Saving a suburban supermarket

The Metro grocery store at Parkway Mall at Ellesmere and Victoria Park in Scarborough (Google Map |MSN Live Search Map) was just nominated for historical designation by Scarborough Community Council. It would be the first such grocery store to be designated in Toronto. I’ve always liked this store and see the nomination as quite a worthy choice, with a graceful arched roof that reminds me of an elaborate bridge. While elegant in the day, I find it is most beautiful at night. The staff report recommending consideration can be found here, and current and a historical rendering are posted at Urban Toronto Forum.

The grocery store, the only part of the mall considered for preservation, opened as Grand Union in 1958. It changed named several times reflecting the changes in ownership – it then became a Steinberg’s, then Miracle Food Mart, Dominion, and recently rebranded as Metro after that Quebec chain’s purchase of A&P and Dominion stores in Ontario.

Parkway Mall was designed to be a community-scale shopping centre rather than a large regional mall like Fairview or Scarborough Town Centre, Its store mix is not geared towards destination shopping, but what’s there is the kind of retail and services that’s essential at the neighbourhood level. The rest of the property will likely be redeveloped as a commercial, office and residential complex, dooming the rest of the indoor mall, but hopefully historical designation will protect the one element that has escaped extensive remodeling and reconstruction (Parkway Mall originally was an outdoor plaza , and later expanded, enclosed, and remodeled).

The local councillor, Michael Thompson, is to be commended for his support for historical designation. Suburban buildings such as this, built in the 1950s through the 1970s, are the ones most in danger of demolition and redevelopment. It is true that many buildings of this era are expendable, there are the notable exceptions. I am sure there are other worthy examples aross suburban Toronto from this era, but not being as old as what is usually thought of as ‘heritage’, they may be easy to overlook. They don’t build ‘em like this anymore.

30 comments

  1. I wouldn’t dispute that this is a decent-looking building, but when taken in context with the whole development, I question whether it’s really worth saving. The suburban-style massive front parking lot is nothing less than urban blight. Pedestrians shouldn’t need to cross a parking lot to enter a building and it’s a foolish waste of land when parking lots can be built under or overground. Keeping the building likely means keeping the same human-hostile layout.

  2. I have seen quite a number of mid size grocery stores close in the last three years. I wonder if this has influenced the decision.

  3. I also wonder the extent to which the heritage status of this supermarket will affect the redevelopment plans for this property.

  4. Luke: I think it would be interesting to see what Credit Swisse, the owners of the land, decide what to do with the site. The store might be integrated into a more urban setting with the new condos and offices that the developers have been quietly proposing.

    I personally think some suburban commerical properties ought to be designated, particularly those like the Metro store that show architectural flourish. In 1958, few people thought about such things as pedestrian access – indeed, the 1950s advertisment posted in the link to Urban Toronto has “A World of Free Parking”.

    Most successful suburban commerical buildings, particularly those which had architectual merit, were often renovated beyond recongition. Yorkdale is unrecognizable from its 1960s original look. Sherway might the the only mall still largely intact and not stucco-ized or renovated. This grocery store is mostly untouched, and along with its interesting arched roof, merits recognition.

  5. I love this grocery store so much, I want to marry it. Seriously, it’s a gem. Even if re-development goes ahead, it could be repurposed into something useful if attached to a condo. There’s another grocery store with a ‘bridge span’ roof on the north side of the QEW, a few minutes east of Dixie Road.

  6. Heritage buildings are always a nuisance if you want a blank slate for redevelopment — that’s why they need designation. Buildings like Old City Hall and Trinity Church didn’t fit in the original plans for the Eaton Centre, but finding ways to keep them ultimately made the area better.

    I’m no architect, but it seems like the parking lot is so large that there’d be plenty of room to fit new buildings and a wide pedestrian plaza from Ellesmere to the store. The buildings around the plaza would frame views of the store, much like buildings along Front Street (including another Metro) frame views of St. James Cathedral.

  7. Lots of creative solutions for redevelopment of this parcel that could easily keep this great building. There is value in the place-ness of heritage landmarks like this.

