OMB rulings threaten the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood

Stig Harvor — 

The frantic Downtown building boom continues. Three new, tall and very dense Downtown projects are in the news. One is a large office development close to Union Station along Bay Street; two are condos in the sensitive St. Lawrence Neighbourhood.

The Bay Street project by Ivanhoé Cambridge is two very tall office towers with a connecting landscaped bridge spanning the railway tracks between them Stig1The 48-storey southern tower at 45 Bay will include a relocated GO bus station closer to the Gardiner Expressway. This is good for traffic.

Apart from GO buses, other long-distance buses are today farther north close to Bay and Dundas. They are not well connected to city public transit. They add to centretown traffic congestion. There is now a possibility these other buses may also be included in 45 Bay cresting a real central public transit hub. This location will also be connected to the future East Bayfront Light Rail Transit (LRT).

The 58-storey northern 141 Bay St. tower will be on the present GO bus station between the railway and the fine Classical Front St. federal office building. This tower will have a deep, 5-level underground public parking garage for 440 cars and also trucks serving the tower.

The garage access on Yonge Street is a problem. It directly faces The Esplanade leading into the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood. This stable, successful, mixed-income neighbourhood must be protected from more and heavy traffic.

New traffic lights on Yonge will control the garage access. But tricky means must be found to prevent or severely limit garage traffic from entering the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood via The Esplanade, the main street tying together the unique neighbourhood along the linear David Crombie Park.

The wide, landscaped bridge linking the Bay Street office towers seems innovative at first sight. Lush landscape drawings are seductive. But how will trees and plants grow in soil not well protected from winter freezing by the cold underside of the bridge? Also, how will the public be attracted to use the bridge far above pedestrian street level?

Another issue for the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood is a huge condo project by the Pemberton Group. The new project occupies a whole city block formerly occupied by Sobey’s and Acura Motors between The Esplanade, Front, Sherbourne and Princess streets.

Even as revised, this project is totally out of scale and density with the existing low- and mid-rise, well-planned, mixed-income neighbourhood. The project will have four tall towers of 33, 29, 27 and 25 storeys on a 10-storey podium base. This is higher than even the nearby area tallest-yet-to-be-built two 26-storey towers along Front at Sherbourne recently approved by the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) against city and community objections.

The developer has successfully used the now common developer tactic of filing an early threatening appeal with the developer-friendly OMB. This appears again to have achieved the desired effect of intimidating overworked city planners and the community to basically accept the ever-so slightly reduced project still not fitting the unique neighbourhood.

Another proposed project threatening the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood is 75 The Esplanade on the south side of the street on the Church Street parking lot. The north side of The Esplanade in this area has heritage designated, 4-storey original waterfront warehouses. They have attracted lively bars and restaurants with busy summer outdoor patios on the wide sidewalk.

The tall, new project of 34 storeys by Harhay and Carttera will shadow The Esplanade for part of the day. Adjoining it is the unusual Novotel Hotel built some years ago according to the then but no longer enforceable city zoning bylaw.

The hotel rises six storeys before sloping back for three storeys to keep sunlight reaching the street. (Novotel’s attractive sidewalk arcade, reminiscent of old European cities, will not be continued along 75 The Esplanade.)

Condos on the back, southern side of 75 The Esplanade will stare across a narrow, busy lane right into the 8-storey city community housing residence built on top of the high, 6-storey open and 24/7 brightly lit city public parking garage.

A better solution would be to replace the lower condos facing the garage with internal parking in its 8-storey podium. Such parking is much less expensive for the developer than a deep 3-level underground garage for 126 cars. Condos in the podium can still face The Esplanade and Church St. The incessant push for more density and height in downtown continues. The question remains: Will the boom continue or bust?
Stig Harvor is a retired architect

Clarification and corrections of Stig’s February profile in The Bulletin:
Stig was born 1929. He spent World War 2 in German-occupied Norway. He came to Canada in 1945 and moved from New Brunswick to Ottawa in 1959.

His Ottawa architectural firm Harvor and Menendez worked in association with Schoeler and Heaton on some notable projects. Later, Stig was involved in the design management of Place du Portage IV in Hull. He moved to Toronto in 1993 and took over retired architect and professor John Flanders’ column in The Bulletin in 2003.

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