In this installment of The Interview we conclude our 3-part series with Gary Switzer, CEO of MOD Developments. In discussing his latest project, Massey Tower, we learn about some of the difficulties faced at this site, as well as his aspirations for the surrounding neighbourhood and the City of Toronto. If you missed out, check back on Part 1 and Part 2 to catch-up on the discussion.
Our conversation ended last week with a look at FIVE St. Joseph. Can you tell us about your most recent project, Massey Tower, and some of the difficulties you've faced along the way?
Massey Tower is a very different project than FIVE St. Joseph, though they do have a lot of similarities. They both pursue themes that have interested me all my life: memory, the city, modernity and how they can all be tied in together.
On one hand, at FIVE we had an old warehouse with a facade that had architectural significance. In addition, the building had housed over a period of thirty years some of the most renowned nightclubs in the Yonge/Wellesley area. Our interior designers Cecconi Simone embraced this memory (which still had a lot of potency in the local community) and designed an edgy, eclectic, almost theatrical sales centre, winning the 2011 BILD award for Best Sales Centre and Best Model Suite.
Massey, on the other hand, had its genesis with the historic Bank of Commerce building, abandoned for 25 years, on one of the most high-profile sites in the city. The façade is magnificent, designed by Toronto’s pre-eminent beaux-art architects at the time, Darling & Pearson, in 1905. The interior was a disaster; rotten floors throughout the upper levels (the result of broken skylights and windows) and a ground floor that had stood vacant since 1987, the floor covered with vinyl tiles, the ceiling with fluorescent lights. Like archaeologists, we began the long process of peeling back the degradations of the last 50 years (I even lifted some of the vinyl tiles myself!) and discovered what seemed to be a lost world of hand-set marble tiles in Greek-revival patterns, all in colours unimaginable today; aubergine, ochre, emerald and cream. The ceiling had various types of vaulting, with the showpiece - in what is now the reception room and will be the main lobby in the finished condominium - being a magnificent plaster ceiling containing an encyclopedia of classical detailing: dentils, egg and dart, brackets, pilasters…It’s totally wonderful.
Cecconi Simone approached the interior with the utmost respect for the classical heritage, but also with a sense of humour. As an homage to the Edwardian pomp and circumstance of the old bank (and with a nod to the 1913 Elgin/Winter Garden Theatres next door), Anna Simone had massive red velvet drapes installed, and furnished the old banking hall with long gold ottomans, etched Venetian-style mirrored tables, and over-the-top blood-red chandeliers, so dark that they appeared black. The walls are covered with wallpaper inspired by the Neapolitan Royal Palace in Caserta, Italy. At the same time, she and her team designed a model suite which was light and airy, contemporary but still with a nod to the past. To use a fashion analogy, Massey’s interior would be like Alexander McQueen, in the way that he would take something as ordinary as a tartan, and transform it into something new and extraordinary. In Massey, Cecconi Simone did something similar using beaux-arts imagery and the remnants of a neo-classical interior and transforming it into an amazing thing of beauty.
Massey exploded onto the scene earlier this year, in large part due to its height and ultramodern façade, but no doubt also a result of its location and integration of a notable heritage building as its face on Yonge Street. The historic Canadian Bank of Commerce building at the base of Massey is undoubtedly an integral part of many Torontonians’ perceptions of Yonge, even though it has been derelict for a number of years. Can you tell us a bit about working with the landmark building, and what your plans are for re-integrating it back into city life?
You’re absolutely right about the importance of the Bank of Commerce building in terms of the Yonge Street streetscape. If we were just dealing with it alone, it would be incredibly challenging, given its architectural detailing and its 25 years of neglect. But we’re also dealing with the entire block.
What’s ironic is that in the mid-1980s, when I was in the Planning Department, I worked on this block when it was known as the Theatre Block. The whole premise of the Theatre Block goes back to the early 1980s following the opening of the Eaton Centre around 1977. The city realized soon afterwards that from Queen up to Dundas the whole east side of Yonge had declined in terms of retail viability. They declared it a “Redevelopment Area” in order to generate ideas. The Elgin/Winter Garden Theatres were also in danger at that point, as they were up for sale. The first thing that kick-started the idea for this block was the province buying the Elgin under the aegis of the Ontario Heritage Trust, an incredibly forward-thinking move. Plans were developed to think of the block in its entirety and try to create a type of piazza in the centre of the block that could be like a mini-Lincoln Center Plaza for the Elgin/Winter Garden Theatres and Massey Hall. Various buildings would be demolished, replaced by office towers. In 1982, Council approved a Part II Plan for the block, acquiring the Bank of Toronto Building at 205 Yonge, The Colonial Tavern at 201 Yonge (once home to such jazz greats as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong), and our building, the Bank of Commerce building, at 197 Yonge. They proceeded to demolish the Colonial, creating what was perceived as a temporary parkette. The recession of the early 1990s ended any further grand plans for the block, and the Bank of Commerce Building was sold to Parasuco Jeans in 1999. The City renovated the Bank of Toronto building for Heritage Toronto, which occupied it between 1992 and 2001. After amalgamation the building was declared “surplus” and sold to its present owners in 2007, and still sits vacant. In early 2012 we bought 197 Yonge Street site, including the parkette to the north and extending east to Victoria Street behind Massey Hall.
