How the Hearn Pushes the Possibilities for Adaptive Reuse in Toronto
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How the Hearn Pushes the Possibilities for Adaptive Reuse in Toronto

Luminato transforms the “sleeping beauty” of the Port Lands into a cultural hub…for now.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Remember when Doug Ford called for a Ferris wheel on Toronto’s eastern waterfront?

The proposal was inconsistent with Waterfront Toronto’s long-term plans for the area and inspired grassroots opposition. However, Ford’s idea highlights the challenges of adaptive reuse: how can we incorporate former industrial sites into growing cities?

The Hearn Generating Station is one piece of the puzzle in the Port Lands that Ford thought he could solve with a monorail and a megamall. Opened in 1951, the power station was once the largest enclosed space in Canada and is still owned by Ontario Power Generation even though it was taken out of service in 1995.

Other communities have also experimented with what to do with disused power stations. The results run the gamut from absurd to artistic.

Wunderland Kalkar is an example of adaptive reuse in line with Ford’s 2011 vision for the waterfront. The German town of Kalkar is home to a nuclear reactor that was completed in 1985 but never used. After a decade of uncertainty, a developer bought the site and turned it into a 136 acre amusement park. Today, attractions are built into the old reactor and visitors have the chance to climb the cooling tower and ride rollercoasters between the smoke stacks.

London’s Tate Modern offers another approach to adaptive reuse. The Bankside Power Station was closed in 1981 and turned into an art gallery that attracted 5.7 million visitors in 2015. The size of the Hearn makes a similar conversion unlikely: at 40,000 square feet the Hearn is three times the size of the Tate Modern. Plus, Toronto already has an art gallery in a former power station. The building that now houses Harbourfront’s Power Plant gallery generated electricity until 1980.

But if the Hearn is too big for an art gallery and too small for an amusement park, this year’s Luminato Festival offers a hint at how the site could be used in the future. For 17 days in June, the Hearn will be a hub of arts and culture, featuring everything from a queer hip-hop dance club to parkour workout sessions.

Jorn Weisbrodt, Luminato’s artistic director, sees the Hearn’s size as an asset because it allows for open and inclusive programming that brings together art forms and audiences that don’t usually share the same spaces. Weisbrodt also knows a thing or two about adaptive reuse: he lived in Berlin for 12 years and was involved in an initiative to open up the former East German parliament building for cultural purposes.

But he is adamant that the transformation of the Hearn is “unique in the world” and cannot be compared to any other project. Instead, the industrial beauty of the Hearn is an chance for the city to find confidence in itself because, in Weisbrodt’s words, “Toronto constantly compares itself to other cities and belittles itself at the same time.”

For this reason, the adaptive reuse of the Hearn represents a big opportunity. The Port Lands is set to welcome 40,000 people in the coming decades. Flood management is well underway and transit is an important next step but the Hearn could become a centre for the new community and a place of pride for the entire city.

Luminato has invested an estimated $2.5 million to create three key performance spaces, including a 1,200 seat theatre, as well as other features such as a beer garden and pop-up restaurant. But the festival will last less than a month so despite significant investment and ambitious ideas, the future of the Hearn is uncertain. Ontario Power Generation leases the site to Studios of America, which in turn leases to Luminato and other groups, primarily for film shoots.

Studios of America’s lease could be extended until 2041, and the Hearn could continue as a neglected but photogenic film location as the Port Lands grow up around it. Or, the Hearn could become a place that is publicly accessible all year round and connects a new development to the waterfront while anchoring the city in our industrial heritage.

Luminato is a crucial test to see if the Hearn can generate sustained interest in alternative uses for a space that is as intimidating as it is enormous. Part of Weisbrodt’s work has been building partnerships with other cultural institutions that have expressed interest in the Hearn and he admits, “it would be great if it didn’t go back to its sleeping beauty state.” Let’s hope that this summer Toronto wakes up to the potential of the Hearn.