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A Conservative Outlook for Toronto Offices

Much has changed about Toronto since Paul Goldberger, as architecture critic for The New York Times, noted in a 1992 column that the city “hasn't been much of a place for architecture.”

Since then, an uncharacteristically adventurous agenda initiated C$1 billion worth of cultural facilities, including a Frank Gehry remake of the Art Gallery of Ontario and a Daniel Libeskind addition to the Royal Ontario Museum, that are underway. Yet Toronto will not quite retreat to its more subdued status quo next year when work begins on 3.1 million square feet of space in three office towers. Tall, sleek, and sedate, they are the first to be built in the downtown core since the early 1990s, when a recession froze office construction.

Brookfield Properties Corporation is resurrecting Bay-Adelaide Centre, a 1.1-million-square-foot, 50-story office tower with adjacent hotel and condo whose clock stopped 13 years ago; local architects WZMH designed the first scheme for Trizec Hahn, the original developer, and its subsequent incarnations. A 30-story, 780,000-square-foot tower, a joint venture of Menkes Developments, Hospitals of Ontario Pension Plan, and Halcyon Partners Fund, is designed by Adamson Associates in association with Sweeney Sterling Finlayson & Company. And the Cadillac Fairview Corporation will build a 43-story, 1.2-million-square-foot tower while also co-developing an adjacent 53-storey Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Residences; Kohn Pederson Fox Architects designed both buildings. All three projects will be completed by 2009.

Bruce Kuwabara, a founding partner of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, Toronto, and one of Canada’s most prominent architects, says the three new towers do not challenge the city’s architectural fabric because “after a long drought in office buildings, neither Toronto developers nor the market can make a big statement about design.”

The city’s entrenched conservatism is compounded by the unnerving memory of the early 1990s, when downtown Toronto’s office vacancy rate shot past 20 percent. While the three new tower developers landed the anchor tenants they needed to warrant construction, they are by no means heading into an unstoppable market that would handily fill the rest of the space.

In late September, a CB Richard Ellis Limited report noted that growth in the office sector had stopped nationwide, except for Calgary. Toronto’s vacancy rates during the second quarter rose from 8.7 to 9 percent, and CB Richard Ellis expects that rate to increase to 10.2 percent when the three towers are completed. “Developers looking to build new office towers in the downtown Toronto core are probably taking a hard look at office vacancy rates,” the report noted.

Even though neither the current crop of office buildings nor market forces promise to give Toronto office developments an architectural jolt in the near or even distant future, the three forthcoming projects do set a higher urban-design standard among the mainly undistinguished structures on the city’s skyline.

James Parakh, an architect and senior urban designer in the City of Toronto’s planning department, enthuses about their contributions to the public realm, which include new plazas and extensions to the downtown’s underground PATH system, the 4 million-square-foot underground shopping complex.

Kuwabara concurs, adding that the three towers will rebalance the mix of uses in the wake of a condo boom downtown: “It’s the vibrant mixed-use downtown that Toronto should be about, connected to the commuter line, with an urban design that emphasizes pedestrian connections.”

Albert Warson