Toronto’s Old City Hall, by virtue of its location at the intersection of Queen and Bay streets, is a civic monument even if it cannot easily be explored. Though a life of crime is highly inadvisable, getting arrested is one of the more efficient ways of visiting the building that now functions as a municipal and provincial court. The leases for the court space expires in 2021, however, and when that happens the City is looking to put the building to a more public use.

Old City Hall, from May 2015, overlooking Nathan Phillips Square and Downtown Toronto, image by Craig White

Last year, an inference circulated online that the Richardsonian Romanesque structure could be turned into a mall, just like the neighbouring Eaton Centre. More recently, an artist's prank poster suggested that the building would serve as the base of a 92-storey residential tower. “We weren’t planning on turning Old City Hall into a mall,” said Scott Barrett, a senior project manager with the City of Toronto’s Real Estate Planning Division, “but we had to regroup.”

The discussion around Old City Hall, as mandated by City Council, now centres on its potential use as a site for a mooted City of Toronto Museum. City staff and consultants have been tasked with providing a staff report on the subject within the next year, and a public consultation held at Metro Hall on Tuesday night sought to bring attendees into the planning process.

“We hope the museum will be more than a place to just host exhibitions, so we’ve looked at the possibility of bringing in research and classrooms,” said Scott Stanwick, a planner with Lord Cultural Resources. He added that research of other comparable facilities had led planners to consider spaces that could be used for performances, debate, archives, and meetings. The exact distribution of these functions, however, is still being debated.

Heritage Value and Possible Plan for the First Floor of Old City Hall

At this early stage, only one thing is certain: If the museum is built, it will only be one of the building’s numerous tenants. It would occupy about half of the available space.

“If City Hall approves a museum we’ll look for tenants that complement that use,” said Rodney McDonald, a principal with the real estate company Avison Young. One possibility he acknowledged was having the gift shop and café normally associated with a museum operated by commercial tenants.

Some of the approximately eighty participants at the consultation were not enamored with this plan. 

“If you give shops to a private company against rent,” one said, “you don’t have that revenue.” 

“It isn’t entirely about the money,” McDonald said, “but we do need to create revenue to pay for the operating and capital upkeep.”

At this stage, very little about the future museum — aside from its perimeter walls — is set in stone. The consultants and architects working on the staff report are by no means guaranteed to design the actual facility, and they hinted at a possibility of an architectural competition should City Council approve the project.

One of several plans created by Ryerson Architecture students displayed at the consultation

No matter the final details of the plan for Old City Hall, however, they acknowledged that significant changes would need to be made on the site. “The courtyard is really only used at the moment as a parking lot for court cars and police vehicles that are delivering people to the courthouse,” said architect Peter Ortved of CS&P Architects, and the attic spaces “a grand, cathedral-like space at the top of the building are unfortunately not really used or occupied.”

“We have proposed that in order to efficiently use the building, the courtyard should be enclosed with a glass roof of some kind in order to create more usable spaces, Ortved said. “It would be a highly desirable and usable space in the city and should be, we think, accessible to all building users.”

That plan — and indeed any plan for the site — will have to take into consideration its status as one of Toronto’s most recognizable heritage buildings.

“For a building like this it’s the same as the adaptive reuses that we see in all heritage buildings where it’s a mix of those choices,” said Heritage Toronto’s Mary MacDonald. “Obviously a museum is a modern function within an older building, so it will require a certain balance of intervention.”

The panel tackle questions about possible futures for Old City Hall, image by Craig White

Old City Hall is still many years away from its future civic role. The staff report will only be presented to City Council in a year's time. The courts will use the building for five more years before their leases runs out. Once that happens, significant renovations will still be required. The idea of the building—its place in the city and possible contribution—is what currently exists, and that’s what is really being designed. For more on this project, follow along in our associated Forum thread.