Fear and hope for Queen West

Proposed RioCan building at Queen West and Portland

The approval last week by the City’s committee of adjustment of a mixed-use retail and condo development, including a big-box home improvement retailer (probably Home Depot), on the parking lot at Queen and Portland has prompted renewed angst about the ongoing corporatization-homogenization-gentrification of the Queen West strip, notably the creeping spread of this corporatization west of Spadina. East of Spadina, this trend has been accelerating in recent years with the construction of cheap glass boxes for large clothing retailers (H+M, Zara, Mexx), with American Apparel leading the charge west of Spadina.

But the story is actually more complex. In some ways, this new development marks a turning point away from homogeneous corporatization towards, at least, some kind of balance. Three years ago, this plot of land would probably have been turned into a tall condo building with a single large, glassy big-box store on the ground floor, mangling the character of the area. But, as I wrote in NOW magazine in early January, thanks to a combination of the ambiguous ownership of a laneway right-of-way through the property and the new Queen West Heritage District designation that applies from University to Bathurst, this new development will respect the building heights along Queen Street, and will include five separate retailers in different sizes of store on the ground floor along Queen (the big home improvement store will mostly be on the second and third floors). As well, there will be residential units along the Queen Street frontage, with a residential entrance.

It’s not perfect, obviously (the chances are that even the small storefronts will be occupied by chain stores rather than local independents), but it was inevitable that something would be built on this property, and the resulting building is about as close to fitting into the street as one could hope for from a large-scale modern development. Its aesthetics aren’t great, in my opinion, but in a lot of ways what’s most important is the structure of the building.

The Queen West Heritage District designation identifies key elements of the structure that creates Queen West’s lively character:

– 2-4 storey buildings (not too high, so that sunlight gets in; not too low, so that the street is defined);
– mixed uses (retail, commercial, residential) to keep life on the street at all times;
– narrow storefronts to allow visual variety and interest and provide affordable space for varied retailers;
– mostly glass ground floors with inset entrances to provide transparency and connection to the street, but mixed materials on the upper floors to provide visual interest.

It’s interesting to note, in fact, that a fair number of the remaining independent stores along Queen West are actually in modern buildings — but ones that were built to fit the street. These buildings are not particularly attractive, in general, but they work because they were built according to some or all of these principles. Think, for example, of the building Pages is in. Another example is 431-437 Queen West, just west of the new H+M. It’s modern and not especially pretty, but the narrow storefronts house a variety of small shops, and the residential balconies above create a residential presence on the street without overshadowing it, helping to maintain a diverse retail and residential presence on this rapidly corporatizing part of the street.


431-437 Queen West (just before H+M went up on the left)

One of the good things about the new heritage designation is that it not only preserves all of the old buildings (well, at least their facades), but it also governs how new buildings will be built. At a meeting between local councillor Adam Vaughan and property owners that I attended last summer, a splenetic property deal-maker beside me muttered about socialists and claimed that this designation would promote the “Disneyfication” of the street — meaning, I assume, pastiche fake-Victorian facades. But the existing modern buildings that fit the street, and the plans for the new RioCan building, show that it’s perfectly possible to conform to these guidelines in a modern way without resorting to pastiche facades. The key thing is the structure of the buildings, as described above, not their style.

The Heritage designation is crucial because it creates a better chance that Queen West will remain mixed between corporate chain stores and independents. Before it came in, there was a danger that the retail chains were going to, as the saying goes, kill the goose that lays the golden egg. They were moving there because Queen West had a genuine character that was far more interesting than the generic malls where these stores have most of their outlets. It’s why they put stores on Queen West when most of them already have stores close by in the Eaton Centre. They gained credibility by association, and reached a wider variety of customer. But by colonizing the strip, pushing up the rents, demolishing older buildings, and widening storefronts, they at the same time were pushing out the independent stores and losing the distinctive look-and-feel that was a key reason they, and their target customers, moved there in the first place. The heritage designation, and other potential measures such as floor-plate size restrictions, create the possibility that this previously out-of-control process will be reined in. While gentrification will inevitably continue, it may proceed in a more balanced way that maintains some independent presence, and keeps some of the interesting character of the street.

The next step will be to see if Queen Street west of Bathurst can get a heritage designation as well.

Addendum: I meant to add that the Queen West Heritage District designation has the potential to serve as a model for similar studies to maintain the character of other successful older retail strips in Toronto, which are real assets for the city.

The Queen West Heritage District has the potential to be groundbreaking because it is the first such designation for a retail rather than residential district in Toronto.