  8. It’s ridiculous to designate a grocery store built in 1958 as historical – this makes the historical designation process a complete joke. Historical designation should be reserved for those buildings which are truly distinctive and irreplaceable – very little built in the 20th century qualifies for this. Besides, designating suburban sprawl like this as historical permanently writes 1950s auto-friendly design in stone.

  9. Luke: beyond the fact that the parking lot wouldn’t be part of the “reasons for designation”, if we were to use “suburban-style planning” as criteria against saving a building, you might as well entertain the New-Urbanist-absolutist-lunatic-fringe concept of relegating *all* of 50s/60s Scarberia, Don Mills, etc to the dumpster, as if it were like statues of Lenin in Eastern Europe after 1989. And I suppose that would include absolute masterpieces like Eero Saarinen’s GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan as well.

  10. “Historical designation should be reserved for those buildings which are truly distinctive and irreplaceable – very little built in the 20th century qualifies for this.”

    Here’s a short list of 20th century landmarks, off the top of my head (I only verified dates). There’s many more that I couldn’t suddenly think of.

    Union Station (1913-1918, opened 1927)
    Toronto City Hall (1961-1965)
    Methodist Church of Canada Building (later CHUM), 299 Queen Street West (1914)
    Royal York Hotel (1927-1929; addition 1958-1959)
    CN Tower (1973–1976)
    Bank of Commerce Building (1929-1930)
    Royal Alexandra Theatre (1927)
    Royal Ontario Museum (first opened 1914, additions in 1933, 1984, 2007)
    Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres (opened 1913; now owned by Ontario Heritage Foundation)
    CNE Automotive Building (opened 1929)
    CNE Better Living Centre(opened 1962)
    Ontario Place (opened 1971)
    Wychwood Car Barns (1913-1921, re-opened 2007)
    Canada Life Tower (1929-1931)
    BCE Place/Galleria (1990-1991)
    Toronto-Dominion Centre (1967-1969, 1991)
    Ontario Science Centre (1966-1969)
    RC Harris Filtration (1932-1941)
    Balfour Building (1930)
    Canada Permanent Trust Building (1930)
    Whitney Block (1926-1933)
    Robarts Library (opened 1973)
    Metro Reference Library (opened 1977)
    And many Toronto library branches.

    None of these buildings (and there are more) are neither distinctive nor irreplaceable.

    Toronto is a 20th century city – when it became of age, and grew the fastest in the 1950s through the 1980s. It was the period when it built the subway, changed from Anglo-Protestant Toronto the Good to the multicultural city is now, when entire cities grew out of sleepy townships with names like Scarborough, Chinguacousy and Vaughan.

    What’s wrong with preserving some of our past, even if it was built at a time when design was auto-friendly? Should we knock down Don Jail because it was the site of many hangings, something that we have progressed beyond since the 1960s?

  11. Indeed Shawn, which is why people should lay off so-called brutalist buildings such as U of T’s Robarts and Ryerson’s Jorgensen buildings.

  12. ah boris, for once we agree completely. Seach brutalism here and see some robarts and etc stuff. Am on iPhone so can’t provide links myself.

  13. Awesome building, good call. But this is not about architecture – this is about structure. The report mentions Bregman and Hamann, the architects, but who was the structural engineer? (I’ll bet it was done by Yolles, now part of Halcrow).

    If society continues to laud the architect and ignore the engineers, you can’t be surprised when the resulting buildings are nothing more than decorated boxes. It’s a continuing problem in the design professions.

  14. The reason I think that historical designation should be used sparingly is that it gets in the way of redevelopment, which on the whole is generally desirable in my view. I do believe that some buildings deserve historical designation, when they are sufficiently notable and distinctive that they would be deeply missed by many. Although little built in the 20th century, and particular after World War II, meets these criteria I can see listing a few distinctive structures like many (but not all) of those in the list above. Historical designation should not though be used simply as an excuse to stop redevelopment when the historical value of the protected buildings is marginal, as is true with this 1950s grocery store.

