Waterfront Toronto’s work so far: A critic’s report card

1) Canada’s Sugar Beach

Designer: Claude Cormier Landscape Architects (Montreal)

Client: Waterfront Toronto

Playful, magnetic and catalytic, Sugar Beach has reframed Lake Ontario as a place of epic, romantic dimensions. Stand on the silky sand underneath the pink umbrellas among the gurgling fountains and be convinced that the waterfront is, at long last, a magical place to be.

Grade: A+

2) Corus Quay

Designer: Diamond + Schmitt Architects

Client: Corus Entertainment

It could have been exuberant but, in the end, a glassy-eyed building envelope was hastily assembled by city land owner TEDCO to install the first commercial tenant on the East Bayfront. Waterfront Toronto’s design review committee pushed, to no avail, for an easily accessible public galleria through the eight-storey Corus building. Sadly, there’s a deadening north wall that is hardly inviting, though the public art and interior mega slide are entertaining and witty. Essentially, this is an incredible hulk of a building full of wonderful high-tech goodies, including three Toronto radio stations. A waterfront restaurant next to the building’s airy atrium provides the best seats in town for enjoying the theatre on the water passing by.

Grade: B-

3) Water’s Edge Promenade

Designers: Dutch landscape architects West 8 and Toronto-based DTAH

Client: Waterfront Toronto

Running directly alongside the waterfront edge from Jarvis Street to the Parliament slip, the one-kilometre promenade honours the monumentality of the lake with a walkway wide enough to accommodate a double allee of maple trees, finely crafted wooden benches and decent paving patterns. What’s invisible – but critically important – is the storm-water management system now built to allow lake water to speed into the Sherbourne Common Pumping Station.

Grade: A

4) George Brown College Health Sciences waterfront campus

Designer: Stantec/KPMB Architects

Client: George Brown College

Every bit as big as the neighbouring Corus building, but with more push-and-pull dynamic between its stacked glass boxes. The 3,500 students expected to study health and wellness there starting in September, 2012, will bring the building to life, along with state-of-the-art science labs and smaller, cheaper cafes to suit the student budget. The glass profile of a library on the upper levels adds some visual interest within a fine functional, light-filled construction. Otherwise, this is a conventional piece of contemporary that fails to match the wonder of the lake.

Grade: B

5) Sherbourne Common

Designers: Vancouver-based Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg; “Light Showers” (three nine-metre-high fountain fixtures) by public artist Jill Anholt; zinc-clad pavilion by Teeple Architects

Client: Waterfront Toronto

A cerebral $27-million park funded almost entirely by the federal government, brought alive by spouting, gushing lake water, cleaned in underground tanks by a sophisticated ultraviolet system. The park, split in half by Queen’s Quay, is slightly awkward in plan, and the curvy washrooms pavilion, though beautifully crafted like a gateway sculpture, lacks drive-by pizzazz to instantly attract people into the park. The trees are lush, the ipe-wood benches are handsome and the light showers are lit up in a mesmerizing blue at night. For Frisbee enthusiasts, there’s plenty of green space to frolic, or ride a bike through the water spouting over the splash pad.

Grade: A-

6) Parkside Condominium, in design development

Designers: Moshe Safdie and Associates; Quadrangle Architects Ltd; Janet Rosenberg + Associates; Cecconi Simone

Client: Great Gulf Group of Companies

Rising from a one-acre site at Queens Quay East and Lower Sherbourne Street this 36-storey tower will be a welcome deviation from the glass-fish-bowl approach to Toronto condo design. Parkside draws on some of architect Moshe Safdie’s early daring with concrete (Habitat, Expo 1967) but is too polite to allow for true innovation. Instead, Toronto is given a condominium with a masonry base, weighty podium presence with a six-storey atrium and green terraces inserted on terraces throughout the tower. An architecture that achieves a level of elegance without trying too hard, this is Mr. Safdie’s first project in Toronto and will include a daycare facility, low-end market housing and family-sized units, as well as a sustainable design to meet LEED Gold certification, making it a worthy neighbour to Sherbourne Common located directly to the west. Construction to start in 2012, with occupancy slated for 2015.

Grade: B+

7) Bayside Development (ongoing design development)

Designers: Arquitectonica (residential building) with master planner Cesar Pelli

Client: Hines

Somebody must have been asleep at the wheel to think that a postmodern pastiche was going to sail through Waterfront Toronto’s design review committee without a hitch. The 10-storey condominium is to be located directly east of Sherbourne Common with a prime location overlooking the water. The use of Ontario limestone in decorative vertical pilasters is bizarre next to a grey-glass curtain wall. What might have been a lyrical piece of lantern architecture set next to the water is merely a boxy volume separated off from the rest of the long building. The Winter Garden is a nice touch in a cold city like Toronto and, if the correct human-scale is figured out, could serve as a lush refuge for Torontonians, much as the palm-tree-filled atrium by Cesar Pelli does at the World Financial Centre in lower Manhattan. The Arquitectonica team is now reworking its design, to be resubmitted to the review panel later this fall.

Grade: B-

8) 3C Lakeshore (designs to be released later this fall)

Master plan architects: Foster + Partners, U.K.

Client: Cityzen Development Group, Castlepoint Realty Partners of Toronto and Continental of NYC

After interviewing starchitects such as Santiago Calatrava, Christian de Portzamparc and Rem Koolhaas, the Toronto owners of 3C Lakeshore appointed British mega firm Foster + Partners to master-plan the largest single parcel held privately on the Toronto waterfront and previously owned by Home Depot. Technically falling outside Waterfront Toronto’s borders for the East Bayfront, this plot of land is bordered to the north by the Distillery District and the Gardiner Expressway; the critically positioned site overlooks the Keating Channel to the south – which has the potential to become Toronto’s own Venetian canal. The massive silo complex, built in the 1940s by E.P. Taylor Victory Mills company to house soybeans, but now owned by Castlepoint, rises to the west of the property with Cherry Street to the east.

“We’re embracing our immediate neighbourhood,” says Castlepoint’s Alfredo Romano, who was a philosophy and religion academic before becoming a developer. “It sounds romantic but you have to walk a site and listen to it.”

A pedestrian bridge is being considered for the 3C development site along with some iconic towers and low- to mid-rise housing. As an homage to the original Gooderham and Worts distillery, “Whiskey Beach” is being designed by Montreal landscape architect Claude Cormier to complete the enchanting triad of sandy beaches along the downtown lakeshore. The question is whether the acclaimed London-based Foster’s will bring its star power to re-activate a remarkable, urban and historically loaded site or whether something middling will result. Local talents Peter Clewes and Bruce Kuwabara have been hired by the 3C developers to weigh in as architects of particular buildings and to temper, perhaps, any wildfires from, say, the mall designer Eric Kuhne – a 3C consultant tasked with figuring how to best deploy a city requirement for providing 300,000 square feet of commercial space on the 13-acre site. As a sideshow, and unbeknownst to the 3C developers, he recently silver-tongued his way through a city hall presentation on how to re-image the Port Lands, with a patchwork of borrowed ideas, including the London Eye Ferris wheel. How boring the world would be if cities were merely mirror images of each other. Far more enduring are those developments in any city that tap into deep local roots. For Toronto, that means tuning into a culture of tolerance, diversity and open-minded investment – all in the spirit of a New World city.

Grade: TBD

Lisa Rochon

Photos by Bloomerism.

Related Project

3C Waterfront

Castlepoint Numa, in partnership with Cityzen Development Group and Continental Ventures is currently transforming a 13.5 acre site into a sustainable destination—creating an innovative mixed-use community demonstrating a commitment to design excellence, connectivity and placemaking.