Big changes are in store for Mirvish Village, the tight-knit artist community at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst Streets, whose claim to fame includes the iconic home of the brash and quirky Honest Ed's bargain store. The Mirvish Village neighbourhood is the site of a massive redevelopment proposal, headed by Westbank and designed by Henriquez Partners Architects of Vancouver, that includes nearly 1000 new rental units, a public market, a range of new retail spaces, a bicycle service and shopping centre, an expanded public realm, and an artist community, all wrapped up in a mid- to high-rise complex with a fine-grained programming and aesthetic.

East elevation of the proposed development along Bathurst Street, image courtesy of Westbank.

Change was in the air on a quiet fall morning this past weekend—perhaps the calm before the storm—as roughly 40 community members and citizens gathered at the City Lab in Markham House for Westbank's Mirvish Village Heritage Walkshop. As the third walkshop of Westbank's campaign to foster community involvement kicked off, participants were led on a walking tour of the site, conducted by Jane Farrow, facilitator at MASS LBP and former executive director of Jane's Walks; Alexis Cohen, architectural historian at ERA Architects; and Jonah Letovsky, project coordinator at Westbank.

Heritage was the central focus as facilitators engaged in lively discussions with the crowd regarding the past, present, and future of the eclectic neighbourhood that many Torontonians hold dear to their hearts. The purpose of the walkshop was to "help create a space where people can talk, have input, and reflect and generate ideas about what they think...about the present proposal," Farrow explained. "This is an experiment...Westbank wanted to be proactive and to get out in the community and engage people in the city".

A crowd gathers at Markham House for the Mirvish Village Walkshop, image by Julian Mirabelli.

Indeed, the walkshop is a fairly new typology that isn't all that common when it comes to public consultations. Westbank, as well as the City of Toronto, have a vested interest in redefining the way public consultations are carried out, and the walkshop series for Mirvish Village is an attempt to engage the public in a more personal, intimate way. Participants were treated to interesting tidbits of history from around the site, before being asked thought-provoking questions related to issues designers are tackling in terms of heritage and the development of the area. Organizers were pleased with the outcome, and both Westbank and City Planning are taking note of the successful walkshops to influence public engagement campaigns for future developments.

Jane Farrow, Alexis Cohen, and Jonah Letovsky speak to the crowd at the Mirvish Village Walkshop, image by Julian Mirabelli

The walk began with a brief introduction of the project, followed by a quick overview of what Cohen described as a 'heritage puzzle', the conundrum posed by the prospect of preserving the 'Mirvishness' of the neighbourhood while simultaneously fulfilling the densification needs of a living, evolving city. The heritage puzzle also includes delving into the layers of history and deciphering what exactly defines this Mirvishness, often encountering conflicts in the process. "The site itself has many different layers," she explained, "the destruction of buildings by Honest Ed's one part of it."

The Mirvish Village Walkshop included a history tour and lively discussion about the neighbourhood, image by Julian Mirabelli.

Indeed, demolition is not a new concept for Mirvish Village. From its beginnings in 1943 as a women's clothing store in an old house on the corner of Bloor and Markham, Honest Ed's slowly expanded and evolved into what we know and love today, absorbing and erasing in the process the neighbouring buildings and local businesses along Bloor and Bathurst Streets. Fast forward to 1962, when Honest Ed's was flourishing and drawing crowds and traffic from all over the city, local residents were growing increasingly disgruntled and annoyed by the noise and disturbances, filing numerous complaints with the city against the business.

The solution? A city alderman suggested to Mirvish that he purchase all the properties along Markham Street in order to demolish them and build a parking lot. In a door-to-door campaign, Mirvish managed to convince all the owners to sell their properties, only to have the City change its mind (due in part to the residential zoning of Markham Street) and deny his request to raze the old housing stock. Ed Mirvish, now the owner of an entire city block, found himself the unwitting owner of empty, aging houses.

