Honouring his parents at Honest Ed’s site
David Mirvish has ‘nothing but praise’ for plan to rebuild city corner
For too many developers, the legacy that matters most is the one that’s counted in dollars.
For David Mirvish, impresario, art collector, city-builder and accidental developer, the legacy that counts is the one that comes with being the son of “Honest” Ed Mirvish, easily the city’s most beloved retailer.
Aside from keeping locals entertained for decades with his publicity stunts, in the 1960s Ed Mirvish single-handedly saved the Royal Alexandra Theatre from demolition. In so doing, he struck a huge blow for the city’s cultural life and laid the groundwork for what’s now the Entertainment District.
The younger Mirvish’s commitment to his family’s civic history is most obvious, perhaps, in the elaborate project now being planned for King and John Sts. Designed by one of the world’s most sought-after architects, Frank Gehry, the two-towered scheme will include condos, an art gallery, an Ontario College of Art and Design University satellite facility, and several floors of shops and restaurants.
Nothing like it has ever been seen in Toronto. Easily the most ambitious development proposal in this city since the Toronto-Dominion Centre in the 1950s, it will become one of those rare structures that define a community.
But then there’s Honest Ed’s itself, the store, at Bloor and Bathurst Sts. It will eventually be torn down to make way for a mixed-use complex so enlightened that people — and neighbours — actually like the proposed development. In a city awash in NIMBY-fuelled fear of change, such a positive response is rare, if not unique.
Though no one has mentioned it, the developer who bought the 1.8-hectare site, Vancouver’s Westbank, was chosen from a number of potential buyers. After all, not often does a large property such as this come up for sale. Sitting on one of the city’s busiest corners, served by subway and streetcar, it is close to everything.
The choice of buyer was Mirvish’s to make. “I knew the rest of the buyers were big-box builders,” he says.
“But I really did think Westbank was different. They took the time to figure it out. Their plan has an enormous amount of variety. It shows great commitment to the city.
“They’ve consulted with everyone,” Mirvish continues. “It preserves small and independent retailers and pedestrian access. I have nothing but praise for them.
“I’m proud of what they’ve done. I believe they’ve done honour to my parents.”
What makes this proposal so completely different from the usual developer fare is that it takes its cues from the urban context — not just economic necessity. This is a densely populated part of town characterized by a diverse building stock. Partly highrise, partly lowrise, residential and commercial, the Bloor and Bathurst nieghbourhood is a place people live, work, eat and shop. It is an urban village but connected to the core and open to everyone. It is specific and generic at the same time.
It’s clear Westbank has taken this mix of uses, sizes, scales and building types to heart. It is their starting point, their Alpha and Omega. The intention is to recreate the look of a neighbourhood that grew up over decades and has witnessed many different approaches.
The design will be handled by Gregory Henriquez, of Vancouver. His challenge will be to avoid the monotony and deadly sterility of the mega-project, of traditional urban renewal. That means using various architectural styles and materials. Some buildings are steel and glass; others are more traditional with brick walls and pitched roofs. Three highrises — 29, 22 and 21 storeys — are included, the tallest to occupy the corner of Bloor and Bathurst Sts., an anchor. In all, 40 structures will be built, many lowrise.
Several laneways will bisect the site and provide access to stores, housing and a covered market in the centre of the site. Most surprising of all, however, is the fact there will be no condos, only rental apartments, about 1,000; half of them with two, three or four bedrooms. The message is simple; families are welcome.
Let’s not forget: Honest Ed’s by any other name is a big-box store, one of the first and decidedly more authentic than those that followed. But where there was one very large discount store, now there are hundreds and hundreds. Torontonians will be sad to see the place close (in 2016)., which may account for the interest in the neon signage that has illuminated the corner since 1983.
Honest Ed’s was always more than a discount outlet; it played a role in the lives of countless Torontonians. Those days are gone and the store will follow soon enough.
But if ever a development story had a happy ending, this is it. Or should that be beginning?
This article, by Christopher Hume, was originally published in the Toronto Star on March 20, 2015.