It used to be in Toronto that height was the number one issue when considering new buildings. That's not necessarily so anymore; many people now would rather talk about how a project meets the street, as the shadows cast by point towers typically move around, sundial-like, quickly enough. In the case of Mirvish+Gehry on King Street West, preliminary plans indicate that the street realm will be more than taken care of and we need not worry too much about that. Instead, here the big issue has been heritage.

This evening will see the third public consultation meeting about the Mirvish+Gehry proposal at Metro Hall. This will be the first since various reports on numerous aspects of the proposal were published to the City's Planning Department website. One of those reports is by E.R.A. Architects, the well-respected Toronto heritage preservation specialist archtiectural firm, which deals with the history of the buildings on the property that would have to come down for Mirvish+Gehry, and for the area as a whole. No doubt the report and its conclusions will be the basis for much of this evening's discussion.

King Street West, from the TIFF Bell Lightbox to the Royal Alexandra, Apple MapsKing Street West, from the TIFF Bell Lightbox to the Royal Alexandra, image from Apple Maps

Another heritage-related exchange about the proposal occured at the second public consultation at Metro Hall in February between David Mirvish and Margie Zeidler. Zeidler is the owner of two prominent heritage buildings in Toronto, the restored Gladstone Hotel in West Queen West, and much closer to the Mirvish+Gehry proposal, business incubator 401 Richmond West. Ms. Zeidler rose during the Q&A portion of the consultation to ask local City Councillor Adam Vaughan and proponent David Mirvish some questions. Both Ms. Zeidler and Mr. Mirvish spoke passionately about their concerns, and we present the rather remarkable exchange for your consider today.

Margie Zeidler: "We bought 401 Richmond Street, which is two blocks away, 20 years ago when this neighbourhood was really desperate. Warehouses were being torn down in the middle of the night because landowners couldn't afford the taxes on them. Then a clever thing happened in 1997 thanks to Barbara Hall and Jane Jacobs, who created a new zoning for this area, which as I understand was meant to protect heritage buildings from being torn down, to provide a new enterprise zone, and to allow more uses to happen. What has happened is something that Jane Jacobs talked about a lotwhen she said where gentrification becomes vicious and in fact we are destroying the very things that have made the neighbourhood interesting."

“I do want to say that I applaud the idea of bringing Frank Gehry to Toronto. I think that he’s a brilliant architect and I think it will be very exciting to have a standalone building designed by him here, and as for beauty being in the eye of the beholder, I think the plan is coming along to be quite beautiful. I also think it's magnificent that David Mirvish will share his extraordinary art collection. It will be a very important [gallery] to have in this city.”

“I try not to be a NIMBY. I try to embrace change, but I'm not excited about is what is starting to happen—it happens every time we do another of these [Entertainment District] towers—we are going to lose every single warehouse building in this district. You know that there was no tower here above 40 storeys before TIFF. Because of the fabulous public amenity that the developers offered, they were allowed to build a 40-storey tower. Then other developers came forward, and also wanted to build 40-storey towers, but the Planning Department answered ‘but you’re not giving fantastic amenities the way they did’. The OMB said ‘too bad’. So now, the new normal is 40, soon the new normal will be 80. Despite the fact that something significant will be given back to the city by David Mirvish; the OMB doesn't care about that; the precedent will be set."

401 Richmond Street West, image from Google Street View401 Richmond Street West, image from Google Street View

MZ: “I don’t care whether the towers are 20 or 80 storeys high, but the taller they become, the more valuable the sites become, which means that my building can't exist anymore - our taxes have gone so high that we will have to tear down our building or sell it so that it can become a development like (that) because it's being valued based on that. It’s really tragic.

Adam Vaughan responded to Zeidler's concerns about the tax situation.

"The way that MPAC works, the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, the crown corporation that assesses properties, is a critical issue. It is fundamentally important to get a Provincial response on this. I wrote to Kathleen Wynne on these issues before she was running [for Premier], and the other leaders as well. It needs to be changed."

