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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.


  • dsmithhfx

    Wind-blown trash clinging to three abandoned, high-rise skeletons or heritage.

    Gee, that’s a tough one.

    • vistarox

      Well consider the alternative.

      If this project isn’t built, it will almost be certainly be sold to another developer. And that the development would put up three more ugly glass boxes of exactly 157 meters, which the planners will gladly approve.

      So what would you rather have? I’d take the one designed by a world class architect that will add significantly to the architecture of our city,

      • dsmithhfx

        So in your stunted view, we get to choose between ugly and more ugly? No thanks.

        • vistarox

          Well I personally don’t consider Frank+Ghery ugly. But you’re entitled to your opinion.

          And to answer your question, yes, those are our options. You’re kidding yourself if you think nothing will be built on those sites in the next 10 years.

          • dsmithhfx

            What is “Frank+Gehry”?

          • vistarox

            My bad. Edited out.

  • Astin44

    Maybe if they went with someone other than Gehry they could find a way to incorporate these into a different design.

    In the end, we’ll end up with more facadism, or the heritage buildings gone.

    • vistarox

      I’ll take Ghery over more lazy façadism. He’ll contribute far more than an ugly facade ever will.

      • OgtheDim

        Unlikely, as these building will not be finished until he is near 100.

  • vampchick21

    I still don’t like the design of these buildings.

  • scottld

    The Bata building was my favourite in Toronto. I dreamed of some day living it. What replaced it is nowhere as cool.

  • Rick City

    I normally don’t like Frank Gehry designs, but I love these building proposals for some reason. It’s always sad to tear something down, but these new buildings could be something special.

  • HotDang

    Why did they stop making buildings with concrete exteriors? Is it cheaper? More marketable?

    I’m just thinking about some of the beautiful buildings around town like City Hall or Robarts Library and thinking that such buildings aren’t built anymore. I guess in twenty or thirty years people will look back and ask why there are no new crumpled glass buildings.

  • user xyyyz

    The buildings along the north side of King W are non descript buildings and do not really add much to the visual of the streetscape. Golf Town, Philthy McNasty’s, Tim Hortons and a Sports Memorabilia.. c’mon folks really? I think the whole package of the Mirvish proposal far outweighs the retention of these old warehouses. There are a lot of warehouses around and most people don’t even express interest in seeing them or these.

    My only request would be that the buildings be dialed back to a scale more in keeping with the King corridor. Eighty stories of residential puts incredible demands on older infrastructure such as water and sewage. How about 40 – 50? King West needs this more than non descript warehousing. Go to Liberty Village or the Distillery District if you want to look at warehousing. Those locations are far more interesting.

  • DavidPylyp

    We want and need construction an growth in Toronto. We need more residential space. Apply at the OMB Go forth and Build….

  • iamrobfordsaneurysm

    We can barely manage to build square boxes who’s facades don’t leak like sieves, or shed chunks of glass. These? I don’t know…and you couldn’t pay me enough to try and wash the windows.

  • gbcinques

    True, much like the simplification of the brilliant ROM Crystal, to the ROM Dingy Garden Shed.

    • dsmithhfx

      The Twister in a Trailer Park©

  • MleB1

    Dear Mr Mirvish – I appreciate that you may have got these designs on the
    cheap as cast-offs from a fanciful and now bankrupt sultanate somewhere
    in the Gulf, but how are these appropriate for Toronto on King Street W?

    Perhaps building yourself an island in the shape of your ego in the
    middle of Lake Ontario and placing them there would be more appropriate?

  • liminal69

    Gehry’s designs are beautiful and it would be a shame not to build them just to keep the unremarkable existing structures. Heritage preservation is great, but needs to be balanced against what is gained by new development on a case by case basis. In this case, the new proposal offers much more in the way of both function and aesthetics than what currently exists.

  • OpportKnocks

    Are the supporter aware that these 3 structures are 60% taller than the largest residential towers in the city?

