NO MEAN CITY: Frank Gehry on King West – some first thoughts

A view of the complex’s south side, facing King Street West.


Cross-posted from No Mean City, Alex’s personal blog on architecture

Frank Gehry refers to Toronto as his hometown. Yes, he left here over 60 years ago, but clearly he retains a sentimental attachment to the city. And yet he has never designed a new building here. That could change – in a big way – if David Mirvish succeeds in building three very tall condo towers and two new galleries at this location, replacing the 2000-seat Princess of Wales Theatre and three adjacent loft buildings.

At No Mean City, some models and images. Click here.

Mirvish says in a press release: “Our vision is a project that will encompass three distinct and remarkable residential towers that will be unlike anything that has been built in Toronto. They will be grounded by stepped podiums that will house a large, new public gallery called the Mirvish Collection, a new campus for the OCAD University, and planted terraces that will create a green silhouette overlooking King Street.”

I support the vision and (more or less) the heights of these buildings at this extremely central location, which is rapidly transitioning to high-rise residential.

One obvious question, as the real estate market crests, is: Will it happen? Gehry’s previous urban-scale proposals at Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn and Bunker Hill in LA were not realized (aside from Disney Hall). Will this be different?
For models and images, click here.


  1. I have no problem with the height of the towers, but frankly, they are what they are, high-rise towers, not too much can be done to make them very distinctive. You can try really hard to make them look different, which only makes a very superficial difference at the expense of cost, practicality and awkward spaces for residents. The podium would be the one that could make the thing interesting. The podium concept with the paper thingy does not at all look like the model, which was much more conventional, so I don’t really know which to expect. One big question would be how much of the podium would be accessible to public? Another is that how would it look like at street level. Pedestrians do not get the vantage point shown in the picture. And of course, if it get can off-ground in the first place.

  2. It has not even been built and it has been papered already.

  3. ‘I am not building condominiums, I am building three sculptures’ – I am glad it was David, not Frank saying this.

  4. ” You can try really hard to make them look different, which only makes a very superficial difference at the expense of cost, practicality and awkward spaces for residents.”

    Absolutely spot on.

    Nice idea, won’t happen. But I always enjoy public dreaming.

  5. Craig: Have you seen the floor plans (or the figures) before making such assumptions? They’re absolutely false. I’ll have more on this subject soon.

  6. We must, of course, realize this is only a first draft. There’s a LOT of planning, public meetings and approvals to go through before any shovels get put in the ground. This project, as presented, looks very much like 8 Spruce street in NYC (a.k.a. Beekman Building) – in the heart of the financial district. One of the big differences here is that Spruce is essentially all rental, while King will be essentially all condos.

    While Gehry is capable of designing dramatic structures that are inspiring, creative and landmark-worthy, he also does a lot which is rather plain and utilitarian. (Don’t hate me for thinking Acropolis is plain.) While gigantic in stature, 8 Spruce sits comfortably and without much fanfare just a stone’s throw from the Woolworth, Barclay and Transportation buildings. There’s also a lot of lower buildings crowding around Nassau, Beekman, William and of course, Spruce – not unlike the proposed King location in Toronto.

    The first draft also shows a crazy and wild King Street visage – almost “Simpsonesque.” OK, in this iteration, a little over the top, but that’s the hairy hand that’s destined to get barbered. I hope, that Frank remembers that Pearl Street needs a little loving care too. I’d hate to see it used a dumping ground for the parking entrances, utilities, dumpster storage and what-not.

    While I will miss TPWT, I won’t particularly miss the remainder of the worn-at-the cuffs buildings this project will replace. If it can’t be built here, then it really can’t be built anywhere in Toronto. This is a perfect spot for a project on this scale. Lets hope that it isn’t curbed like the L.A. project.

    Congratulation go to David Mirvish for his grand scheme and vision.