Luckily, Ed's wife Anne Mirvish rose to the occasion and saw an opportunity for the establishment of an artist enclave in the homes of Markham Street, particularly with Gerrard Village—a former artists' neighbourhood in Toronto—facing demolition. Choosing 581 Markham as her own studio (the present-day Victory Cafe), Anne Mirvish successfully established the artist community of Mirvish Village, which still thrives to this day.

The walk headed into Honest Ed Alley, image by Julian Mirabelli.

As the walk headed into Honest Ed Alley, the discussion inevitably moved to the legacy of the store and what about it merits historical consideration. After a lively—and at times heated—debate, it was generally agreed that the affordability and inclusiveness of the store, as well as the neighbourhood, was a major factor in its impact on the city. Honest Ed's kept local rent and prices low, while providing something for everyone, drawing crowds from all across the city.

Westbank hopes to continue this legacy with a public market, as well as a large mix of retail spaces, from the micro-retail of the new Honest Ed's Alley, to larger units facing onto Bloor and Bathurst, and incorporating further retail along Markham Street. The current tenants and artist community - while inevitably having to vacate the site during construction and restoration - will be welcome to engage with Westbank in the future regarding tenancy.

Honest Ed's bargain store, which will be demolished for the new development, image by Julian Mirabelli.

The walk then circled the block and stopped at Markham Street, sparking a discussion of the heritage value of the Victorian houses and their artist's studios. Referring to Toronto as a 'city of homes', Cohen touched upon a unique urban phenomenon seen in Toronto; that of the single-family house converted into a commercial or retail establishment.

When Downtown Toronto developed at the end of the 19th-century, the buildings were driven by a social and moral conservatism centering around the single family unit that resulted in a city of detached dwellings, contrary to the walk-ups and rowhouses more commonly seen in cities like Montreal or New York. This old housing stock gave birth to a quirky phenomenon where old residential neighbourhoods were organically converted into thriving commercial and art centres around the city - the best examples being Yorkville, Kensington Market, and the former Gerrard Village. This unique urban evolution is what gives this neighbourhood its intimate character, and this is what Westbank intends to preserve.

The businesses and artist studios along Markham Street are a unique urban phenomenon, image by Julian Mirabelli.

The majority of the houses will be preserved in their entirety, and Westbank's aim is to preserve the community feel that makes Mirvish Village so unique. Along the east side of Markham, the non-heritage additions at the rear of the houses will be removed and replaced with Honest Ed's Alley, an intimate shopping alley mimicking the highly successful pedestrian alleyways of Melbourne, adding micro-retail and a cozy atmosphere to complement historic Markham Street. 

The majority of houses on Markham Street will be preserved, image by Julian Mirabelli.

It was recently announced that the City will be trying to list 35 properties in the Bloor-Bathurst area as heritage buildings, the majority of which fall within the Mirvish Village site (which currently has no listed buildings). While this may bring about changes to the proposal, it is not seen as a hindrance for the developer. "Westbank totally supports the listing of these properties," stated Letovsky. "We are a company that recognizes the value in heritage buildings." While listing a building as heritage does not guarantee the preservation of the structure in its entirety, Letovsky explained that, "the main point of listing is to say that we recognize there is a heritage element here that is worth considering, and we [at Westbank] totally agree."

The public engages in a discussion at the Mirvish Village Walkshop, image by Julian Mirabelli.

There is a certain sensitivity in Westbank's approach that brings heritage and community to the forefront of this proposal, as they navigate the tensions created between the past and the future of an evolving city. With plenty of commentary and feedback from public consultations, the Design Review Panel, and the City, Westbank will now head back to refine their proposal based on the information collected. Meanwhile, public consultations and events will continue into the winter months, with plenty of opportunity for citizens to get involved in the process.

For now, we can only wait in anticipation for what will come next with this exciting proposal. Stay tuned for updates as more information becomes available. In the meantime, you can find more info and renderings of Westbank's Mirvish Village proposal in our dataBase file for the project, linked below. If you would like to talk about the plans, you can get in on the conversation in our associated Forum thread, or leave a comment in the space provided on this page.

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