Some much-needed green space is coming to the crowded Downtown Core as plans are advancing for Dr. Lillian McGregor Park, a new 1.6-acre public park planned alongside Lanterra's Wellesley on the Park development, located along Wellesley Street between Bay and Yonge. The project was presented last week for a second time at the Toronto Design Review Panel (DRP), nearly a year and a half after its first appearance, this time with a much further developed theme and a more detailed layout.
The new park was named after Dr. Lillian McGregor following a public poll held in Fall 2016. Dr. McGregor (1924-2012) was a nurse and community leader, acknowledged for her work in promoting Indigenous culture and education. She received numerous awards and recognitions throughout her lifetime, including being the first Indigenous woman to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Toronto, and acted as the University's first ever Elder In Residence. McGregor hailed from Whitefish River First Nation, located near Manitoulin Island in Northern Ontario.
The design of the park is being developed by DTAH, whose first presentation to the DRP back in May 2016 didn't fare so well. Panelists had critiqued the lack of a thematic approach that would give the space a unique identity, and suggested modifications to the design that would make it stand out, yet also connect with the network of green spaces in the wider area. Since then, a name for the park has been chosen, and Métis artist Kenneth Lavallee has been brought on to create the public art component of the park, both lending to a strong Indigenous thematic approach this time around.
The park stretches one full block between Wellesley Street to the north and Breadalbane Street to the south, with both existing and new residential towers bordering its east and west edges. Several notable features are scattered throughout. A central gathering space provides a focal point in the park, with meandering paths branching off in four directions. The primary path, running north-south, will be bordered by a continuous bench on one side, much like those in Central Park, while a complementary 'Discovery Walk' passes through groves of trees alongside a rocky outcrop that cuts diagonally across the full width of the park. A plaza is located along Wellesley with a distinctive canopy feature, while seating areas for retail located in the new Wellesley on the Park tower will front directly onto the park itself. An off-leash dog park, children's playground, and sloping lawn are also included.
The site presents several difficult challenges that the designers must face. First, it is located above both an existing and under-construction parking garage, meaning that grade must be raised in some locations to allow for tree-planting. As well, several ventilation shafts and exit stairs from the parking garages are scattered haphazardly across the site. Furthermore, a driveway loop is located in the southwest corner servicing the two existing residential buildings along Bay Street. The City attempted to negotiate with the building owners to reconfigure the driveway into a roundabout, thereby minimizing its footprint, but an agreement could not be reached and the driveway will remain in its current configuration.
The difficult site conditions led to some creative solutions. Since the existing driveway could not be reconfigured, the design team placed the off-leash dog park at the centre of the loop, offering some separation from the remainder of the park for what proved to be a controversial feature at public consultations. The various ventilation and exit shafts are masked by screens shaped to appear as reeds, adding to the public art collection and perpetuating the natural feel throughout the park.
The Indigenous theme is carried through several features across the park, aided by the designs of Lavallee. First, the central gathering place is proposed to have a medicine wheel embedded at its centre, while four crane sculptures positioned around the space at the four cardinal points will reflect the meaning of each quadrant of the wheel. Lillian McGregor was part of the crane clan within her tribe, and so the sculptures are meant as a tribute to her.
In addition to the central gathering space, the canopy at the Wellesley Plaza features a feather-shaped cutout, creating interesting shadow patterns on the ground. As well, the inclusion of the rocky outcrop and forested areas are meant to evoke the natural wilderness of northern Ontario, from which McGregor originates, and the reed screens throughout the park are in line with this theme.
Panel members were very pleased with the revised park, and unanimously praised the concept and layout, applauding both the inclusive design process and the implementation of the design ideas. Their commentary focused mainly on potential tweaks and adjustments, as well as further considerations in order to make the park even better.
In terms of design and layout, Panelists remarked that the reed screens were perhaps too literal and not integrated well enough into the park. They suggested treating the screens more variably, or perhaps connecting them visually as a third stream across the park in addition to the rocky outcrop and primary path. They also questioned the use of the medicine wheel, saying that it is a universal symbol that applies to all Indigenous cultures and risks being repeated in every Indigenous public space moving forward, whereas the opportunity exists here to integrate symbolism related to a more specific culture, such as the use of the cranes representing McGregor's clan, given that the park is named after an individual. Further suggestions included giving more consideration to year-round uses and recreation, and focusing more on the connection of the park to the existing green space across Breadalbane Street to the south.
One of the main criticisms revolved around the fact that the park is built over a parking garage which will require maintenance when its waterproofing reaches the end of its 40-year lifespan—meaning that at some point in the future, the park will need to be completely ripped out and rebuilt. Panel members urged designers and the City to consider what happens after the park is torn up, given that many people in the neighbourhood will have become accustomed to it or will even have moved there because of it. They urged designers to consider the future issues this raises: will the park be reinstated as is, or will it be redesigned, or will certain features be designed to be dismantled and reinstalled after work is finished?
Overall, Panel members gave it a big thumbs up, calling the park an "exemplar" of future park design. There was no vote, but the enthusiasm towards it was unanimous.
We will keep you updated as the park and tower work their way towards completion. In the meantime, you can get in on the discussion by checking out the associated Forum thread, or by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.
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