  7. I am not against intensification… but focusing on whether or not the buildings will look good/cool (whatever) is really besides the point when one considers that they will strain an already overburdened infrastructure. The massive condo-fication of downtown, which went into full steam ahead under Miller (and has continued unabated under Ford), falls far short of what can legitimately be called good planning. The existing infrastructure is already inadequate … and the development fees by the City of Toronto have been the lowest in the GTA for several years, and fall far, far short of covering the cost of the infrastructure needed to support these new developments. Trying to shoe-horn more condos into a given space without putting in place an appropriate level of infrastructure to support the people who will eventually live in those developments is very short-sighted. And for too many years now, this City has been short-sighted.

  8. Samg, could you be more specific on what kind of infrastructure are missing to support these condos on King? Road? Sewer? Electricity? Park? Transit? Library? What in specific? The only thing I can think of would be school, if we can attract family to live there. 

  9. Yu, how about all of the above, in some form or other? Also, just to clarify, I don’t mean to suggest infrastructure to support these units is not there but rather that we don’t have an “appropriate level” of infrastructure in place… and that, the existing infrastructure, is in many instances already overburdened. Many people like to argue that it’s ok that development fees are low in Toronto because the added units merely make use of existing infrastructure. I think that this argument has started to look increasingly frayed as 1000s and 1000s of units are added each year. What many folks want to ignore is that when you move to increase density substantially, your level of infrastructure needs to go to another (more costly) level for things to work.

  10. SAMG, 

    You are absolutely correct.

    YU, consider the  sewage capacity of the existing mains.  I would seriously doubt that they have the capacity for the amount new demand that this project alone will create.   Upgrading the sewers would cost more than the entire development fees  generated. Leaving nothing left for the other city cost’s.  This is typical in Toronto. On both the capital and operating side, Toronto’s tax and fee environment is nothing more than a huge subsidy program for developers.

  11. Glen/Samg,

    do you have data to support the claim that sewer main needs to be upgraded to support current downtown condos development? If yes, what is the cost? And what is the cost as a percentage of development fee charge for all the condos that are coming up? I don’t, I doubt you do. So all this arguments are basically pointless.

    I am not against higher development charge in Toronto. But overall, downtown densification would indeed mostly ride on existing infrastructure. Take road and transit, a large segment of downtown population would just walk or bike to their work, adding no stress to current infrastructure. For those who do need commute by car or transit, they are often just using idle capacity because of reverse commute (say what you like about “there is no reverse commute anymore”, I have done it a few times, and have friends doing it everyday, the reverse commute is still much faster). And BTW, I still remember our exchange a couple of years ago. Now it is pretty clear to me, we are adding more jobs, many of them, in downtown. Even if a lot of those jobs might have just been moved from suburban location to downtown, it is a much more efficient arrangement to co-locate workers and their jobs in downtown.

    It is great to think about infrastructure, but not so great using it as a justification to slow down downtown densification, which put existing infrastructure into much better use.

  12. YU, the capacity is finite. At some point there needs to be additional capacity. It is irrelevant whether this development can be supported by the existing infrastructure.  

    As to the costs, and the notion that development fees are are far below cost recovery, keep in mind the following…  Across Ontario, every municipality is supposed to levy fees that are a fair approximation of the hard costs that the development will cause the municipality to incur.  Compare Toronto’s fees to other cities…..

    they are far below any possible savings that can be generated by density.  Dr. Enid Slack, whom I would always defer to in areas of municipal matters, has a good paper on the subject……

  13. Yu,
    I am not against densification…especially in some parts of the inner suburbs of Toronto. But your claim that “downtown densification would indeed mostly ride on existing infrastructure” seems to be presented as basically an article of faith. To suggest that the increasing density, especially in parts of the core, has not strained traffic, transit and all manner of other forms of infrastructure seems to me that perhaps a closer look is warranted on somebody’s part. Do I have hard facts that I can quote right now? Not anything I can quote hard and fast. I tend to be the type of personal who will read an article on a report (or a report) but not store it away in a file somewhere. As for who is purchasing the units being built downtown, I do recall seeing a number of news items that a good chunk of these people worked outside the GTA but were interested in nightlife/cultural attractions of downtown Toronto. As for claims about the jobs we are adding in Toronto, especially in the downtown core, I’d like to see some evidence of that. Again, I am not against intensification or hi-rise development (or development for that matter). But I am against giving developers a free-ride… which is what the southern Ontario/GTA development model has been for the past 50 years. A few decades ago, developers built sprawling subdivisions because that was what was most profitable for them — and the result congested mess of a city region with woefully inadequate intra-regional transit capacity to function effectively. Now it’s more profitable for them to build up, but it is not really apparent that any more thought is being given to what needs to be in place for these developments to work long term. PS. What I find incredibly telling is that sites such as this focused “urban” matters seem to be swept up in the glamour of a possible Gehry development with nary a word to say about the 2012 Vital Signs report. PPS. I also find it incredible that the 2012 Vital signs report can make the claim that we “are not doing to bad” even while pointing out increasing income polarization, and that by 2025, 60% of the city’s neighborhoods could be low-income. It makes me wonder if the authors of the report defined “doing badly” as “falling into a black hole”.

