Mixed uses converge at the Junction in Toronto

Originally published in The Globe and Mail. Erik Heinrich.

Alfredo Romano is the first to admit a soul-crushing process that careens dangerously close to failure and burns years off your life can sometimes have a happy ending. At least that’s his conclusion after overcoming one obstacle after another, in a journey at times resembling the Labours of Hercules, to build a new community in Toronto’s old Junction Triangle.

“I’m the first to admit we achieved a better result from all the years of hard negotiating,” says Mr. Romano, president of Castlepoint Numa, a Toronto real estate developer which also has large holdings on the city’s waterfront.

When it’s complete, Castlepoint’s eight-acre site, called Lower JCT, is expected to be a vibrant, mixed-use community with 1.1 million square feet of office, retail, residential and cultural space. There will be a total of seven buildings, 32 townhomes, parks, affordable housing, a daycare and bike paths – all contained on a parcel of former industrial land sandwiched between GO train tracks and within walking distance of two subway stations and streetcar lines in the west-end Bloor Street-Dundas Street corridor.

Lower JCT is a joint venture between Castlepoint and Toronto-based private equity firm Greybrook Realty Partners, which has placed more than $1-billion of investments over the past several years, mainly in Toronto and Miami. Equitable Bank is providing construction financing for the first two phases of Lower JCT.

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The Tower Automotive Building, a 10-storey heritage structure erected in 1919, will remain the neighbourhood’s signature motif and tallest building. It will be anchored by the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto Canada (MOCA), which is relocating here at the end of the year into the first five floors (50,000 square feet) from a much smaller space on Queen Street West.

Mr. Romano envisages that a large number of his commercial tenants will be companies in the arts and digital media, drawn by the pull of MOCA. “I would like to say this was all inspired by a grand design, but that wasn’t the case,” says Mr. Romano, whose own career in real estate can be summed up with exactly the same words.

After finishing his master degree in history and theology at Harvard, Mr. Romano was accepted at McMaster University in Hamilton to complete a multidisciplinary PhD in 1985. He never started because he had a life-changing epiphany while filing his tax return. He counted five T4 slips from as many teaching institutions, with no full-time position as a professor in sight. So at 31, Mr. Romano took a job on Bay Street and soon started Castlepoint with his cousin, Mario Romano.

By 2008, Castlepoint was a successful developer but on the losing end of a bid to construct film studios in the Port Lands on Toronto’s eastern waterfront. It rebounded by buying the Junction property in the west end with plans to build rival studios. However, the Port Lands were soon in financial distress, so Castlepoint partnered with Paul Bronfman (whose Montreal family is famous for creating the Seagram liquor brand) and ROI Capital to buy out the owners. Today Pinewood Toronto Studios is a Hollywood-calibre facility with 10 sound stages and special effects capabilities.

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With the Port Lands once again in play, Castlepoint had to find an alternate plan for its South Junction ambitions, and in 2011 submitted a blueprint to the City of Toronto. Nestlé Canada immediately objected to residential housing being built close to its chocolate factory on nearby Sterling Road. The city’s planning staff agreed and Castlepoint’s proposal was quashed almost as quickly as it had been unveiled. “We were in a pitched battle with Nestlé over the future direction of the area,” Mr. Romano remembers. “It got nasty.”

Resident groups supported the idea of revitalizing a desolate brownfield site that had been home to an Alcan aluminum factory for about 80 years, but certain conditions had to be met. At least a dozen meetings with stakeholders followed. Finally Castlepoint took its plan for the South Junction to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), which has the power to overrule municipalities in development matters.

All the stakeholders, including Nestlé, sat down at the same table and hashed out their differences. The key sticking points centred around the Tower Automotive Building. The city insisted no structure on the site exceed its height, and Nestlé wanted it rezoned to commercial from residential. Castlepoint conceded both points.

“The Automotive Building is an iconic structure and we’ve restored it to the highest standards,” says Mr. Romano. “With so much character it’s important that it maintain its prominence. That’s the smart approach.”

To satisfy the community, Castlepoint agreed to add porches to its townhouses so they would mimic older homes along Perth Avenue in the Triangle. The pedestrian network was improved for safety and better access to GO and airport express rail lines. And two privately owned public spaces totalling 20,000 square feet were added to supplement a public park already in the master plan.