When I mentioned earlier that the challenge of this development extends beyond just the renovation of a heritage building, I was referring to the site’s position within the block. One of the challenges on this site is that the entire back of the property is crisscrossed with easements on behalf of the neighbours in order to provide for such things as patrons exiting from the Elgin, loading for both the Elgin and the Heintzman Building, and access to Heintzman’s underground parking. Anyone looking to buy this site (which has been for sale for a number of years) would look at it and say that it’s too complicated and that there are easier sites in the city. When we looked at this site about two years ago, we took the floor plate for FIVE St. Joseph and put it in the middle of the block to see if we could actually work it out and still maintain all those easements at grade. It does work. The design is actually all open at the back under the building in order to maintain loading, as well as exiting from the theatre. The whole thing is really going to be like a Swiss watch, figuring out how it all works.
An added complication, but an aspect that helps bring life into the entire block, was the decision to give Massey Hall the below- and above-grade rights to the piece of our property behind them on Victoria Street. This gift will finally allow them to do a much-needed addition to the Hall and bring the building up to current standards (as well as restore the 1894 interior). To me, this is also the fulfillment of one of my own dreams, as I (and most of Toronto) have a lot of affection for Massey Hall. I remember seeing Gordon Lightfoot premiere the “Great Railroad Trilogy” there, as well as the legendary German soprano Elisabeth Schwartzkopf perform her farewell concert. Massey is thrilled and has hired Marianne McKenna from KPMB (who designed the renovation of the Royal Conservatory of Music), and is working out an absolutely stunning design. Between their restoration and renovation, and our work on the Bank of Commerce Building, the entire block will be a showpiece for the entire city.
In regards to Massey Tower’s height, how will the building affect the surrounding district, and what makes this location suitable for 60 storeys?
Well, certainly from recent studies, like the “Tall Buildings” reports, this block has been identified as a tall buildings location, particularly because of its proximity to the Queen subway station. In particular, one has to look at the site in terms of impact, both to the immediate neighbours and to the neighbourhood at large. David Pontarini has done a wonderful job in placing the tower on the site, having it set back from Yonge to both enhance the heritage buildings and to comply with recommended setbacks. In terms of the larger picture, the tower doesn’t shadow any major open spaces like Nathan Phillips Square or Dundas Square. One can also look at its height in the context of it being transitional between the towers of the Financial District a few blocks away and the lower towers further north (notwithstanding the 75-storey 'Aura' at Yonge and Gerrard). Interestingly, we had a community consultation meeting a few months ago, and height was not brought up as a major concern to area residents or businesses, and the Downtown Yonge BIA is fully supporting the development. We are also adding a significant number of residential units to a block that at this time has none, finally making the block “mixed-use”.
It’s clear that we can no longer rely on public institutions to purchase, restore and maintain urban heritage properties in a climate where fiscal conservatism is preached and the existing portfolio is more often than not poorly maintained. Is private development the most viable option then for preserving heritage buildings in the future?
I think that we have to rely on (and expect) public and religious institutions to maintain and enhance the buildings they own, and if one looks at show-pieces like Osgoode Hall, the Old City Hall, the St. Lawrence Hall, St. James Cathedral, they’ve done a good job - though I’d still like to see some proper lighting at night! Our historic neighbourhoods, like Cabbagetown or Rosedale, are all dependent on private owners, within the context of being Heritage Conservation Districts. One can also think of developers like the late Paul Oberman, who did such a wonderful job with the Summerhill LCBO and the 'Five Thieves', or the great work done in the recent renovation of the Dineen Building at Yonge and Temperance.
My own belief is that I think the present system is totally dysfunctional, and that the city did the heritage movement a disservice when the Toronto Historical Board (later Heritage Toronto) was spun off and removed from the development approval process, with heritage being left in the hands of an under-staffed and under-funded Preservation Services within the Planning Department. I’m so tired of unlisted heritage buildings being demolished such as 81 Wellesley East or Hungarian House on St. Clair West, followed by the City throwing up its hands and saying that they don’t have the resources to list everything. They’ve been listing buildings since 1973. Adam Vaughan sent a bunch of students out in his ward to document almost every block; I think the City could do that. This is where the contradiction is – that every Official Plan since the 1970s has said that heritage is a priority, but the City never funds it properly.
You’ve most definitely come a long way from your early days studying architecture at the University of Toronto, and your experiences have undoubtedly impacted your approach to urban development. Can you tell us about your aspirations, both for MOD Developments and the City of Toronto?
My aspirations are to continue doing great buildings! I love this city and it feels good when I look at the projects I’ve been involved with that have left the city a better place. There is a Hebrew expression, “tikkun olam”, which roughly translates to “repairing and restoring the world”. This has been a theme for me from the beginning, whether it was The Saint James repairing a “broken” block damaged by the mass demolitions of the 1950s and 60s, or more recent developments like FIVE and Massey Tower which are literally repairing and restoring significant architectural treasures while simultaenously rejuvenating their neighbourhoods. I see our future projects at MOD continuing this trend. My aspirations for the City of Toronto are similar: I’d love to see them 'repair and restore' the waterfront, our streets, our parks and our neighbourhoods. I know this sounds very idealistic and optimistic, but I am by nature an idealist and an optimist and I think that this can be done, even if it’s only one step at a time.
UrbanToronto thanks Gary Switzer for sitting down to talk with us.