Proposal for Honest Ed site a deal we can’t refuse: Hume
With 1,000 rental units and lowrise buildings, this is a development proposal unlike any seen in Toronto
It’s enough to make you think you’ve died and gone to … Toronto?
A development proposal from the new owner of the Honest Ed site at Bloor and Bathurst won’t please everyone, but not for lack of trying.
The plan, designed by Vancouver architect Gregory Henriquez with Toronto landscape architect Janet Rosenberg, is a continuation of the traditional city by other means. Where almost any other developer would have opted for multiple glass-and-steel condo towers dozens of storeys tall, Westbank, also from Vancouver, sees a largely lowrise to midrise scheme organized around a grid of laneways reminiscent of 19th century Toronto. A 29-floor tower at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst will anchor the scheme, which then drops down to 10 storeys and less.
It’s the kind of concept that will bring tears to the eyes of the most ardent urbanist, the most passionate city-builder, even the most devoted Toronto lover.
Planners must be pinching themselves; though they’ll find lots to complain about — they think that’s their job — this project is light years ahead of the usual development stuff seen in Toronto, where developers and their designers generally amuse themselves and buyers trying to think outside the architectural box.
Included in the Westbank proposal are 1,000 housing units — all rental — as well as small shops, a covered market and pedestrian pathways leading through the 1.8-hectare property.
From a civic perspective, however, what makes this scheme so remarkable are the lengths to which it goes to be part of the city, not simply occupy space within it. It accepts complexity and makes a virtue of it. Plans are preliminary, but there’s a conscious effort to recreate the contradictions and messiness of a city that grows and changes over time.
The only other local development proposal that shares this urbanist ethos is the Well at Spadina and Wellington. It, too, is based on the demand for downtown diversity.
This is the literal and philosophical opposite of the gated-community mentality that prevails throughout much of North America, even in cities. Instead of fear and loathing, the starting point here is a desire for density and its many benefits. None of that “Get your piece of the sky” stuff, either; this is down to earth, ground oriented.
Indeed, this proposal goes well beyond typical city demands; it will be interesting to see how Toronto’s planning geniuses respond. Chances are a scheme so hyper-urban will reveal how essentially suburban they really are.
Certainly, the architecture at this early stage verges on banality, though perhaps blending in is part of the strategy. Some will fret about the loss of heritage structures on the east side of Markham St. For others, the issue will be lack of open green space. Then, of course, there will be the familiar refrains about height, density, shadow and traffic.
But in this case, it’s safe to assume the benefits will far outweigh the drawbacks. As attached as Torontonians may be Honest Ed’s, its day has come and gone.
The beauty of Westbank’s proposal is the emphasis on variety. Above all, the attention to small things as well as big inspires confidence in this project.
It’s no surprise Westbank comes from a city where developers are held to a higher standard than they are in Toronto. Focused on results, Vancouver’s approval process is much less political than ours. Developers there seem to have grasped the fact that in the long run, adopting a city-building stance pays off.
It may cost more in the short run, but over time not only does real estate retain its value, so does the city.
This Article, by Christopher Hume, was originally published in the Toronto Star on March 4, 2015.