Mark Osbaldeston Exorcizes Toronto's Architectural Ghosts
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Mark Osbaldeston Exorcizes Toronto’s Architectural Ghosts

Osbaldeston, author of Unbuilt Toronto 2, has made a side-business out of digging up plans that went awry.

Unbuilt Toronto 2's cover. Image courtesy of Dundurn Press.

There’s a concrete pad in front of 52 Division (east of University Avenue and Dundas Street) where the police park their cruisers. Lots of people know that it was originally intended to be a public space. But Mark Osbaldeston, whose second book of local city-planning nonstarters, Unbuilt Toronto 2, was released on October 24, discovered in the course of his research that there’s a lot more to the story.

The original plan, he told a crowd during a lecture in the ROM’s Signy and Cleophee Eaton Theatre on a recent weeknight, was for the pad to be the start of a grand promenade that would have provided pedestrians with a sightline directly west on Dundas Street, from University Avenue to the Art Gallery of Ontario. The City came up with the scheme in 1963. “The tragedy is they came so close to achieving it,” he said.

Making the promenade happen would have required the City to assemble four plots of land. Within a little more than a decade they’d secured two of the plots and built 52 Division on a third, with the pad there to serve as a placeholder for the eventual widening of the sidewalk leading up to the gallery.

But the last block, at Dundas and St. Patrick streets, had a private owner. The City tried to raise the money to buy it, but neither Metro nor the province would pony up.

The plan was scuttled once and for all in the ’90s, when a developer built a midrise on the fourth plot, sundering the connection between 52 Division and the AGO and leaving the concrete pad as a vestige. If you go to University and Dundas now and look west, you’ll see nothing but the façade of the midrise’s ground-floor indoor mall, called The Village on The Grange. The AGO, with its Frank Gehry façade, is hidden from view. It is, as Osbaldeston said, a tragedy. (See the Streetview map, below, for proof.)

The view from Dundas Street looking west.

The only other remnant of the plan is a small colonnade on an OCAD building on the southeast corner of Dundas and McCaul streets. Osbaldeston showed the crowd a picture of it on a large projector screen.

“I’m sure that the OCAD students who use this place have no idea that it was the last pathetic gasp of this grand scheme from 1963,” he said.

Unbuilt Toronto 2 only mentions this episode in passing, but it contains plenty of similar stories, all dealing with plans for major corporate and civic landmarks, all of which went awry. The cover image (above) is a rendering of a proposed extension to the Royal Ontario Museum that would have been erected on the current site of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, had it been built as planned, in 1910. The book also goes into some detail about the first of many times Toronto failed to build a subway line. That was in 1912. The proposal—which would have resulted in the creation of a network of tunnels between Front Street and St. Clair Avenue—was, as Osbaldeston tells it, killed in a referendum because voters thought it was too costly, at $5.4 million. (Subways now cost billions, so Toronto arguably passed up a bargain.)

Osbaldeston is a lawyer at Ontario’s Ministry of Finance. He does his historical research as a sideline.

“Before I ever went to law school I was interested in history,” he said during an interview. “I’ve always been particularly interested in architectural history.”

His interest in plans that never came to fruition might seem ghoulish on the surface, but he thinks his books can be instructive. “Sometimes even the original intentions of these plans get lost,” he said. In the right hands, he added, his type of research can act as a bulwark against shortsightedness. “You need people around that are willing to take that long view.”

“It’s also priorities. People look at a city like Chicago and say it looks great. It doesn’t look great because that’s the way it happened. It’s because that was a priority for them.” Toronto, he believes, has been plagued by parsimony almost from its inception. One recent example is the flap over the Fort York bridge, almost killed by council because of its $26-million price tag, and now undergoing a cost-conscious redesign.

But this is also the city that built—and maintained—landmarks like Union Station and Old City Hall. “We haven’t done everything wrong,” Osbaldeston said.