29 comments

  1. Meh, design’s nothing spectacular but will probably be refined. Generally, though, I like the concept and the mixed-use-itude. And that we are getting rid of a really ugly surface lot.

  2. Yeah, I can’t think of anything that looks worse and disrupts a streetscape more than a big lot of parked cars.

  3. Just another mediocre looking building for Toronto, but I agree with Matt; It’s better than the grey lot that’s there right now.

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  4. This is an excellent post! So much more info than I ever get in those often brain-dead other blogs (yes you Torontoist and BlogTO!). They report on topics that they only have surface knowledge about, while Spacing seems to have a strong grasp on the reasons and forces behind these decisions. That’s called journalism, which sadly the other blogs in this city do not really possess.

    That rant aside, This is a Toronto-like solution: not the best end-result, but good enough. But I think this sets a precedent for other developers to follow. And it give counciillor Vaughan something to hang his hat on and show other development applicants what can be accomplished when the surrounding community gets involved.

  5. Why are people so anti-development? As long as developers build half-decent buildings, that is mixed use, with a half-decent appearance and no parking lots in front, we should approve them. Unnecessarily stalling pedestrian and transit friendly developments in the old city encourages McMansions and strip malls with giant parking lots in the suburbs, where standards are much more lax. Development has to happen somewhere.

  6. Andrew>> Not sure if you’re directing anti-development at this post or the comments >> because this post seems to support your feelings on the subject.

  7. I dont think this building even comes close to fitting into the area.The buildings to the east and west are victorian style fascades and give a special charm.”good enough” doesn’t make it in my books. But I guess when dealing with this council the flavour of the area isnt an issue.

  8. it seems like the problem with this proposal isn’t the building itself, which is probably a great compromise, but with how this building measures up to the potential of that space. The building sounds pretty good but maybe we are just disappointed because we can no longer dream about something spectacular which could have been.

  9. It’s not going to be a highlight of any architectural walking tours, but it could raise the bar for “big box” stores. If one can fit into the streetscape on Queen, there’s no reason why new ones being built elsewhere in the city have to be completely hostile to pedestrians.

  10. It would be silly to try to “match” the new building to the existing Victorian facades so that it fits in. That’s definitely getting into Disney territory.

    The new building has to be an architecurally contemporary one, in use and in style. That’s just obvious, isn’t it? The trick is to build something that blends inoffensively into the neighbourhood and hopefully enhances it. I think the proposal isn’t bad. It’s a building with multiple uses that respects the nature of the neighbourhood.

    And personally, I like glass buildings. They’re kind of pretty.

  11. I live very close to this lot and this is really a lot better than I would have expected, especially in regard to respecting height. I think the design is ugly but context is everything in architecture.

    Considering Toronto’s record on development control this is really quite miraculous. I’ve lived in several cities around the world and Toronto has, by a long long way, the least control over development and heritage of any of them.

    The new building just west of Spadina on Queen is almost finished, there are several ‘name’ stores moving in there to create a stronger chain to American Apparel.

  12. Seems like a decent compromise to me and the colours remind me a bit of our original maroon & cream coloured PCC streetcars.

  13. the big question is the effect on the rents of the other stores between Spadina and Bathurst. I’ve talked to some of the store owners there, and they’re certainly worried. If they can’t foot the bill, I think that the outdoor mall that stretches from John to Spadina could definitely continue to Bathurst. Queen West would become just like all those city centre shopping districts in, say, Amsterdam. “Vibrant” and bland as hell.

  14. there seems to be a general criticism of chain stores in this article and related posts. the only way to keep independent businesses alive is to patronise them regularly, which is evidently a battle. anyway, keep in mind that many of the currently trendy spots that are full of character and independent business in toronto grew precisely because the area was cheap and considered undesirable to begin with. that’s how kensington, yorkville, chinatown, little india, greektown, queen west and a bunch of other neighbourhoods in toronto came into being. this development on queen street near bathurst might cause that particular area to become too expensive for certain independent stores to afford. this just means that such stores will move and probably help revitalise some other area that is currently considered unpleasant, like perhaps dupont or ossington (south of dundas).

  15. I like the design. Of all the large chain retailers to ever move into downtown, this one is by far the least offensive. Home Depot could have just as easily built a large tilt-up box somewhere in the Portlands with a giant parking lot, but has decided to integrate into Queen West.

    The worst option for this parking lot is to, well, remain a parking lot. It was going to be developed into a condo, one way or another, and it could have gone south a number of ways: it could have been a giant tower, it could have been a faux-schmo retro-historical pile, it could have involved the purchase and demolition of the neighbouring properties. Any time a condo project goes in anywhere, the best we can hope for retail-wise is a dry cleaners and a Rabba. In this case, at least we know what’s going in there – a Home Depot.