  15. uSky> Engineers have “Frontiers of Engineering” or whatever that show is called. What more do they want?

    Andrew>You still sound exactly like a 1955 tear-’em-down guy. Exactly — because it hinges on you saying, which they said too (about the Victorians): “little built in the 20th century, and particular after World War II, meets these criteria”

    With respect, Sez you.

    And as for the redevelopment argument, so much gets torn down here, and there is so much space, you need to provide some concrete (ha) examples of where this happens.

  16. It looks like the motion adopted by the Scarborough Community Council was to list the property on the City’s heritage inventory. Assuming the motion to list is adopted by City Council, it will provide 60 day interim control over demolition.

    The property will not have the more comprehensive control over alterations to heritage attributes and indefinite protection from demolition unless council proceeds with a full designation by-law.

    For anyone interested in the criteria applied to evaluate a given property for designation under the Ontario Heritage Act, look at Ontario Regulation 9/06:

    http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/html/regs/english/elaws_regs_060009_e.htm

    uSkyscraper, criterion 1 of the reg was specifically written to refer to “design” value and not just “architectural” value to address exactly the concern you raise. You are right that engineers can and should be identified where their contributions to heritage value are significant, as they seem to be here.

    [Reasons for listing]
    http://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2009/sc/bgrd/backgroundfile-17618.pdf

    It’s notable that Councillor Thompson is quoted in the Star as calling the supermarket as a landmark that identifies the community. That fits right in with criterion 3 of Reg. 9/06. Properties may be designated if they meet “one or more” of the criteria. A building could have been completed last week and still be worthy of designation, following the criteria.

    The other Andrew’s comments seem inconsistent with Reg. 9/06 and with the intent of the Ontario Heritage Act in general.

  17. Boris: I can’t say I’m a fan of Jorgenson Hall (having had to study there for a few years) or many brutalist buildings. I won’t miss it one bit if it bites the dust. York and U of T have better 1960s/1970s campus brutalism anyway. But I can appreciate the very best of that genre – Toronto City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square, for me, is brutalism done exceedingly well (so much better than its counterpart, Boston City Hall).

    Robarts Library, while not the most welcoming structure, is certainly a architectural masterpiece of design, and I can appreciate it for what it is, and agree it does have a bad rap. Many of Uno Pri’s buildings qualify, but I dislike 77 Elm and 666 Spadina. but that’s my opinion as well.

    Most suburban plazas don’t have a sense of place or much in the way of design, but the old Grand Union/Metro store sure does. And that’s increasingly rare as developers stuccoize, renovate, or otherwise destroy the few suburban marvels that are out there. Let’s preserve a survivor.

  18. Sean: while a fair bit of “architectural” exposed concrete can be found there, Toronto City Hall isn’t brutalism, really–neo-expressionism (cf. Eero Saarinen) might be a more appropriate architectural label.

    Re Jorgenson: I’m halfway between Sean and Boris/Shawn on this, i.e. I’m open to selective fine-tuning as part of a greater campus plan, yet at the same time, its brutalist urbanism (and very urban-minded, mind you) has taken on, in 2009, some of the same “survivor” quality as the Parkway Mall Metro, and deserves some serious second-look respect, and I’m even willing to forgive “unpleasant study experiences” to that end. Between it and the institutional senile-modern-Georgian banality of Kerr Hall (bas-reliefs notwithstanding), I’ll take Jorgenson anyday.

    “The other Andrew’s comments seem inconsistent with Reg. 9/06 and with the intent of the Ontario Heritage Act in general.”

    And somehow, I can see him using that as cause to oppose the present application Ontario Heritage Act as contrary to the province’s economic interests and the public will.

    Here’s my earlier Schermerhorn reference
    http://www.dmsas.com/Our_Portfolio/Project.aspx?listing=type&pId=4&itemId=1

    is *that* what “Andrew’s” idea be of what heritage-worthy post-WWII architecture ought to be?

