At Toronto's Design Review Panel earlier this month, 300 Bloor West made its first appearance in front of the experts, showcasing the proposed redevelopment of the prominent Bloor Street United Church (BSUC) site at the corner of Bloor and Huron Streets. Headed by the BSUC, who is represented by Northrop Development, in partnership with Collecdev, the project is designed by KPMB Architects with ERA Architects covering the heritage components.
The proposal has been revised since the last time the building was featured on UrbanToronto, with the height of the tower shrinking from 38 storeys (141.5 metres) and 259 residential units down to 28 storeys (96.4 metres) and 254 residential units. Due to the reduction in height, the massing of the tower has bulked up to a floor plate size exceeding the City's recommended 750-square-metre maximum; the location of the tower has shifted southward on the site; the parking has been moved from above grade to below grade; and the formal composition of the tower and podium has been modified.
The presentation highlighted the extensive rounds of community and City consultations the design team has engaged in since the start of the project, and also outlined the incredibly complex constraints that the designers are working with. The project is unique in that the BSUC wishes to remain active on the site and is heavily involved in the process with the aim of refreshing and expanding their current facilities to accommodate a modernized multi-faith worship space as well as more space for offices and community-focused programs. As a result of BSUC's involvement, portions of both heritage buildings—much of the church itself as well as Pidgeon House at the northeast corner of the site—will be retained.
The remainder of the program comprises the residential tower, with roughly three-quarters of the units being two-bedrooms or more; grade-level retail; and four storeys of office space in both the podium and Pidgeon House, which includes both BSUC offices and leasable units. A café facing Bloor Street is also planned.
Two major site constraints include the Bloor-Danforth subway tunnel that runs directly beneath the property, and the protection of the view corridor looking north on Spadina Avenue toward the Daniels School of Architecture. The 38-storey initial tower proposal for 300 Bloor would intrude on the view corridor, and is the main driver behind the reduction of the tower's height. As well, in order to reduce the impact on the view corridor, the tower—which initially straddled the subway tunnel—was shifted south of the tunnel in order to reduce the angle of the view, and also to allow for the relocation of the above grade parking to an underground garage beneath the church.
In addition to these revisions, the formal composition of the tower and podium were reworked, moving from a simple, Modernist aesthetic to a more stacked-box composition in an effort to break up the bulkier massing. The materiality appears to remain the same, as does the eye-catching new main entrance vestibule to the church along Bloor Street. The new proposal also provides an east-west mid-block connection leading from Huron through to Madison via the proposed Estonian Cultural Centre next door.
Panel members offered up a mixed bag of comments, praising the design team for their efforts in dealing with such a restrictive site, but also pointing to elements that still have room for improvement. Panelists hit on three main contentious issues: massing, podium design, and heritage conservation.
With regards to the massing of the tower, some Panel members commented that the new tower provided too busy of a background to the church, and while the tower in itself may be attractive, it was not meeting the goal of being subservient to the church, instead overwhelming its expression. Some Panel members commented that the proposal gave an "overall sense of elegance", while others pointed to the previous, more slender tower as having a better relationship with the existing church.
Many Panelists suggested that in the case of this proposal, greater height and a slender form would be more suitable, but they also acknowledged the importance of protecting the view corridor and the precedent-setting implications of this tower. This conundrum was unfortunately only highlighted by the Panel, and not resolved.
With regards to the podium, Panel members unanimously agreed that the frontage of the building on Huron Street needed some work. They commented that the massing was too overwhelming on Huron and that the lack of stepbacks created too large of a volume that consumed the church and sidewalk. As well, Panel members criticized the lacklustre public realm around the mid-block connection, saying that it appeared undercooked. The designers were encouraged to further work to mitigate the building's presence along Huron Street.
Finally, Panelists lamented the revised treatment of the heritage buildings. Whereas the previous proposal maintained the original church building nearly in its entirety, the new proposal would see only the retention of the south and east facades in situ, while the west facade would be dismantled and rebuilt. The remainder of the church building would be demolished, with a new worship space constructed that would evoke the spatial arrangement of the original. The reason for the demolition of the building is to accommodate the underground parking and the new location of the tower.
Panel members were quick to point out that the sacrifice of the church for the construction of a parking garage was a rather egregious compromise, and that there are other ways of building the garage without demolishing the building (such as the new retail level currently being constructed directly beneath Union Station). The design team added that this was in line with the BSUC's wishes for a smaller, modernized, and more manageable multi-faith worship space, but Panelists stressed that there was value to the three-dimensionality of the heritage building, and that a better solution should be sought.
The Panel's commentary was not all negative, with members unanimously praising the elegance of the new entrance vestibule to the church on Bloor Street. They also praised the mix of uses in the proposal, saying it was refreshing to see a church site in the heart of the city that will retain its current religious use.
Summarizing the commentary, an unspoken but implied sentiment of the Panel was voiced by one member, who simply commented, "I miss the tower being on the north part of the site". The design team seemed to agree, and were quite blunt in stating that the bulkiness of the new proposal was a direct result of the "investment pressures of development density". In the end, the Panel voted 5 in support of the proposal, and 2 opting for a re-design.
We will keep you updated as the design for 300 Bloor West continues to evolve, but in the meantime you can tell us what you think by checking out the associated Forum thread, or by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.