Following our three part series looking at developer Gary Switzer's career, and in light of an increasing number of applications for the redevelopment of sites along Yonge Street in the core, today we present a conversation we conducted with Michael McLelland and Scott Weir of E.R.A. Architects along with Switzer to talk about the heritage aspects of MOD Developments' and Graywood Developments' Five St. Joseph.

Five St. Joseph by MOD Developments and Graywood Developments

Five St. Joseph is easily one of the most anticipated new condominium developments being followed on UrbanToronto. While there's real interest in how the Hariri Pontarini designed tower's flowing balcony design will look on the skyline, most of the attention garnered by this project is focused on what makes it so special at ground level, and that is the incorporation of the existing century-old shops on Yonge Street and the brick warehouse facade on St. Joseph. These heritage elements require a specialist team, and that's where E.R.A. Architects come in. In regards to the Yonge Street buildings, is this chunk of this project yours, where Hariri Pontarini aren't involved at all?

Michael McClelland: Lots of architects are more collaborative than you might think at first glance, and Hariri Pontarini are very easy to work with. They have also done a number of award-winning projects which integrate heritage buildings, such as Robertson House on Sherbourne, and Gluskin House on St. George. On FIVE, we have done a series of heritage drawings that outline all the work that has to happen on the heritage buildings including all the repair work that will be specified. We'll be advising on rebuilding the warehouse down St. Nicholas in terms of the detailing, historic mortars, what to do with the brick, those sorts of things.

Yonge Street at Five St. Joseph by MOD Developments and Graywood Developments

What do the plans call for with the heritage buildings?

Gary Switzer: We have decided to make the upper two floors of the buildings on Yonge residential, and released them a few months ago as “The Yonge Collection”—which have sold quite well. At first we were thinking office, but there’s really not enough demand for second and third floor office space on Yonge St.

MM: There are problems up there. The upper floors on the Yonge Street buildings' size might be nice, and might get great light, but the question was how to get access up there, how to get elevators in, second exits. There are currently too many stairs to get up, and they don't conform to today's code. A lot of those things don't necessarily work when you look at the buildings on an individual basis.

GS: So, we are putting the entrance to those upper floors on St. Joseph, so that area it will have its own lobby and elevator, similar to the 'Five Thieves' at Summerhill and Yonge.

How much of those buildings will you be able to save? Are you having to totally gut them?

GS: Yes. Right now the floors in there are wooden and wonky, and at different levels because of the slope of street. We'll put in steel floors with concrete pads on top.

MM: There is nothing really cool or interesting left in those buildings. We hunted for anything that might be really neat, but everything has been through multiple renovations.

Back of the Yonge Street buildings at Five St. Joseph, image by Jack Landau

Is it even a situation where you were able to salvage and reface any of the wood floors?

GS: No, based on what's left it’s not worth it. ERA have done detailed drawings of the facades, down to every bracket. It's almost archaeological when you walk up and down Yonge St, you see the traces of history; sometimes the architectural details are there and sometimes not. Sometimes there are pediments, sometimes there are cornices. ERA have approached it from that level of detail, so all those elements will be restored, while allowing for modern storefronts. We're not turning it into Disneyland.

Scott Weir: This is a similar approach to what you might see in Cabbagetown. As you're walking through the neighbourhood you have the feeling that it's an intact 19th century district, but what's interesting is that if you go into any one of those houses, they have fantastic brand new kitchens, amazing open spaces that have been fully gutted or rebuilt because they might have had termite damage. And this goes on throughout the city, even within Heritage Conservation Districts there is an opportunity for the new to fit in with the old.

During construction, will you have to disassemble these buildings at any point, or will the walls remain standing?

GS: There were a number of later additions on the backs of the Yonge Street properties. These were demolished, and a temporary wall was put up, because the garage is going underneath that section.

Will the garage extend all the way to Yonge? 

GS: No, in the original design it came close, but it has been scaled back to preserve more of the Yonge Street buildings.

St. Joseph Street at Five St. Joseph by MOD Developments and Graywood Developments

MM: On St. Joseph there is the huge wall being retained of course. Some call it façadism, but its good we're keeping the wall. On the St. Nicholas side, because it was fairly nondescript masonry, it was taken down and will be put back up again. It was not worth bracing that one.

