On condos and the Distillery District…

I wanted to share a few quick thoughts about an article in the Star about a possible condo/hotel development in the Distillery and the concerns surrounding such a development; specifically, the appropriateness of a large tower in the historic Distillery District (or “Distillery Historic District”, as the developers would prefer).

My introduction to the area came in 2004/2005, coinciding with the opening of the Young Centre. By that time the development of the area, led by Cityscape Developments, was in it’s toddler years. Stalwarts like Balzacs, Brick Street Bakery, the brewery and Dancemakers had established themselves, but the restaurant and entertainment scene was only just starting to form.

It was a hip place, to be sure and the whole gang at the Young Centre was pretty happy to be a part of something we knew would eventually get very, very popular.

But it certainly hasn’t happened overnight. Despite the tremendous success of Soulpepper and the other tenants of the Young Centre, there was a long time when it seemed like irritable, hungry, sleep-deprived actors, stagehands and designers like myself kept the businesses going down there through the winter months. For the district to survive, it was clear more people had to come and that eventually, people would have to live there.

Through every step of the development of the Distillery, from the refurb of the existing buildings, to the construction of the first tower on the undeveloped west side of the district (Mill and Parliament) to the new towers being built in the Tankhouses across from the Young Centre, Cityscape has acted with utmost respect for the historical integrity of the site.

But it’s true that none of this comes without a price tag. The refurbishment of the existing buildings on the site was not done on the cheap, but was done entirely on spec. In other words, while the rental money from arts groups and retailers is nice, it was never gonna pay for the massive renovation effort. Certainly not if rental rates were kept at a level where arts groups and indie merchants could afford to take up shop in the Distillery. Condos were always a necessary part of the plan.

As for the rack house, the building across from the main gates to the Distillery, it’s been a tough sell for a long time.

During the inaugural Luminato Festival, I was hired to create an installation light design for the site with a mandate to include as many buildings as possible, including the rack house, a building typically thought of as “off-site”. The downside was coming up with a way to integrate the building with the property, the upside was that I got to go inside and poke around. Eventually, I decided to make use of the building’s prominent heavy, green shutters and make a kind of “gateway of light”, shining high-powered HMI lights through the rack house’s tiny windows, through the trees in front and onto the building across the street. In general, it worked. But from that experience I can honestly say I understand both why Cityscape wants to go the hotel route and also why it’s taken so long to get anything going. If you were a hotelier or a condo developer, would you want to erect a building on the Distillery site with all the cache that comes with the location, or across the street from the place with all the cache?

So, to address the question posed by the Star more directly, which is, “Does a 34-storey tower belong in the Distillery District?”, I offer the following…

  1. The building isn’t really on the site, as most people would think of it. Neither the brick streets, the classic green cupolas, nor the odd bits of left-over infrastructure that make the Distillery so unique would be affected by a development in the rack house. If anything, this corner is the best place on the site or surrounding area for a tall building.
  2. From first-hand observation, I can say that the cavernous interior of the rack house isn’t really well suited to anything and would require massive renovation, condo or otherwise.
  3. While I haven’t checked, my suspicion is that from Tank House Lane (the east west path leading to the Young Centre, you’d see less than half of a tall tower over top of the Boiler House and even if you saw more, if the building is architecturally engaging, who cares if you can see it?
  4. Looking north, a tall building in that location wouldn’t block the view of anything. North of the Distillery along Trinity is a film studio, a car dealership, Eastern Ave. and neighbourhood beyond. If anything, a tall building would add to the area.
  5. And finally…Looking south while walking along Trinity, no view of the Distillery would be any more obscured than it is now by the rack house in its present form.
If there’s one thing Cityscape has gotten exactly right (and to be fair, they’ve done a lot right) it’s been their focus on getting people to live in the Distillery. While the Victorian-era site is certainly a tourist attraction, it can’t only be a tourist attraction. It has to be reasonably developed to include full-time residents, day travellers and now short-term visitors equally. As new neighbourhoods shoot up in the Don Lands, the Distillery can become a vital “downtown” of sorts.
I look forward to that and when it comes I’ll nostalgically reflect on a time when you never had to wait in line at Balzacs.

The Failure of “No Failure”

I grew up in the Scouting movement. In my hometown of Chatham, ON, scouting was a big deal. A small city (only about 45,000 in the good times), Chatham had contributed a larger than average proportion of it’s young men to the Second World War and as a result had experienced a large baby boom, the issue of which had joined Scouting in large numbers. The immediate result was a very well run program, guided by some interesting and stern veterans.

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