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David Mirvish and Frank Gehry Versus Heritage Warehouses

A proposal to build a trio of Gehry-designed high-rises on King Street West may falter because of heritage concerns.

North view of Mirvish+Gehry. Image courtesy of Mirvish+Gehry.

For over a century, four warehouse buildings have watched their stretch of King Street West evolve from an industrial centre into an entertainment district. Whether those buildings stay, or are demolished to make way for the Mirvish+Gehry development, the fate of 266, 276, 284, and 322 King West spotlights the often agonizing choice between preserving heritage structures and erecting new landmarks in their place.

Tuesday’s Toronto and East York community council session will consider a report from the City’s planning division [PDF], which recommends that permission to demolish the quartet of heritage-designated warehouses be denied. The City’s planners feel that “despite the compelling vision the project represents,” demolition is a bad idea “due to the absence of conservation within the development proposal.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, site owner David Mirvish and architect Frank Gehry will speak in favour of the project, which would replace the warehouses and the Princess of Wales theatre with three towers ranging in height from 82 to 86 storeys. The mixed-use complex would include condos, high-end retail, offices, a satellite branch of OCAD University, and an art gallery housing Mirvish’s personal collection. The design incorporates wooden beams as a reference to the site’s warehousing heritage.

A removal of the warehouses wouldn’t be the site’s first radical makeover. Until the 1890s, the land was occupied by Upper Canada College. The elite school was eventually replaced by manufacturers who, in buildings erected between 1901 and 1915, produced products like baking powder, belts, and women’s undergarments. The Reid Building at 266 King West housed the forerunner of McClelland and Stewart, while the Eclipse Whitewear Building at 322 was the Toronto Sun‘s first headquarters.

Advertisement showing an early tenant of the Anderson Building, the Globe, July 27, 1916

Advertisement showing an early tenant of the Anderson Building, the Globe, July 27, 1916.

Following his purchase of the Royal Alex in 1963, Ed Mirvish, David’s father, gradually purchased the warehouses. Starting with Ed’s Warehouse in the Reid Building in 1966, Honest Ed ran a series of restaurants in his new properties, the largest of which sat 2,600 diners. Concepts ranged from Old Ed’s (meals served by senior citizens) to the politically incorrect Most Honourable Ed’s Chinese. In later years, the warehouses housed retailers, restaurants, and Mirvish-related offices. The warehouses received official heritage designation in 2010.

Among the ammunition Mirvish+Gehry is using to support demolition is a Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA) prepared by E.R.A. Architects. After considering several options, the HIA concludes that the warehouses could not be integrated into the new buildings without compromising the aesthetics and functionality of Gehry’s design. The loss of the warehouses, the report says, would be offset by benefits like increased institutional space and wider sidewalks along King Street. The HIA concludes that the development would retain the site’s historic connection to the Mirvish family, and would contribute significantly to Toronto’s culture.

“Heritage isn’t a black-and-white thing. It’s much more nuanced than that,” said E.R.A. principal partner Michael McClelland, during an interview with Torontoist last week. He compared the questions raised by Mirvish+Gehry to those sparked by the Aga Khan Museum and Ismali Centre in Don Mills. That project, scheduled to open in 2014, aroused controversy because its construction meant the demise of the modernist Bata headquarters.

McClelland feels that projects like the Aga Khan and Mirvish+Gehry contribute to the city’s evolution. When it comes to removing heritage structures to make way for these developments, “it’s not an easy choice,” he said. “It’d be great to have both, but that’s often quite difficult to do.”

Crowd waiting outside the Eclipse Whitewear building during a snowstorm, January 26, 1961. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 21.

The City’s report criticizes E.R.A.’s findings, noting that the consultancy’s research “does not provide a conservation strategy so much as it presents a rationale for why the public realm objectives of the proposed development are of greater significance than the existing designated buildings.” The City hired architect Phil Goldsmith to review the HIA. He admits that removing the warehouses provides freedom to design the new development, but warns that “that is not the reality of a mature City with a long history and significant heritage resources.” He also notes that without a survey of historic warehouse design in the city, it’s hard to assess the significance of the buildings. Goldsmith feels that the HIA underplayed the heritage buildings’ roles in contributing to the neighbourhood’s vibrancy.

Other concerns are also at play. In an October interview with the Star’s Christopher Hume, Jennifer Keesmaat, the City’s chief planner, said she was concerned that Mirvish+Gehry adds too much density and height, compromising the area’s quality of life. She felt the wooden beams looked “trite.” Hume countered that Keesmaat’s fears played into “the same timidity that has kept Toronto from achieving the greatness it so badly wants.”

But one person’s timidity is another’s caution. Preventing the demolition of the heritage warehouses could have any of a number of results. It could provoke Gehry and his associates into adjusting their design in a creative way that manages to preserve the buildings without compromising the project’s vision. It could also lead to a less desirable result, like the retention of a wall or two, without any context.

While Toronto has sometimes mourned buildings replaced by aesthetically inferior structures, we have also built landmarks like the Toronto-Dominion Centre on sites that otherwise had fine heritage architecture. While Mirvish+Gehry may end up paying little heed to conservation, it may tie into the development of nearby cultural institutions, like the TIFF Lightbox.

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