Toronto's growing CityPlace neighbourhood is set to become a more complete community in coming years, as plans for a new community and education hub at Block 31 move forward. On April 5th, ZAS Architects' preliminary design for the site—which is set to include two schools, a daycare, and a community centre—was assessed by the City of Toronto's Design Review Panel for the first time.

 Block 31, Toronto, by City of Toronto, TDSB, TDCSB, ZAS ArchitectsLooking northwest, the buildings would rise just east of Canoe Landing Park, image courtesy of ZAS Architects

The proponents' presentation revealed a plan that strives to integrate the new facilities with Canoe Landing Park immediately to the west. Since open park space is becoming increasingly scarce in Toronto's densifying urban core, ZAS representatives explained the design attempts to 'enlarge' the park's public space by creating a new community plaza and minimizing the aesthetic impact of new buildings.

An aerial view of Concord CityPlace, Toronto, image retrieved from Google EarthAn aerial view of the site, image retrieved from Google Earth

A somewhat sloping form of the two interconnected buildings has been chosen as a gesture to the park's topography, with the structures meant to emerge from underneath the landscape. Inside, the two buildings—separated by an outdoor passageway and connected by a bridge—would house a pair of K-8 public schools, a daycare, and a community centre.  

 Block 31, Toronto, by City of Toronto, TDSB, TDCSB, ZAS ArchitectsThe landscape plan for the site, image courtesy of ZAS Architects

In line with maintaining the parallel status of Catholic schools in Ontario, the three-storey south building will house both a TDSB and a TCDSB school. The distinctly run but physically integrated schools will share a gym in the two-storey north building—most of which will be given over to a new community centre—as well as some classroom space, which may entail the use of features such as removable crucifixes.

 Block 31, Toronto, by City of Toronto, TDSB, TDCSB, ZAS ArchitectsThe south building as seen from the Gardiner, image courtesy of ZAS Architects

The south building will also house a small daycare at ground level, while much of the community centre's space—including the parking facility—will also be shared with the daycare and schools. Both buildings will be topped by green roofs, with landscaping appointed by The Planning Partnership

 Block 31, Toronto, by City of Toronto, TDSB, TDCSB, ZAS ArchitectsDrop-off area along Brunel Court, (the schools would have staggered start times to minimize crowding), image courtesy of ZAS

The building envelope features a combination of glassy frontages and metal panels with wood soffits, with much of the glazing accented by notes of colour. The prominent use of wood was presented as a gesture towards the archaeological heritage of the site, which sits on what was once the edge of Lake Ontario. (Last year, a 19th century schooner was found at the nearby excavation site of Concord Adex's Forward and Newton condominium developments). 

 Block 31, Toronto, by City of Toronto, TDSB, TDCSB, ZAS ArchitectsView from the corner of Fort York Boulevard and Brunel Court, image courtesy of ZAS Architects

Although the ambitious design rationale—and the desire to maximize open and green space—was appreciated, the panel did not feel that the design realized an aspiration to create a cohesively integrated landscape. "I don't know whether it was a cost issue," a panel member told the presenters, "but this design doesn't reflect these ideas strongly enough." Although the project was presented as a "pavilion in the park," the panel did not find much tangible evidence of this typology.

 Block 31, Toronto, by City of Toronto, TDSB, TDCSB, ZAS ArchitectsLooking east toward Block 31 from Canoe Landing Park, image by ZAS Architects

While the DRP found lots to like with the design—with the emphasis on open space recognized as a highlight—the panelists ultimately voted in favour of a redesign of the project. The panel sought a clearer plan for how the spaces would fit in with one another and handle traffic flow, identifying a lack of cohesion in the design. "Where's the front door?" a panelist asked, admonishing the design team to create more defined spaces. In particular, the passageway between the buildings and the communal spaces at the west of the site were seen as undercooked.

 Block 31, Toronto, by City of Toronto, TDSB, TDCSB, ZAS ArchitectsLooking west along the passageway, with the bridge and school gym (right) also visible, image courtesy of ZAS

A lack of delineation between the outdoor spaces was also criticized. Defined "outdoor rooms" were preferred to a space that "slides into the park," with the current plan seen as "trying to do too many things at once." A more nuanced plan for how the spaces will function—and how pedestrian traffic will flow—was sought, while a lack of cycling infrastructure was also identified.

 Block 31, Toronto, by City of Toronto, TDSB, TDCSB, ZAS ArchitectsA multi-purpose community space is planned just west of the north building, image courtesy of ZAS Architects

The project's sustainability was also questioned, with the targeted Tier 1 of the Toronto Green Standard seen as a disappointingly unambitious benchmark. "A project like this should be able to achieve much more," the design team was told. Ultimately, the "idiosyncratic nature of the design elements" was also pinpointed as a central weakness of the architectural expression. A number of features—foremost among them the coloured windows—were seen as lacking an identifiable design rationale. "Where does that come from?"

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We will keep you updated as the project continues to move forward and the design evolves. In the meantime, our previous editorial provides a more comprehensive overview of the plans, while additional information is available in our dataBase file, linked below. Want to share your thoughts on the design? Feel free to leave a comment in the space below this page, or join in the discussion in our associated Forum thread.