St. Lawrence Market North's Replacement Gets a Lot Less Ambitious
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St. Lawrence Market North’s Replacement Gets a Lot Less Ambitious

A new building planned for the site currently occupied by St. Lawrence Market North has apparently gone from cathedral to Quonset hut.

The 2010 design (above) and the 2013 design (below). Images courtesy of the City.

In 2010, the City unveiled a plan for replacing St. Lawrence Market’s bare, boxlike north building, a 1968 structure with none of the charm of its older and better-known companion across Front Street.

The 2010 proposal called for St. Lawrence North, used for Saturday farmers’ markets and other special events, to be demolished and replaced with a structure designed by Adamson Associates and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners LLP. The resulting six-storey edifice would have been highlighted by a glass atrium with a view of neighbouring St. Lawrence Hall, a separate green roof suspended over its main roof, and a system of adjustable external wooden louvres.

It wasn’t necessarily a great design, but it was definitely at least a solid “very good.” (Anyone familiar with the City of Toronto’s spending habits can already tell where this story is going.)

Often, in Toronto, even “very good” is a little extravagant. Here’s what the design looks like three years later, after the City had the architect alter the original plan to—and these are the City’s exact words—”meet the minimum functional requirements.”

Image courtesy of the City.

What once was a unique, ambitious design has devolved into what amounts to two enormous Quonset huts on stilts. The roof and facade have been simplified, the louvres—which were originally supposed to provide shade—are no longer made of wood, and they’re no longer adjustable. The building’s height has been reduced to five floors, and—although it’s been difficult to get details, because the architect’s office hasn’t returned calls and emails—it looks as though the interior ornamentation has been greatly reduced.

These new renderings are especially disappointing in view of the fact that the new St. Lawrence Market North will have a lot of civic importance. The bottom floors will still be a marketplace, but the top ones will be municipal courts.

A report that goes before the City’s government management committee on Monday says that the original design was plagued with cost issues virtually from the get-go. The original construction budget was $58.1 million, and Adamson Associates is now saying that even the new, stripped-down design will cost about $91.5 million to build.

To be fair, the original proposal was always in for some changes. The jury of experts that selected the Adamson Associates design from among five competing proposals in 2010 had qualms about the louvre system (“will be complicated to maintain and clean,” they wrote in their report), the roof structure (“overly complicated”), the height (“somewhat monumental”), and the materials (“should be reconsidered to be a little less polished in the urban fabric”).

Some of the essence of what was good about the original design—in particular, the atrium—is still there in the latest version.

But there remains a sense that the City is cheaping out on what could otherwise be a landmark. And this wouldn’t be the first time. Toronto’s history is full of architectural and infrastructural triumphs that never found enough funding to make it off the drawing board—so many, in fact, that they fill two books.

St. Lawrence Market North, in its current incarnation. Image from Google Street View.

Our political leaders are always ready to discuss allegedly tourist-friendly megaprojects, like casinos and convention centres, but it’s ultimately neighbourhood-level improvements, accruing over the course of decades and centuries, that turn a city into the envy of the world. Every crappy building we put up today is another crappy building future Torontonians will have to tear down once they grow tired of watching its concrete disintegrate.

If you don’t believe great architecture is a smart investment, consider this: if the original St. Lawrence Market North had been built, 45 years ago, as thoughtfully as its 19th-century twin, we’d be having a much less costly discussion right now. We’d be talking about preservation.