Sunday, 15 January 2017

Dominion Public: Uncertain Future for Another Iconic Toronto Building

Dominion Public Building (Phase 1), 1934
Source: Toronto Archives.
Dominion Public Building, 1955
Source: Toronto Archives.
A landmark building in Toronto went up for sale recently, and it's got me on edge.

The Dominion Public Building (DPB) was built between 1929 and 1935 at 1 Front Street West, a decade after Toronto's third and current Union Station was built immediately to the west. Once a customs clearing house, it became a centre for federal tax administration for decades. Both the DPB and Union are signature examples of Beaux-Arts architecture that was prominent throughout Canada in the 20th century. More importantly, both buildings represented grand and beautiful buildings that were at the centre of and instrumental to Toronto's entrance into the modern era.

But while Union Station has been, for the most part, carefully protected from a brutal, careless and impatient smashing together of old and new construction, the DPB faces less certainty. Speaking to the CBC, developer and real estate broker Brad Lamb outlined how the location, size and beauty of the DPB will likely attract a major player with deep pockets. "There are very little limits to the height here. There's no reason this can't be super tall," Lamb said. While it is zoned for a commercial-residential tower up to 137 metres, there are plenty of existing and proposed buildings above that (excluding the CN Tower) to help push it higher, including (proposed in italics; under construction underlined):

  • L-Tower - 2 The Esplanade (205 m, 59 st)
    Buildings in Toronto`s Financial District
    Source: Ivanhoe Cambridge
  • Brookfield Place - 181+161 Bay St (261+207m, 53+49 st)
  • TD Centre - 66 Wellington St W, 77 King St W (223+183 m, 56+46 st)
  • Commerce Court - 199 Bay St, 25 King St W (239+145 m, 57+34 st)
  • First Canadian Place - 100 King St W (298 m, 72 st)
  • 1 King St W (176 m, 51 st)
  • Maple Leaf Square - 15 York St (181+171 m, 54+50 st)
  • Harbour Plaza Residences - 90 Harbour St (237+228 m, 67+62 st)
  • ICE Condos - 14 York St (234+202 m, 67+57 st)
  • Ten York - 10 York St (224 m, 65 st)
  • Union Centre - 20 York St (238 m, 48 st)
  • Bay Park Centre - 141+45 Bay St (265+238 m, 54+49 st)
  • Toronto Star Lands - 1-7 Yonge St (304+263+217+150 m, 95+80+65+35 st)
  • 55 Lake Shore Blvd E (304x2+264x2+255m, 85x2+80+79+70 st)

Allen Lambert Galleria, Merchants' Bank building
Source: Author
This is where my fear stems from. A major player with deep pockets may look to maximize the magnitude of their development, crashing it into as much of the DPB as possible. While it is currently a classified federal heritage building, on the City of Toronto's heritage register and part of the Union Station Heritage Conservation District, there are (too many) precedents in Toronto of tasteless mashing of large scale condos and office towers to give any comfort. Even though no one in their right mind would dare to propose alteration of the facade along Front Street, it is the sides, back and interior that may face assault.

I think some hope lays upon the approach taken across the street at Brookfield Place. While the block has two massive towers, it includes the Allen Lambert Galleria. Within it, one will find the Merchants' Bank building, which was built in the 1890s. Originally located on Wellington Street, it was moved and integrated into the Galleria.  The same approach could potentially be taken by the developer of Bay Park Centre, Ivanhoe Cambridge, which is proposing a two-tower development on either side of the Union Station Rail Corridor immediately south of the DPB.

I`m sure if Ivanhoe Cambridge would propose expansion of their tower at 141 Bay Street in a manner that created a public galleria and a relatively unmodified DPB, it would be welcome by the City, urbanists and built heritage advocates. It would be way more optimal than a senseless stacking of an unimaginative glass rectangle on top of such a beautiful structure.

But it is merely an idea. And it would be dependent on Ivanhoe Cambridge having the drive to preserve the DPB, as well as having the commitment and money to not be outbid by someone else. It`s hard to have hope in such a situation. 

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