    Check the same article for a full list of the number of buildings under construction and approved in the city. There will definitely be a condo price recession before the Mirvish vanity project is completed.

    These towers are also taller than the biggest of the downtown bank towers. The city is absolutely correct to tell them to “get real” on height and density before being seduced by the celebrity architect’s name. Does anyone really think Gehry (at 84) will be around to see this to completion.

    • OgtheDim

      Although I agree on the height issues, I’m not sure providing a list of current buildings helps your cause.

      We have a LOT of really ugly nondescript high rises in this city.

    • Mark Joseph

      Yes, I am aware of the height. Their height will be a welcome addition to the core and our skyline. Why not build taller buildings? Why not intensify in the core within 500m of the Subway?
      Are you aware that the tallest buildings being built in the middle east are 200 stories tall. Are you aware that in multiple cities across Asia there are many, many buildings under construction that are 100+ stories. We are not doing anything dramatic from a height POV and the design of these buildings really is quite interesting. Frankly, I don’t understand the opposition.

      • rich1299

        Why have a relatively small area of extremely high density with low to medium-low density throughout the other 95% of the city? Medium density spread throughout Toronto or even just along its “avenues” from the official plan can easily more than meet the growth needs of Toronto. We are not a mega city like they have in some parts of Asia that have 10-20 million or more people jostling for space. We have plenty of room throughout the city for massive growth yet..

        I don’t get why some like the idea of ever taller buildings just for the sake of having ever taller buildings. Medium density spread throughout the city would support better transit all throughout the city. Medium density also provides a human scale that makes walking along those streets so much more pleasant than the huge towers. We don’t need any more sanitized glass/concrete canyons like we have in the financial district, its an awful area to walk around with very little of any visual interest.

        Besides which there is a glut of office space already on the market and condo projects are even slowing down as it takes longer to sell enough to start construction. There’s just no need for these massive towers.

    • innsertnamehere

      FCP is bigger, much, much bigger if you are going by square footage. Height wise it is taller as well.

    • Jim

      I have to agree with you. It is a vanity project. I am sick and tired of Gehry. If you want something new get some of the new young architects. Check out some of the exhibits put on at UoT Arch School. Get a design competition happening and put something in that location that suits the location, the neighbourhood, and the people. This might fly dtown but not in a cool area like this.

  • innsertnamehere

    Robarts is very nice, but most concrete buildings aren’t.

  • Kenn Chaplin

    Toronto will take no lessons from Vieux-Quebec or Montreal, bulldozing historic buildings into an ever-changing, little of it public, waterfront. If it’s not shiny and impractical it doesn’t pass the inferiority complex.

    • vistarox

      It’s a huge stretch to call these warehouses historic.

      • Kenn Chaplin

        In Toronto, anything over one hundred years old and in salvageable condition should be treated as heritage/historic because most of what was not destroyed in the great fire(s) has been demolished by developers or left as pods for condo towers.

  • rich1299

    I agree, this stretch of King St. is quite lovely as it is largely because of the variation and the heritage buildings. Toronto needs to grow outside of the downtown area. It’d be ideal to have medium density all over the city, or at the least along the “avenues” which have more than enough infill space to meet the future growth needs of Toronto at medium density. I don’t get the desire to build taller just for the sake of building taller. As a pedestrian I much prefer more human scaled buildings that make streets like Queen and Yonge a pleasure to walk down especially in the cold months when getting a bit of sunshine can make a lot of difference.

  • nevilleross

    Let him build this in Scarborough, North York, Etobicoke, East York, or York, when they need the development and density-then the idiots who voted in Rob Ford and want ‘subways, subways, subways’ can have their stinking subways due to the intensification that would occur. Let King be as it is.

  • phlox

    I like to call it facadomy…

    The Concourse building and all its art deco-y goodness (AND the mosaics, intensely gilded plasterwork, etc.) will now be mounted, lifeless, onto some giant blue glass shitbox forever.