"Heritage buildings in this neighbourhood are all being assessed as if they have 40-storey as-of-right densities and they get taxed as 40-storey buildings with or without redevelopment. We have seen tax bills jump courtesy of Mike Harris and the Conservative approach of market dictate in this city. We have seen tax assessments go from 8 to 23 millions dollars on 4-storey buildings overnight, smaller buildings like 401 Richmond. This is unacceptable. It's using speculation to force people into bankruptcy and to force sales, and then the only way you can pay your taxes is though an application that looks a lot like this. This is why the Heritage Designation needs to be dovetailed, brought into place at the same time as tax reform around that issue."

"When you have a heritage building and it's locked in as a designated building, we advocate that your assessment should be frozen at that point. The City will never lose money on you, it just won't gain money through speculation. The return for stabilizing your taxes is that as revenue grows in your building it gives you the dollars to do restoration work needed inside your building. Stabilizing the tax base for heritage buildings in particular is one of the ways to get at this process, combined with the heritage conservation district we can put an end to this practice and preserve the warehouses you are speaking of.”

“In terms of where we are at, the primary issue which requires resolution on this site before anything else—as discussed in the eyes of the Planning Department—is the heritage issues that you have identified must be resolved to their satisfaction. Those conversations have yet to result in an agreement, but we understand the argument you are making about the creative jobs that are housed in these buildings. We understand that the heritage impact on the street is a significant one and needs to be under consideration. They have not resolved this issue; it's the issue that's first and foremost in the Planners minds as they start to talk about this building.”

MZ: How long before these iconic sculptures are hidden by another 50 buildings of the same height—that won't themselves be iconic because, well, they don't have to be?

AV: “The follow-up to TIFF was M5V which offered no public amenity and was built lot line to lot line.  We fought that twice, once at the OMB, once at the Divisional Court, and we lost on that front. I share your concern. When you build what is effectively an Eiffel tower in this neighbourhood, which is effectively what this is, it can only be the only one. Hopefully, if we come to a conclusion on this, it's the last building of this height in this context, and we bring in very restrictive heritage guidelines to stabilize the rest of the properties. Quite frankly I think it's time for the development industry to move to another neighbourhood, hopefully another ward!”

“The challenge we have is that the OMB is not supposed to site precedent, but it does, and when does, it does damage the neighbourhood, not just physical damage but also economic damage to the neighbourhood too. And as long as we have that Conservative era policy guiding planning in this province, we are in a very precarious position. Not just in this ward but right across the city.”

Mirvish+Gehry with surrounding Entertainment District projects, TorontoMirvish+Gehry with surrounding Entertainment District projects, looking southwest


MZ: "I’m also concerned that a significant piece of heritage fabric in the city is being torn down without even a discussion. Most of the buildings in this area are not as nice as the ones [affected by this proposal], most of the buildings are pretty plain factory buildings, so there won’t be as good an argument for saving them. Some are really significant. So, why here? Why is the only way to get a Frank Gehry stand-alone building is to tear down a piece of our heritage?"

“Margie, that’s an interesting question, and it’s one that I’ve wrestled with. It comes backs to I built the Princess of Wales, and now I’m looking to give it up. So why am I looking to do that?”

"If we look back historically at King Street, which was different from Adelaide or Richmond, and we ask what went on in the 1870s, at that time this street was most active part of the city’s public realm. The four corners of King and Simcoe were ‘Education’ at Upper Canada College, ‘Legislation’ at the home of the Lieutenant Governor, ‘Salvation’, at St. Andrews Church not the southeast corner, and ‘Damnation’, on the north side with the tavern and the rooms to let. The Royal Alexandra Theatre—more public realm—was built in 1907, and the Arlington Hotel was built at John and King. ‘Legislation’ stayed until the railroads expanded and bought up the south side in 1912, and the warehouses began to be built.”

“By the 1950s the area was desolate with marshalling yards on the south side of King, and the warehouses had won to the north. Warehouses are not friendly to the public realm. They are built with several steps up so you can have daylight in the basement so people can work all daylong down there. They don't invite activity in and out.”

