News / Toronto

Is Toronto making most of development windfall?

The city is in the middle of an unprecedented development boom, the kind that will redefine the skyscape for decades to come and critics are calling for visionary architecture to define that landscape.

“This kind of opportunity to develop a city in the broad terms that we’re developing it now is very rare,” said Alexander Josephson, principal at Partisans Projects, which is leading the interior design of Union Station’s renovation.

Towering glass structures are shooting up downtown at an almost unmatched pace. There are about 150 buildings going up in the city right now, according to Urban Toronto founder and owner Edward Skira.

The value of building permits issued by the city surpassed $15 billion in 2012 and again in 2013. Through November 2014, the latest data available, the value stood at more than $14 billion.

It’s that kind of spending that brings in the likes of Norman Foster — who created London, England’s iconic Gherkin building and New York’s Hearst Tower — to transform the southwest corner of Bloor and Yonge.

Sam Mizrahi, developer and owner of the site of the former Stollerys building, has said Foster will design a new high-rise development at one of the city’s most prominent intersections.

It’s a big opportunity, and the city needs to welcome it with open arms, Skira said.

“This is a big shot, world class architect,” said Skira. “Give the developer the leeway to open up the space, and if the city allows Foster to do what Foster can do, no one will ever remember the Stollerys building.”

But whether the city really wants a dramatic, standout building — like the pickle-shaped Gherkin — is another matter.

Josephson argues city input watered down Frank Gehry’s design for a new development on King Street West, and he worries the same could happen to a Foster project.

“If the city puts shackles on the process, the city is going to get a mediocre building,” he said.

It’s a criticism roundly rejected by city planner Jennifer Keesmaat. Even Gehry likes the revised plan — which includes two taller towers instead of three shorter ones — she said, adding: “He sent me a thank you letter for helping his team deliver a better project.”

In a moment where the city is “fundamentally transforming before our eyes,” Keesmaat said she isn’t interested in welcoming “ego architecture.” She’s focused on creating a livable city where the architect responds to the needs of Toronto.

“Great architects don’t just want to plunk down a vanity project in the middle of a city,” Keesmaat added.

Still, the Norman Foster project has the good fortune of falling on a “signature site” – locations where the city is open to more skyline-defining works.

“That’s a really critical site, so it absolutely is a site where you can do something special and something spectacular,” Keesmaat said.

The TO Style

Toronto is known for an architecturally conservative bent, said architect Robert Levit, who is also a professor at the University of Toronto.

Of the hundreds of condos and developments rising from the streets, few are considered groundbreaking. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some standout projects.

They include:

  • Frank Ghery’s AGO renovation
  • Work done by Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the ROM
  • The new Goldring Centre at the University of Toronto

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