  19. Every building shouldn’t have to be a stellar example of its type to avoid the wrecker’s ball, Sean.

    Jorgensen serves its purpose quite well and is only in its late thirties (much too young to die)and in excellent condition. It is quite a good citizen with its terraces and skywalks. It would be exceedingly wasteful and shortsighted to demolish it to satisfy anyone’s edifice complex.

  20. In which case, it may just as well be an “embodied energy” green argument on behalf of Jorgenson, i.e. whether or not you agree with the style, it’s *literally* a waste to demolish the place and start over, so why not make the most of what you have?

  21. Christopher Hume has weighed in on this story. He too says that the city is recommending it be “designated a heritage property” when the recommendation is not (yet) to designate, but just to include on the inventory of heritage properties. It is an important distinction.

    http://www.thestar.com/News/GTA/article/573256

  22. “if we were to use ‘suburban-style planning’ as criteria against saving a building, you might as well entertain the New-Urbanist-absolutist-lunatic-fringe concept of relegating *all* of 50s/60s Scarberia, Don Mills, etc to the dumpster, as if it were like statues of Lenin in Eastern Europe after 1989. And I suppose that would include absolute masterpieces like Eero Saarinen’s GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan as well.”

    Don’t you think this is a wee bit of hyperbole? You’re seriously comparing a grocery store in Scarborough to a sprawling architectural masterpiece?

    My point is that I think if the building is preserved, it’s *extremely* unlikely that the overall layout of the site will change enough to make it worthwhile. It’s hard to see how the “village centre” idea that Credit Suisse has floated can mesh with this building, and furthermore, I would argue that the building’s design is in many ways married to the overall layout. Without the big empty space of a parking lot to front it, I’m not sure it even makes sense functionally.

  23. “Don’t you think this is a wee bit of hyperbole? You’re seriously comparing a grocery store in Scarborough to a sprawling architectural masterpiece?”

    No, it’s a means of addressing an implied blanket condemnation of suburban-style planning. And if you feel there’s a problem in how judgment of postwar “heritage worthiness” can encompass a something as humble as a suburban grocery store as well as something as magnificent as Saarinen’s GM complex, than you might as well feel there’s a problem in how judgment of Victorian-era “heritage worthiness” can encompass the humble Yonge or Queen streetscapes as well as the obvious stuff like Old City Hall, University College, et al. Nobody’s seriously equating the former to the latter; but it doesn’t mean they aren’t part of a common playing field of heritage validity. And if you think otherwise, you truly have a hackneyed notion of what “heritage” means these days.

    And re Credit Suisse’s “village centre” idea, who says that doesn’t merit critiquing and fine-tuning, given the hack results of a lot of trendy “new urbanizing” suburban infill out there. (What’s popped up down the street at Ellesmere and Birchmount actually comes close to making me miss the old Honeywell building it replaced.) Sort of like, the general principles may be fine, but ultimately, an overzealous Duany/Plater-Zyberk wannabe adherent brushing off the Parkway Mall Metro and its surrounding suburbanscape as dispensable garbage is no less short-sighted than, half a century ago, an overzealous Corbusier wannabe adherent brushing off swaths of Victorian Toronto as dispensable garbage might have been.

  24. “In which case, it may just as well be an “embodied energy” green argument on behalf of Jorgenson….”

    Absolutely. Apparently construction is the second biggest source of greenhouse gases globally because concrete, while it cures, gives off a lot of it. And even it that weren’t so we shouldn’t just toss mutli-million dollar, perfectly functional structures based on the trends of the day.

  25. For a sunny look at the mid-century suburban neighbourhood outdoor shopping centre, jump about 8:30 into Redbook‘s self-promotional 1957 short, In The Suburbs. Perhaps most relevant to this discussion is the film’s claim that these shopping centres were built in the image of the young suburban consumer, and that architectural features like fountains and staircases (!?) were meant to attract people “shopping with the same determination that led them to the suburbs in the first place.” So that striking grocery store is not only of historical significance because it’s well known kind of old, but also because its striking form was motivated by a significant historical phenomenon.

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