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West end project could bridge Queen-King divide

JOHN BENTLEY MAYS

The interesting controversy over what's to become of the little wedge of industrial land south of Queen Street West, between Dovercourt Road and Gladstone Avenue, continues.

On one side are several developers who, like many other investors putting money into downtown Toronto real estate these days, want to raise big residential condominium towers. Opposing them are local residents and their allies -- including numerous artists and designers, and some formidable urban design experts -- who want their stretch of Queen Street kept low and hospitable.

As it happens, the residents have very good arguments on their side, and, if sensible urbanism plays any part in the deliberation, their arguments should prevail when the high-rise proposals for Queen West come before the politicians. Tall residential buildings make good sense in many parts of Toronto -- on important thoroughfares such as Yonge Street and Bloor Street, for example, and almost anywhere in downtown's largely under-populated east side. But if there is one place in town where city hall should be holding the line on existing height and density restrictions, it's the disputed former factory district along Queen.

While the battle goes on, however, things are hardly standing still in the area.

Landmark Building Group (a label of Urbancorp, the important residential developer) recently opened its Westside Lofts sales centre across from Queen West's Drake Hotel. This exuberantly quirky box-within-a-box (designed by British architect Will Alsop) will be used to market what was, until recently, a townhouse scheme.

Now in its final version, Westside Lofts -- a handsome work in the restrained Modernist manner by Baird Sampson Neuert Architects -- will feature 414 condominium units, ranging from studios to two-bedroom apartments distributed between two buildings separated by a greensward. On the ground floor of the structures, 35 live/work units will open directly to the street -- a reply to the often-repeated appeal of local artists for amiable spaces for doing and marketing their art. The general sense of the two loft buildings is low-slung and horizontal, while the surface of each is enlivened by a dancing pattern of brightly coloured vertical fins -- a kind of brise-soleil screen reminiscent of architect Le Corbusier. Nearby residents will probably find little to complain about here, because the project fits neatly within the mid-rise guidelines for its lot.

The business activities of Urbancorp in the Queen West area have created an unusual condition: a pairing of properties exactly opposite each other across the railway line that cuts diagonally between King and Queen streets. Mr. Alsop gets the credit for coming up with the simple, excellent idea of connecting the two Urbancorp developments by means of a bridge for pedestrians, people in wheelchairs and cyclists. If approved by the city, the bridge will be the first new linkage between Queen and King since the 19th century -- a neat, quick and inexpensive stitch in the urban fabric that's strong and welcome. At the north end of it will be Westside Lofts.

At the south end will be Mr. Alsop's first important Toronto project since the Sharp Pavilion at the Ontario College of Art and Design, and a charming piece of work it is. The proposed scheme includes a 19-storey condominium tower -- a merrily coloured composition of terraces and walls that seem to flutter in the wind -- pushed five storeys off the ground by needle-like columns. A park at the east end of Urbancorp's property on the south side of the tracks will scoot under the tower. If all unfolds according to plan, this arrangement could turn out to be one of Toronto's best new public spaces. It could become an urban playground for adults and children alike, a green space kept safe by the coming and going of homeowners living in the delightfully surreal tower, a new sheltered nook that makes good use of an awkward urban corner generated by the raking angle of the railway corridor across the urban grid.

Key to the success of the park and tower -- and, for that matter, of the redevelopment of the whole area south of Queen Street -- is the bridge. It should be promptly approved by the city, and quickly built. When it comes into existence, the north and south parts of the district will cease to be the isolated tracts of dead-end streets they are today, and become, instead, adjacent pedestrian zones stretching from Queen Street south to King, and, we hope, beyond King to the Lake Ontario shoreline. Like the low-rise development recommended by neighbourhood activists opposed to the towers, Mr. Alsop's bridge just makes good urban sense.
 
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