“The key was finding a way to communicate each other’s needs,” says Mr. Romano. “Beyond the noise there were some real issues. Once we dealt with them, problems got solved.” The OMB approved the project in May of 2014.

“Everybody complains about planners grinding things into submission by process,” says Mitchell Kosny, associate director at Ryerson University’s school of urban and regional planning in Toronto. “But this is an interesting example where process probably led to a better result.”

Mixed-use communities are essential to making Toronto livable, says Dr. Kosny, noting the city gave away too much of its waterfront to condo developers in the 1990s, from York Quay to Bathurst Street, to encourage construction. “There’s a long history in this city of development being a right rather than privilege,” he adds.

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Castlepoint’s Lower JCT is helping return the South Junction to its original purpose, when in the first half of the past century it was a multipurpose community of factories, workers’ homes and baseball diamonds.

“The idea of separating industry from residential is nonsense,” says Mr. Romano. “We’ve forgotten our industrial heritage. People like to walk to work, but it’s a luxury in Toronto. We need more mixed use.”

The design of Lower JCT is being handled by a consortium, led by Toronto’s architectsAlliance. For the first phase of construction, the firm modernized the interior of the stripped down Tower Automotive Building (renamed Auto BLDG), leaving the bones and mechanical systems exposed. It also designed a new 168-unit condominium named Museum FLTS, scheduled for completion at the end of 2019. Townhouses designed by Tact Architecture will be completed in early 2018.

“The challenge is making a contemporary residential building with regard for 19th-century industrial vernacular,” says Peter Clewes, principal at architectsAlliance, describing his approach to Museum FLTS. “But doing it in a way where you have a different take on it.”

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To achieve his goal, Mr. Clewes positioned a grid of punched aluminum screens over the exterior of Museum FLTS, thereby turning a portion of each balcony into what he describes as a semi-private “outdoor room.”

“We had a great debate over that,” remembers Mr. Clewes, who is also the architect behind Toronto’s new Four Seasons Hotel and condo tower in Yorkville. “At first it was seen as an impediment to marketing of the building.”

On the subject of turning industrial spaces into creative centres, Mr. Clewes says Lower JCT represents the “third wave” of an evolution that began decades ago and has revived a number of Toronto neighbourhoods, including Liberty Village and the Distillery District.

First the artists move into an industrial zone because rent is cheap and create a hip community of galleries, cafés and bars, explains Mr. Clewes. This attracts designers and architects, who are drawn by the creative vibe, but who inevitably displace many of the artists. Then digital media companies move in, pushing aside the designers and architects. Can we expect a fourth creative wave of urbanization any time soon and what will be its source? “I have no idea,” Mr. Clewes concedes.

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To amplify the idea of a mixed-use community, Castlepoint will create 20 to 50 affordable housing units for lower income families to rent. The final number will depend on the city’s input.

“I agree 100 per cent that a portion of every new residential development should include affordable housing,” says Mr. Romano. He estimates that if over the past couple of decades Toronto had required condo developers to designate 10 per cent of the units they built as affordable, the city would today have a stock of some 20,000 additional rental homes that do not currently exist. (Lower JCT will also have 90 daycare spaces.)

“If you believe in mixed use, affordable housing should be integral to any new development,” says Dr. Kosny at Ryerson. “If we don’t force developers to get on board now when times are good, we never will.”

Since Lower JCT was formerly the sight of an Alcan factory, a huge effort has been made to clean up contaminated soil with the help of multinational mining giant Rio Tinto Alcan. Mr. Romano won’t say how much the reclamation work has cost, but concedes it’s in the millions of dollars.

Lower JCT is a 10-year project expected to wrap in 2025. In the meantime, Mr. Romano will be moving Castlepoint’s headquarters into the Tower Automotive Building (renamed Auto BLDG) above MOCA at the end of this year. “It’s such a great structure,” enthuses Mr. Romano, who has paid close attention to its restoration.

Mr. Romano may be a former theology scholar, but he lives according to a pragmatic philosophy: It’s better to be lucky than smart. Lower JCT is perhaps a rare convergence of both.

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