  14. Samg,

    hard evidence of additional downtown jobs? Hmm, let me see, how about the whole bunch of new office towers south and west of the traditional financial district? And some smaller scale developments, like the new Coca Cola HQ under construction at King and Sherbourne? Add that to the fact the downtown office vacancy rate is much lower than office parks in burb, does it count as evidence? Not that long ago news broke that National Post is moving the HQ from Don Mills to Bloor and Sherbourne. If National Post has noticed that trend, you probably should have.

    You are absolutely right that many people live downtown and work in the burb. But as I mentioned, they are mostly using idle capacities of existing road and transit in their reverse commute.

  15. Re: Anonymous… the items you mention regarding downtown employment are all good and welcome. But they don’t cancel out the points that the number of units being shoehorned into the downtown is straining the existing infrastructure. In fact, if I wanted to be cheeky (which I’m not, well maybe just a little bit), I would point out that these new office towers (which are a good thing) are adding FURTHER strain to an already strained infrastructure. Anonymous, I don’t want to suggest that increasing density or adding office towers to the downtown is necessarily a bad thing. But I think a lot of people have the erroneous impression that just adding more units makes better use of existing infrastructure without straining that infrastructure. We are well past the point where adding new units is just making better use of infrastructure (which has been the justification for low development fees). What we need is a higher level of infrastructure to support the current and emerging density… and that should translate into higher development fees, especially given that the number of poor neighborhoods seems to be rising sharply. In another section of this site, someone is doing a series on ways of paying for improved transit across the GTA. To point out the obvious, someone might say that the sprawl that was created across the GTA during decades simply did not take into account the traffic/transit infrastructure that would be required to support the emerging developments. These costs were not accounted for in the development fees that are/were set, thereby giving developers higher profit margins … and leaving the citizenry, once again with the bill. PS. As for the NationalPost’s transfer from one part of Toronto (DMills) to another, I would stress that this is not really a net job gain for the City as a whole. PPS. one of the reasons you are seeing office developments in the downtown as opposed to Toronto’s inner suburbs is because the transit in the inner burbs is mostly crappy. The outer burbs (outside the City of Toronto) can attract jobs because of the lower tax rate. The downtown core of Toronto can attract jobs because of the very robust transit infrastructure (and to some extent, the glamour factor of the downtown). But the inner suburbs are stuck with the Toronto’s high corporate tax rate AND a crappy transit system. A higher level of RAPID transit might make the inner suburbs more attractive as job centres. But I would point out the LRT projects approved by Council don’t qualify as rapid transit. Rapid transit can include LRT, but not in the way Council has designated (with the exception of Eglinton’s underground portion).

  16. In 2001 there were 397,900 jobs in Toronto’s downtown. Ten years later, in 2011 there were 442,000. This includes both full and part time. If you look at just full time employment, there was even less growth. Compare that to 1989 when Wards 20,27,28 and 30 had employment of 434,886 (again with a higher percentage of full time). So yes there has been some growth, but not much. Compared to population growth it has been anemic.

  17. It should be noted that according to the city growth costs, not maintenance or state of good repair costs, for Toronto water (water, waste-water, storm-water) in 2012 are projected to be ~100 million. Compare that to total development fees of 94.5 million.  That leaves nothing for fire, police, roads, transit, ems, libraries, parks, homes for the aged, etc. 

Comments are closed.