  16. Oh – but we don’t sonny, we don’t! It might very well be a la Rona, n’est pas?

  17. At least it is better then the great wall of Home Depot at St. Clair and Keele! One has to walk half of a diameter of that building just to get to the entrance from the streetcar stop. Its a terribly designed store for transit users.

  18. Thanks for the post, and for pointing out the importance of the Queen Street West Heritage Conservation District designation. My neighbours and I negotiated S. 37 funding for this study with the developers of 180 Queen Street West (at University Avenue) – the Canada Life site.

    We were concerned that their proposal for the equivalent of a 20 storey building would have a domino effect on all of Queen Street. What is ironic is that the same people – Canada Life/now owned by Great West Life – who paid for the study are the SAME folks who have filed an appeal to the OMB to prevent approval of the heritage designation.

  19. I’m glad that the site is not going the way of the condo, like so many prime sites are these days. Give them a thumbs up for incorporating some residential property as well as providing space for the smaller retail businesses….
    My issue is with the design of the structure, like so many of you have mentioned, it lacks interest in so many departments. For once I would like to see one of these larger retail corporation take some pride in the structures they are forcing on us. Attached are two links that I think many will find interesting. This business came to my attention in last months Dwell Magazine…have a look at some of their recently built stores in Austria..

    http://www.springwise.com/retail/sexy_supermarkets_in_the_alps/

    http://kitsunenoir.com/blog/2007/05/25/mpries-the-best-supermarkets-in-the-world/

    one more

    cheers

  20. While the massing is reasonable, the design is horrific. I agree – it shouldn’t be a Victorian copy, but it also doesn’t have to look like it was designed in the 80’s, by a bad architect.
    Glass, brown brick and a big curved corner. Toronto should expect more than that. Take a look at the Dutch. Even their new grocery stores are sexy.

  21. Andrew, show some respect for the people who just lost their homes, businesses and all of their belongings.

    The day isn’t even over and people are making wild accusations without the smallest shred of evidence.

  22. As I noted in the comments section of our post about the fire itself today, the fire was not directly adjacent to this development, but a few doors down. It would serve no benefit to this development – the properties that border it remain intact.

    Dylan

  23. It’s a fucking ugly building nonetheless.

    And with the fire that just happened… there goes the neighbourhood.

  24. Oh God..
    It’s so ugly, there goes the neighborhood.

  25. This is very, very sad!

    The morons at City Hall keep approving mind bogglingly bad developments. Toronto has (had) so much potential, but no one in charge is thinking long term. Whoever will give the city a buck will get what they want right now.

    Isn’t there any leader or visionary in this pathetic, provincial town who has the strength and vision to make intelligent urban design choices for Toronto? Can’t we dream big and think long term about what will make this dull, functional, ugly, sterile, soulless town a more liveable, attractive, healthy and sane place to live our lives? Who in their right minds wants to live in a grey, lifeless concrete jungle without soul or character. It is important to preserve Toronto’s various neighbourhoods and not sell our city to the biggest bidder.

    Journalists PLEASE PLEASE put more pressure on decision makers and keep writing articles on this matter so that Torontonians are informed about what makes a great city. We need help! We need information. We need to be educated. We need to raise the bar. We need to save our city. Please keep up the pressure!!!

  26. I’m very saddened and worried about this new “Home Depot” that is opening up. My husband Larry Kurpski has been working on Queen St for 28 years. He started when he was 14 years old at a wonderful little store called JACOBS HARDWARE. When he turned 26 he became a partner. Besides being a loving dad and husband he is a very hard working man. The store has become a big part of our lives. The fear of a big box store opening up right down the street is very disconcerning. JACOBS HARDWARE has been in business for 84 years! This does not only affect us but all the other little stores on Queen that have made it what it is today. I only hope that people will continue to support JACOBS and know that JACOBS appreciates all of them. Shelley Krupski

  27. I don’t like it. I contradicts the culture.

    The impact worth noting is that almost every store on Queen West is independently owned. With Home Depot you have a few minimum wage workers filtering all the profits to the US executives. The employee mold will not be suited for the artists that live on queen; therefore it will not help the residents find employment. If it were an independent hardware store the profits would be shared between the store owners, employees and the neighbourhood. It would be more lax about worker appearance (allowing for free will) and create a personal bond with the community, adapting to the customer’s needs rather than forcing a specific shopping experience.

    Queen West has always been a beacon for free thinkers. The forced standard of living coming from stores like Home Depot will be devastating to the culture that thrives on Queen West.

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