I saved St. Lawrence Market from demolition in 1971

johnWhen you invade someone else’s turf unexpectedly, you often get yelled at. That happened to me when I appeared recently at a city hall committee to say I didn’t like the design of a new building proposed for the site of the North St. Lawrence Market.

I thought I had some obligation to speak out since one of the very early events of my political career was to stop city council from demolishing the South St. Lawrence Market for a parking garage.

That was 1971, and the renovation of the South Market was the beginning of the turnaround of the area, including the building of the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood later that decade.

Then, in 2003, when city council showed no interest in arranging a celebration of the 200th birthday of the farmers market on this site, I arranged a night of readings and music about Toronto in St. James’ Cathedral. So when a new structure was proposed, I thought I had some credibility in speaking out.

Thinking of a structure to replace the 1-storey Market building has a long history.

A working committee of local interests was established more than 10 years ago, and it thought of the idea of a building that included city court space above the Market on the ground floor. The committee convinced city hall to hold an international competition, which gave the prize in 2010 to a tall and rather gawky 6-storey structure.

One interesting element of the proposal was an atrium running right through the building so that if you stood on Front Street at the front door of the South Market, you could see the cupola on the top of the historic St. Lawrence Hall.

The city had allocated $76 million for construction, but the prize-winning building could not be built for that amount, and there were operational concerns as well.

For the last three years staff have been negotiating with the architects to modify the design (and lower the cost), and the staff report on this modified proposal was what I spoke to at city hall.

I said the modified design was too bulky and unattractive in a historical part of the city where many fine buildings in this area have been retained and refurbished, such as those on the east side of Jarvis Street. On the south side of King Street just west of Jarvis, a new structure is brilliantly compatible with the older buildings on either side.

The St. Lawrence Hall, built in 1851, continues to be an architectural and historical gem. The Market Square apartment building to the west is a very appropriate architectural addition to the area.

As well, the cost of the modified design is $91 million, which means additional funding of $16 million needs to be found. I asked the committee to stop the process, noting that sometimes committees decide that for all the work they have done they need to agree on something, even something that isn’t good enough. I said, stop and rethink.


Councillor Pam McConnell was furious with me for intervening and questioned why I had never discussed my concerns with the working committee, and wondered if I was saying the last 10 years of work should amount to nothing. (Members of the working committee made the same comments to me a few days later.) But I had only become aware of the plans a few days before the committee meeting and didn’t have time to contact anyone.

It was as though I should not have expressed my opinion.

The committee agreed to stop the process and not agree with finding another $16 million.

This matter goes to city council in July. I think a more compatible design can be found by forgetting about the atrium which allows the cupola to be seen from Front Street. That would cut at least a floor off the building, permit a flat rather than a Quonset-hut roof, and probably bring the cost within the $75 million that has already been allocated.

That for me would be the preferred resolution for the North Market site.

John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto.