
Does The One have the potential to become “heritage of the future”?
Mizrahi is on record as saying “Our goal is to build for the next 50 or 100 years.” Which does not sound like the ambitions of a developer who would make a lasting contribution to Toronto’s architectural history. But, 50 years 100 or more, The One will make a mark.
Richard Longley is president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario. The views expressed here are his own.
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