Don’t sell the Hearn
Torontoist has been acquired by Daily Hive Toronto - Your City. Now. Click here to learn more.




Don’t sell the Hearn

Losing the landmark would be an irreparable blow to waterfront redevelopment.

Turbine Hall inside the Hearn. (Photo rendering courtesy of Luminato.)

Back when the Hearn Generating Station was opened in 1951, it was the largest enclosed space in Canada: a cavernous, 400,000-square-foot hulk on the waterfront that powered the surrounding city, until it was decommissioned in 1995.

Under Mike Harris, the province deregulated its energy system, and the Hearn was rendered obsolete. Asbestos insulation and gigantic turbomachinery were removed, and in 2002, the site was leased to Studios of America, though it’s technically still owned by Crown corporation Ontario Power Generation. The original plan was to build a gigantic film production studio, but in 2006 the idea was scuttled, though the abandoned, industrial-chic space has featured in a few movies since then.

In the intervening years, all three levels of government have been collaborating on an ambitious revitalization of the waterfront, including the Port Lands where the Hearn is located. Projections suggest as many as 40,000 people will move to the area in the decades to come.

In 2016, Luminato spent $2.5 million to spruce up the place and turn it into the epicentre of the arts festival, complete with a theatre, music hall, restaurant, and beer garden. It was a thrilling spectacle unlike anything Toronto had really seen before, and a taste of what might be if we play our cards right when it comes to the Hearn.

Other cities have made similar calculations: in London, the Bankside Power Station along the Thames was decommissioned in 1981 and transformed into the Tate Modern, with its famous smokestack gallery space playing host to the world’s leading installation artists. During his time in Berlin, Luminato head honcho Jörn Weisbrodt was involved in plans to similarly repurpose the old East German parliamentary building.

Given Luminato’s success using the space, it makes this recent exchange during a committee hearing all the more shocking:

Fletcher asked if there is any truth to talk that OPG is in talks with Studios of America to sell the 16-hectare (40-acre) Lake Ontario site.

“I’m not aware of that,” Davies said, adding the Hearn is not among his files but he knew that, under its long-term lease, Studios of America would have first crack at buying the site if it is sold.

Fletcher continued pushing. “Are you telling me categorically that it is not up for sale, that the Ontario government is not planning, your shareholder, is not planning to sell that? … Has that been offered up, as many people have heard, as the province is now looking to sell the Hearn and it’s being offered first?”

Flynn-Guglietti jumped in. “I believe there has been discussions in that regard,” she said. Recently?, Fletcher asked. “Yes,” Flynn-Guglietti said.

While Studios of America has the right of first refusal when it comes to buying the land (thanks to the terms of their long-term lease), no sale would move ahead without the involvement of the OPG. The province, and by extension, OPG itself, should think long and hard before selling off such a valuable plot of land, one that has already proven that a second life for the facility is possible.


CORRECTION: The original version of this article misstated the size of the Hearn. It is 400,000 square feet, not 40,000.