GS: The bracing on St. Joseph is probably the largest facade retention project ever in the GTA. When you think of the height and length of it, propping up a 4 storey wall with a 5 1/2 level excavation behind it, it's very expensive.

Some people are going to miss those flying buttress girders once they're gone. If FIVE takes long enough to build, maybe they'll be declared heritage when it's done.

MM, SW, GS: [polite laughter].

Preserving the warehouse façade at Five St. Joseph, image by thecharioteer

How closely are you rebuilding the warehouse?

GS: That is really a reconstruction. Much of the original brick was in horrible shape. The floors were at different levels, as this was actually more than one building. The windows didn't line up either, and some of them were tiny, pokey little things. I think what the city really wanted was to recreate the ambience of this section of St. Nicholas.

MM: The city is also getting retail on St. Nicholas, to add some more activity. It's a very unusual street, it's more a lane really. Toronto just doesn't normally have that as a kind of public space.

A bit of a “woonerf” in the making?

GS: We hope so. It's a cobbled stone surface, and is closed during construction. We'll reconstruct it when it is finished. 

St. Nicholas Street at Five St. Joseph by MOD Developments and Graywood Developments

The St. Nicholas laneway retail rendering drew a lot of interest on UrbanToronto. In terms of the brick for the warehouse, if it is new, how closely are you able to match it?

SW: It will match, really close. Up until 10 years ago, brick makers in Canada were not making Ontario sized brick, they weren't using formulas that were used previously. We used to have to import from UK, but now we have found that there are a number of local makers switching back to the right size.

Were the bricks here originally fired at Toronto Brick in the Don Valley, or do you have any idea where?

MM: Some of this building is too early. Some was probably from Yonge by Rosedale; Ramsden Park was a brick quarry, whereas other brick here would have been from the peak time when Toronto Brick Works was very busy, so my guess is probably. These would have been 1880s.

These days, besides just the fact that you can get a particular size, you can have fine tuned colour?

SW: There's a pretty big range. One of the nice things about Toronto, from us having had our dollar so low, it allowed the for skills like stone carving and that kind of thing to end up in Toronto. The masonry community here is particularly good.

Back of the warehouse façade at Five St. Joseph, image by Harvey McGrath

What are your thoughts on the height of the tower in relation to the scale of Yonge Street?

MM: We're really pleased with this project as it brings a whole bunch of things together. The City has a mid-rise policy for how you build on avenues, which basically says replace the low-rise buildings with mid-rise, and it's a very hard policy to implement. This offers an alternate strategy. It brings a revitalization of Yonge Street by leaving the low-rises where they are as this parcel is large enough that you can build a tall building behind it. It's a buildable model, following the City's policy to intensify the Avenues, but it's a different built form. I think that's the way I'd rather see this kind of thing happen on Queen, on the Danforth, etc. it’s actually something developers can build, while you don't totally disrupt the existing fabric of the streets—which people kind of like!

I agree, although I think people would have a hard time with 48 floors at Danforth and Logan. 

GS: But you could have 20. I don't understand why at Broadview and Danforth, close to the subway, why is that Loblaws store not a high-rise site? But the City doesn't want high-rise. The official plan doesn't foresee any high-rise in spots like that.

MM: It's going to happen in a logical way, when there is a need for it. It is going to happen late on the Danforth, at some point. The City’s policy basically says knock down the low rise buildings and build mid-rise buildings, and that is going to continually hit my favourite shops. I'd prefer they not knock down my favourite cheese shop! 

GS: Look at the fight on Avenue Road north of Lawrence to replace that little plaza with that Tribute/Rio-Can building.

Just seven floors. Owing to its massing, that was amongst our favourite buildings of 2010. A terraced seven-storey building is not the end of the world for the edge of a neighbourhood. While 1717 Avenue Road works up there, FIVE is now being cited as the model of how to do this type of redevelopment in more urban locations. 

MM: It's doing it at several different levels, on Yonge, on St. Nicholas, on St. Joseph. Different gestures addressing each street, and then at the larger scale, with how it fits in with the whole neighbourhood.

GS: We all know that the City is dealing with a number of new applications on Yonge, between Bloor and College and that the challenge is to preserve the sense of the street in addition to the existing heritage buildings. The evolving Yonge Street Planning Framework tries to deal with this, but there’s still not enough attention paid to excellence in design, it often just comes down to the issue of height.

