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.