During the decades leading up to Toronto's recent condo boom, much of the city's downtown was dotted by surface parking lots, leftover spaces from the legacy of widespread urban renewal in the 1950s and 60s. Today, many of these otherwise empty lots have been filled in and redeveloped, quite often animating desolate streetscapes with vibrant new buildings and communities. One of the last remaining large-scale open lots in the city currently spans an entire city block east of the Financial District from Queen Street East north to Shuter Street, between Mutual and Dalhousie Streets, and is the location of a new development proposal that looks to add a significant amount of density to the site.

Aerial view of the empty lot at 88 Queen East, image retrieved via Apple Maps.

At the February 18 meeting of Toronto's Design Review Panel, we caught our first complete glimpse of what may appear in the empty lot at 88 Queen East. The proposal by St. Thomas Developments would see condominium towers erected on the nearly 10,000-square-metre site, complete with a hotel, a city park, a privately-owned public space (POPS), ground and second-level retail, all arranged around a pedestrian mews. The presentation to the Panel was a pre-application workshop - essentially a design critique prior to filing a zoning application with the City - therefore, many of the ideas put forth are likely to change as the design by Page + Steele / IBI Group Architects evolves.

Eastern elevation along Mutual Street, image courtesy of St. Thomas Developments.

The initial phase, at a more advance planning stage and already in marketing under the name 88 North, comprises a 29-storey tower constructed at the north end along Shuter Street (seen at right, above). Following phases would include the construction of conjoined 27-storey towers in the middle of the property, and a 58-storey tower proposed along Queen Street at the south end. The 58-storey tower features dynamic massing with volumes that extrude and recess into the face of the building, aiming to merge interior and exterior spaces while paying homage to Herzog & de Meuron's 56 Leonard in New York.

Proposed site plan, image courtesy of St. Thomas Developments.

The first tower at the north end of the site has the simplest design, with a largely glass facade and extruding balconies that vary in position on each elevation. The 29-storey tower will be located toward the corner of Shuter and Mutual Streets, and will sit atop a 7-storey podium with ground-level retail and a rooftop terrace.

North elevation of the north tower along Shuter Street, image courtesy of St. Thomas Developments.

The middle two towers, located along the east and west edges of the site at Mutual and Dalhousie Streets, are expressed as three-storey blocks stacked atop one another and staggered toward the north and south, which are separated by a recessed level in between to fully articulate the blocks. Rising 27 storeys each, the two buildings would be connected by three-storey sky gardens, with 4.5-metre-wide outdoor terraces at each recessed level. The ground floors would also contain retail units that open up onto the surrounding public spaces.

Southern facade of the middle towers (south tower removed to capture image), image courtesy of St. Thomas Developments.

The south tower would feature a 5-to-8 storey podium containing a hotel, and will rise 58-storeys above the corner of Mutual and Queen Streets. The design features varying floor plates creating extruded and recessed volumes that become more dramatic on the upper floors, giving the impression that the building is breaking apart as it rises. The podium design also features dramatic undulating volumes that vary in colour and texture to give visual interest and relate to the surrounding structures.

Southern facade of the podium along Queen Street, image courtesy of St. Thomas Developments.

The massing of the buildings was largely determined by a flight path restriction for helicopters approaching the nearby St. Michael's Hospital. The flight path limited the height of the northern towers, while no height restrictions are imposed on the southern portion of the site, allowing the south tower to rise higher.

Diagram looking southeast showing the flight path restrictions, image courtesy of St. Thomas Developments.

The central focus of the entire development is the design of the public realm, and this theme played heavily into the presentation of the project. The proposal includes a new city park located just off Dalhousie Street near the northwest corner, and a new POPS located just off Mutual Street near the southeast corner. Bisecting the site down its north-south axis is a pedestrian mews lined with ground- and second-level retail spaces, which begins with a five-storey passageway from Queen Street through the podium of the south tower, and terminates at the north tower with access to Mutual and Dalhousie Streets. East-west block connections stretch from Mutual to Dalhousie Streets at both the POPS and the city park. All elements of the public realm are being designed by Claude Cormier & Associés.