“My father bought the Royal Alex in 1962 on the understanding that everyone else who had come forward to buy that building had wanted to turn it into a parking lot. He said ‘let me try to run this theatre for five years, and if I’ve succeeded by that time, I’ll continue.’ It was a dangerous thing to do, but as a shopkeeper he didn’t know better! So he kept the Royal Alex open 50 weeks a year, believing that theatre going was a habit that needed to be developed and he shouldn’t close down. In 1962 he asked the City if he could plant trees on the south side of King Street to improve the view and block our the train years. The City said, “Not on our land”. In 1965 he bought the warehouse next door and began to serve roast beef. By 1977 he was serving 6,000 roast beef dinners on a Saturday night. He ended up bringing ten to twelve thousand people a week into this neighbourhood.”

“It was a battle between the public realm and the railroads in this area. The railroads had won in 1963, but over the next decades my father reversed that, and the public realm ended up winning.”

“Now we are at the last point where we are asking ‘what is the intellectual heart of the Entertainment and Theatre District?’ That crossroads is the intersection of John and King. We will soon have a Theatre Museum. We have TIFF, and The Princess of Wales, the Royal Alexandra, and Roy Thomson Hall. I’m delighted to hear that Nightwood is coming in [to the Artscape space at Cinema Tower] because they are a wonderful theatre company. OCAD will have [in the first Mirvish+Gehry tower] a 250 seat space for lectures that will be convertible to performance art space that I intend to work with them on.”

OCAD U floor plan with inp-the-round lecture hall/performance space, ProjectcoreOCAD U floor plan with inp-the-round lecture hall/performance space, image courtesy of Projectcore

"I believe this location and Frank Gehry and OCAD and my collection will make a difference for identifying who we are. Architecture speaks to our identity, it identifies us in a moment." Great things are built at certain moments. One of the things that’s tickling me in working with Gehry, he's including trees from the ground floor to the fifth floor, maybe even the sixth. We need greenery Downtown and I’m going to have a vertical park of sorts. It would be like tying Frank’s hand behind his back and asking him to keep the theatre—and he did it, and we did drawings keeping whole warehouse buildings, and we did it with two towers by making one of them 111 storeys high, and we looked at many different solutions. In the end we asked ourselves, ‘How do we want to be thought of by the next generation. Who do we want to identify ourselves as?’ And yes, this is precedent setting. Let somebody else bring this kind of goodness to the public realm, and 50 years of art collecting, or a national identity with it. Let's see if they can match that if they’re going to ask for the same privileges. I regard this as a privilege, but I also regard it as heritage. The Princess of Wales Theatre was the only building named after the Princess in her lifetime, so we asked the Princes if they would allow the OCAD campus to have her name. They said ‘We are honoured to have our Mother’s name perpetuated in this community in this location’.
“So this location has a lot of history and importance attached to why Gehry, and why this spot, and why this combination of different activities. I can’t think of any architect I’d rather have who is more conscious of dealing with the public realm and who can give me five better storeys of public space ”

MZ: "So this building wouldn’t work a block further south?"

DM: "I’ve been here 50 years. I don’t own land a block further south."

MZ: "But you have control over this particular situation."

DM: "I'm the first private person who has been willing to make the type of commitment that's necessary to get Frank Gehry to come to this city or anywhere in this country, no developer has taken that risk."

MZ: So should we all tear down these [warehouse] buildings? Am I left having to tear down 401 Richmond West?

DM: I absolutely sympathize with you about the taxes. I understand what you’re talking about, and I think that’s where it needs to be addressed. I think you should have the right to keep doing what you’re doing. I do think the tax situation is unfair and I completely support you in that.

MZ: Are you able to promise us that you will remain as the developer of this property and Frank Gehry will remain as the architect? I understand you bought the Westinghouse property, rezoned it, and then flipped that. What guarantee do we have that you will remain a good developer here with Frank Gehry as a fabulous architect?

DM: "The initial conversation [about this project] was based on that, and that is the premise on which it's going forward."

MZ: "I take that as a promise."

Gehry Partners concept model for Mirvish+Gehry in Downtown Toronto, ProjectcoreGehry Partners concept model for Mirvish+Gehry in Downtown Toronto, image courtesy of Projectcore


There is more to say about heritage, and much more about the project in total. We will be back with more as the story develops. In the meantime, if you would like to learn more about the project, you will find several links below, including to earlier articles, to the UrbanToronto dataBase page on the project with several images of the plan, and to the Forum threads. Get in on the discussion by choosing a thread, or leave a comment in the space provided on this page.