At an entertaining Toronto Design Review Panel (DRP) session last week, the distinguished panel of local architects and design professionals got a detailed look at plans for General Motors Canada's new Mobility Campus, located along a former industrial stretch of Eastern Avenue north of the Port Lands. Designed by Quadrangle, the new campus would include an eye-catching structure housing a GM Innovation Centre, a showroom, a dealership, a service centre, and offices, along with two future office buildings to the north of the site. Ironically, the site is located adjacent to the Lower Don Recreational Trail along Lake Shore, a linear City-owned park that contains remnants of the dismantled eastern portion of the Gardiner Expressway, some columns of which are left standing as a piece of public art.
Located just west of Leslie Street, the site stretches between Eastern Avenue and Lake Shore Boulevard and would feature a new street grid that connects through the campus north-south, as well as providing an east-west street that could be extended to connect to the future StudioCentre development next door. The 5-storey Mobility Campus building would stretch along the south side of the site bordering Lake Shore, while the two future office buildings would be located to the north, rising 9 and 12 storeys with 4-storey frontages onto Eastern Avenue. A southward extension of Berkshire Avenue from Eastern is proposed, ending at a crossroads at the north face of the Mobility Campus, while access from Lake Shore would be provided on the eastern side of the site.
The Mobility Campus building features a stacked organization, with car servicing areas on the ground floor and parking located on the ground, second, and third floors. Given the former industrial nature of the site, the soil is very contaminated and would require remediation in order to excavate; therefore, underground parking is not being considered and the site would be capped instead. The top two floors of the building would house the showrooms and office and research spaces, with an Innovation Showroom on the ground floor. The research aspect of the project would focus on several areas of development, including autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles and e-bikes, as well as Maven, GM's ride-sharing app. Appropriate facilities would be provided to support and showcase these developments.
The showrooms are elevated so as to maximize visibility from Lake Shore. These floors feature a distinctive three-fingered layout, with three cantilevers splaying out towards the road to the south. The cantilevers are dedicated to showrooms for Chevroulet, Buick, and GMC in the westernmost; a showroom for 'innovation' in the centre one; and a showroom for Cadillac in the easternmost one. The office/research wing extends eastward from the upper floors. The north face of the showrooms, centred along the axis of Berkshire Avenue, take on a more subdued rectilinear form, as a way to transition to the predominantly residential neighbourhood to the north.
A notable aspect of the design is a pedestrian connection on the south side of the site leading from the Lower Don Trail to the Mobility Campus. A pedestrian plaza would form this connection with a cafe located inside the building, providing a place of rest and refreshment for pedestrians and cyclists along a stretch of recreational trail that currently contains no places to pause.
At the end of the presentation, the design team presented an alternate site layout where Rushbrooke Avenue would be extended southward between Eastern and Lake Shore along the eastern edge of the site, while the Berkshire extension would be converted into a pedestrian 'Innovation Plaza'. This alternate site plan stemmed from the City's concern over an increase of traffic along Berkshire Avenue, given the presence of the Bruce Public School just north of Eastern. The Panel was unanimous in their support for the Rushbrooke extension and Innovation Plaza option, rather than the Berkshire extension as proposed.
Panel members were nearly united in their support for the architecture of the building. They agreed that the design of the Mobility Campus is eye-catching and a positive attribute to the Lake Shore Boulevard frontage. They were, however, highly critical of the overall site plan and layout of the buildings.
The main criticism of the project was that the site plan reflected that of a suburban development, which was contrary to the aims of the project and its urban location. The Mobility Campus building is entirely surrounded by asphalt, in the form of service and public roads, and very little time was spent to developing the ground plane and public realm. One Panelist remarked that, "it would be great if the design and layout was more about the future of mobility, rather than simply about the existence of the car".
Indeed, Panel members pushed the design team on the fact that for being the site of an Innovation Centre, the design and layout was actually not very innovative at all. They urged the designers to consider the future of mobility, including the integration of cycling, walking, and transit alongside automobile use, and were also frustrated with the lack of connection to the surrounding context that was missing from the proposal. They pointed out the very urban master plan in the works for East Harbour just down the street as an example of a more urban campus, and pointed to deficiencies in the current Mobility Campus proposal such as the lack of consideration for access to the site other than through single-occupancy vehicles despite the many transit options around, and the provision for things like e-bike charging stations without any bike shops or bike lanes on the site.
Suggestions for more innovative solutions included designing the building for adaptability, as technology and modes of transportation will inevitably change, meaning GM will have to adapt and accommodate new avenues of research and development if it wishes to survive. Another idea included publicly displaying the process of how innovative things are made, rather than showcasing simply the final product, much like George Brown College's culinary school, whose floor-to-ceiling ground-level windows offer passersby on Adelaide Street a glimpse into a working kitchen. They also proposed energy use targets as a way to introduce innovation, even suggesting that a net-zero building might make a more impactful statement. Panel members also identified a strong public realm design, beginning with the Innovation Plaza option, as a necessity for the success of the development.
There was no vote at the end of the session, but the Panel offered hopeful and optimistic words for the design team, calling this an "epic project" and "a golden opportunity for GM to reinvent themselves, not just in its product but also in its relationship to the city". They touted the importance of the development, and as a result, the need for more out-of-the-box thinking about the future of mobility and what that means for an urban automobile research campus.
We will keep you updated as the design of the GM Mobility Campus evolves, but 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.