Site plan highlighting the public realm, image courtesy of St. Thomas Developments.

The 750-square-metre city park takes its inspiration from the intimate and enigmatic Paley Park in New York, and will feature a water or art wall at its eastern edge to create a visual and physical barrier masking the loading docks and service spaces behind. A central mound of grass will be surrounded by a mineral surface dotted with trees, aiming to create a contained 'outdoor room' with an intimate atmosphere, lined by complementary retail spaces.

View of the city park looking east from Dalhousie Street, image courtesy of St. Thomas Developments.

The 980-square-metre POPS follows a similar design to that of the park, with a completely mineral surface dotted by lines of trees that create a canopy over the outdoor space. The intimate atmosphere will again be animated by ground-level retail, and will feature a large public art piece as a playful focal point.

View of the POPS looking west from Mutual Street, image courtesy of St. Thomas Developments.

The retail strategy for the site is centred around food, which aims to appeal to the targeted demographic of millennials that constitute 62% of the area's current residents. The majority of retail spaces will contain restaurants and cafes, including a two-storey food hall located in the podium of the west tower. A food market will be located in the podium of the north tower, while destination retail or a possible fitness centre will occupy the second floor of the east tower. All of the ground floor retail establishments will open onto either the pedestrian mews, the public spaces, or the sidewalk in order to animate the public realm.

Site plan showing ground floor uses, image courtesy of St. Thomas Developments.

The proposal for 88 Queen East is quite detailed, but it is important to note that none of it is set in stone, as it is still in the design and planning stages of the process. And indeed, after a thorough presentation at the Design Review Panel, the panelists were quick to raise some concerns that could impact the future design of the project.

View looking south from the park down the pedestrian mews, image courtesy of St. Thomas Developments.

The panelists questioned the appropriateness of the building height, and felt that 58 storeys east of downtown was perhaps a bit high. They also brought up issues about the massing of the complex, stating that the middle towers appeared as a single building, and that the form of each of the towers will need to be further refined. While they applauded the inclusion of public spaces throughout the site, they questioned the effectiveness of the pedestrian mews and whether or not it might succeed, given its internalizing qualities and the predominance of large, single-tenant retail spaces, as opposed to a more fine-grained small-scale retail approach. They also pointed out that more could be done to engage with the sidewalk along the surrounding streets, rather than concentrating pedestrian activity at the centre of the site.

Close-up on the west facade of the west tower, image courtesy of St. Thomas Developments.

Most importantly, though, the panelists were concerned with the project's relationship to the surrounding areas. They felt that the internalizing qualities of the proposal did not lend themselves to benefitting the wider neighbourhood, and that focusing on millennials as a demographic - who will inevitably grow up - and ignoring the heavy presence of homeless and low-income residents might not be best for the area. The lack of affordable housing and security concerns were also raised as issues. Aesthetically, the dramatic facade of the podium along Queen Street, with its extruded volumes and flashy finishes, was criticized for its lack of relationship to the heritage streetwall opposite the site on the south side of Queen.

View looking southwest toward the POPS and south tower, image courtesy of St. Thomas Developments.

Finally, a point was made about the precedent-setting potential of this project, and its impact for future development in the neighbourhood and the city. Much like what has happened in the Entertainment District, along Yonge Street, and in Yorkville, once one tower has been built, it opens the door for other developments of a similar or larger scale to materialize, often completely transforming a neighbourhood for better or for worse. The Panel agreed overall that more thought and consideration should be given to the impact that this proposal will have on the current and future neighbourhood, its residents, and the public realm.

Western facade along Dalhousie Street, image courtesy of St. Thomas Developments.

It was a riveting discussion at the Panel, and one that left us with an intriguing proposal and many questions. We will keep you updated as more details emerge on this development, but in the meantime, you can check out our dataBase file, linked below, for more information and the latest up-to-date renderings. Want to share your thoughts on the project and learn more? Join in the discussion in our associated Forum thread, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page.

Related Companies:  Cecconi Simone, Claude Cormier + Associés, IBI Group, L.A. Inc., MarketVision Real Estate, St Thomas Developments Inc.