Mirvish Village architect has social justice, grassroots background

The redevelopment of a $100-million, 1.8-hectare parcel of real estate packed with history and nostalgia in the heart of the Annex will not only set the tone for future projects in the neighbourhood, but the very nature of the community itself.

Successfully transforming the site at Bathurst and Bloor streets that includes Honest Ed’s and Mirvish Village will necessitate balancing corporate interests, local expectations, and civic responsibility, yet it’s a challenge that Gregory Henriquez believes he can meet.

He also sees the project as an opportunity to model a new approach to city-building in Toronto.

“I bring fresh eyes, an idealistic sense of wanting to do something different than what’s been traditionally done in development communities,” said Henriquez. It will be the first Toronto-based project for the managing partner of Henriquez Partners Architects, the Vancouver-based architect that developer Westbank Projects Corp. tapped in September to oversee the site’s redesign.

Westbank and Henriquez have collaborated before, most notably on the Woodward’s Redevelopment, which the architect said is “a comparable project in terms of importance.”

Occupying approximately 11 hectares in the West Hastings area of Vancouver, the Woodward’s Redevelopment is one of the largest mixed-use projects in that city’s history, and one of the most inclusive. It includes a public plaza, urban green space, civic offices, retail space, a daycare, an extension of Simon Fraser University’s downtown campus, and non-profit community space, as well as 536 market and 200 non-market housing units.

Like Honest Ed’s, Woodward’s was once a department store, and fragments of the century-old building were incorporated into the redevelopment, along with homages to the store’s distinctive landmark sign. It took Henriquez Partners six years to complete, and included several rounds of community consultation aimed at developing a project that was sensitive to the needs of all of its stakeholders.

Such community-based development is at the heart of Henriquez’s methodology. The architect started his career in social housing, social-justice oriented, and grassroots projects, and that sensibility informs his aesthetic.

“In the old days, there was no distinction between ethics and poetics,” explained Henriquez. “In order for something to be beautiful, it also had to be ethical. Nowadays, something can be beautiful, but not necessarily good for the world.”

Making something beautiful that’s also “meaningful for the communities we’re involved in” is the architect’s way of redressing that balance. It’s also why he believes he’s the right architect to bring this project to fruition.

“I wouldn’t have taken on this project if I didn’t feel some sense of camaraderie,” he said. “The Annex has similar values to ours: left-leaning, social activism, environmental stewardship.”

He’s been thinking about how to incorporate what emerged from Westbank’s yearlong community consultation on the future of Markham Street and Honest Ed’s, the latter of which he views “as an extension of Mirvish Village.”

“It’s a unique site, with a unique history, and amazing potential. I really want to keep the history alive.”

Although nothing is cast in stone, Henriquez believes “the integration of Mirvish Village and Markham into the project will be essential in terms of the public realm.” He also notes that the “fine grain retail in the neighbourhood was something people want to keep,” and is considering establishing a St. Lawrence- or Granville-type market, as well as the tenability of doing purpose-built rental across different scales, including live/work and artist studios, in lieu of condominiums.

And, “I am still grappling with a way to tell the [area’s] story,” admitted Henriquez. “I want to find ways that, in terms of the program, bring back what the place is about in spirit.”

The architect said the people he has met with so far have been very positive.

“I am impressed with the entrepreneurial and non-profit spirit of the people I’ve met in conjunction with the project. I’m looking forward to making something really meaningful that will be there for the next hundred years.”

Henriquez is still working on the planning schedule with the City, but anticipates doing some public consultation on his initial ideas in February or March, and submitting a rezoning application later on in the spring.

“Mirvish Village architect has social justice, grassroots background” by Annemarie Brissenden was originally published in The Gleaner Community Press in Toronto, Ontario on February 16, 2015.

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