I do see more attention being paid to architecture in Toronto now though.

GS: Yes, because I think you've got more developers that are using better architects.

There's more scrutiny from the public.

GS: Umm…

You don't think that has anything to do with it?

GS: Well, the PUG Awards show that the general public does care about design. I don't know if scrutiny is really the right word, but I think that from my experience people are willing to pay for good design. 

MM: I was going to say that the negative public pressure, the 'I hate it, I hate it, I hate it', that just never changes, and it's just not particularly nice—some public meetings can be awful—but I think there is a greater public appreciation for the quality of design now, and they're actually thinking, 'well I can buy something better'. Toronto hadn't really been very sophisticated in that regard, but now I think it’s the better designed buildings that are selling better, that's my sense.

FIVE was MOD Developments’ first building, and it did well with 45 floors, now it's 48. Similarly large buildings have ruined other more established developers. You obviously bring all of your experience, you have a great site, respected architects…

GS: We also have an experienced partner, Graywood Developments on this. Graywood, I think you know, has been in business for decades. The Ritz-Carlton is theirs, and I think the design by Kohn Pederson Fox is brilliant.

Graywood was more of a behind-the-scenes name. Until the Ritz they hadn't really had so public a face. When people buy into FIVE, do you have a feeling that it's for the various backgrounds of the team that's creating it, or is just for the building itself?

GS: I think it's the combination. The purchaser wants security, they want the comfort of knowing that what they're paying for is actually going to be what they end up getting. When you're buying from plans, how do you know if you're going to get terrible finishes? Is it going to be two years late? Is it even going to look like what the rendering looks like? I think that people look at the track records, starting with the developer, whether they want to check with Tarion, does this guy have a good rating. The year Great Gulf did 18 Yorkville we won high-rise builder of the year from Tarion, which is really based on customer satisfaction.

But if someone were googling MOD Developments, does your reputation transfer from those years?

GS: Somewhat, but they would also find out that FIVE won BILD’s 2011 “Project of the Year” and “High-rise Design of the Year”. They would, of course, see the press we received for our other Yonge Street project “Massey Tower”.

I sometimes look at it as producing a movie, where I might be more the executive producer, but then I get my stars and my screen writers, I get the set guy and the music and all this… It could still end up being a disaster as we know from the movies, but, when the things all fit… it's bound to work. This is the same team I have worked with in other projects: Hariri Pontarini, Cecconi Simone, Janet Rosenberg. And then the engineers that never get mentioned in any of these things, like Tibor Kokai who used to be at Yolles, the mechanical and electrical engineers, Steven Little, they're all part of the team to make sure the building actually works. 

Graywood is your chief contractor?

GS: They are, and are they going to do a quality product.

MM: The movie thing’s really funny, because when I was in school, Morden Yolles came into our class and he was talking about being an engineer and he used exactly the same analogy, because his wife is a film maker. All you're doing is exactly like making a film, because it's also a project, has a timeline, has a production date, has a budget, has all of these things, all the phasing, getting the right people together… it is a very good analogy. I find that good projects are based on a good client, a good team, and a good community response. The project has to fit with the community, the ward Councillor needs to be supportive, and at least some people in the neighbourhood have to be supportive, So there’s these three different kind of pieces that really have to work together to pull it together. You can smell something that is not pulling together, you can sense when something's missing. And we have been on projects where we said, we really think there should be another design architect…

GS: Which must go over real big!

MM: You know when something is not quite clicking, it may be the team has come up with the wrong scenario, like nice building, wrong place… something like that. This is a project where all of the pieces fit very nicely and where it actually fits in context. The planners couldn't have come up with a project better suited to revitalizing this section of Yonge St. It's a very nice project, something we're very pleased with. 

UrbanToronto thanks Michael McClelland and Scott Weir (who had to depart part-way through) of E.R.A. Architects, and Gary Switzer of MOD Developments for taking the time to talk with us.

Related Companies:  Baker Real Estate Incorporated, Cecconi Simone, Diamond Corp, Hariri Pontarini Architects, Janet Rosenberg & Studio, L.A. Inc., Peter McCann Architectural Models Inc., Tricon Residential