It has been five long months since we last reported on First Gulf's transformative East Harbour development, and the design team has since been busy advancing plans for Toronto's new 'Downtown East', presenting their most recent proposal to Toronto's Design Review Panel last week. The massive new employment district on the site of the former Unilever soap factory proposes to add 50,000 new jobs, complete with expansive new retail, night life, and cultural venues. The rezoning application for the master plan received City Council's approval back in June, and work is now being done trying to define the character of the neighbourhood, with some preliminary images of what that might just look like.

Rendering of East Harbour, image courtesy of First Gulf.

Since the master plan was approved, First Gulf has added heavyweight firms KPMB Architects and Copenhagen-based Henning Larsen Architects to their design team. KPMB is charged with taking on some of the conceptual architectural design as the master plan moves into more detailed refinement, while Henning Larsen has been brought on as an ideas-generator, bringing a fresh perspective to help define the broader character of the area. The two firms join Adamson Associates, Urban Strategies, and Janet Rosenberg Studio on the design team.

Summary of master plan approved by City Council in June, image courtesy of First Gulf.

The efforts of the designers have been focused on Phase 1 of the project, more specifically the adaptive reuse of the existing soap factory and the surrounding public spaces. The proponent team sees the soap factory as the single most important character-defining element in the district around which the rest of the neighbourhood will develop.

Two small, but very significant adjustments to the master plan by Henning Larsen help to reinforce the industrial character of the district. First, it was decided to preserve rather than demolish the existing Glycerin Building and Boiler House - the two smaller industrial buildings located just east of the soap factory - which will form the northern border of the new Soap Factory Plaza.

Diagram showing adjustments to the master plan, image courtesy of First Gulf.

The repurposing of these two smaller buildings, together with the soap factory, serve to create a distinct character around the plaza that preserves its history and creates unique spaces within the development, much like how the industrial nature of the Distillery District and Evergreen Brickworks have been preserved through their built form.

Rendering of Soap Factory Plaza, image courtesy of First Gulf.

As a result of the preservation of the Glycerin Building and Boiler House, the tallest proposed tower to the east of the soap factory was shifted northward and pushed up against the transit station to accommodate. This creates a 'gateway' moment when approaching the site, with the tallest tower marking the transit hub and the soap factory highly visible along the riverfront, creating an instant snapshot of the character of the neighbourhood.

Diagram showing view toward East Harbour, image courtesy of First Gulf.

With regards to the soap factory, KPMB is proposing to retain the building in situ, while adding an additional 12 storeys floating above the structure in two shifted rectangular volumes. The extra 12 storeys will be supported by either a concrete waffle slab or a two-storey steel truss hovering above the existing soap factory building, with minimal adjustments to its structure and interior layout.

Rendering of the Soap Factory building, image courtesy of First Gulf.

The Unilever soap factory, along with its two adjacent smaller structures, is not designated as a heritage building. However, the design team recognizes the unique quality of its cavernous interior spaces and their attractiveness for new commercial units, and KPMB's main goal is preserving this unique atmosphere.

Photograph of the interior of the soap factory, image courtesy of First Gulf.

In a move that can be loosely described as reverse façadism, the bulky concrete structure of the soap factory will be retained, while the exterior envelope of the building will be replaced with an identical facade in order to increase its thermal performance.

Rendering of the Soap Factory building, image courtesy of First Gulf.

The staggering of the stacked volumes was done to mitigate the effects of wind around the building, to minimize the building's shadow impact, and to create attractive rooftop spaces looking west toward downtown. The architecture of the soap factory addition is only conceptual, as it is still in the very early stages of the design, but it is clear that the intention is to differentiate the upper volumes from the existing building with a more contemporary look.

Rendering of the Soap Factory building, image courtesy of First Gulf.

Panel members were overall impressed and very pleased with the progress of the master plan, calling it a "fabulous project" and even exclaiming that it made them "so damn happy".

The Panel was unanimously in agreement that the preservation of the Glycerin Building and Boiler House was an excellent move that added a lot of character to the proposal. They also strongly supported the approach to the repurposing of the soap factory, with unanimous approval of the preservation of the existing spatial qualities and the minimal intervention approach of hovering the new addition over top.

View looking west toward the preserved buildings, image courtesy of First Gulf.

Panelists also responded positively to the focus on public space, but offered some suggestions to better enhance the spaces between the buildings. Commenting on the master plan, Panel members emphasized the importance of Broadview Avenue as the spine of the district, and encouraged the design team not to disregard the significance of the street. Some suggested that rather than having Soap Factory Plaza as the focal point, Broadview should be the central public space, with a well-executed street design. As well, they cautioned not to eliminate all of the proposed open space around the transit hub, which has now been greatly diminished since the tallest tower has been shifted northward to accommodate the retained industrial buildings.

Rendering of Soap Factory Plaza looking from Broadview Avenue, image courtesy of First Gulf.

Panel members also reiterated the importance of connections to the surroundings, a comment which they have often repeated at each review of the proposal. The Panel stressed that connecting the site to the Don River is integral to the success of the project, and that the design team needs to find a better way to integrate the greenery of the riverside park and flood protection embankments with the adjacent buildings and open plazas.

Rendering of the ground floor plane of the soap factory building, image courtesy of First Gulf.

As well, access to the site was a concern for some Panel members, who emphasized the need for an additional pedestrian and cyclist bridge across the Don, perhaps connecting to Corktown Common. Currently, the City is proposing that the existing rail bridge be beefed up with pedestrian and cyclist pathways on both the north and south sides connecting directly to the transit hub, and it has remained steadfast that this will be sufficient. Panelists have repeatedly encouraged that additional pedestrian access to the district be provided, but this has yet to materialize.

Rendering of the Soap Factory building and East Harbour, image courtesy of First Gulf.

Finally, the Panel encouraged the design team to think about the future of employment in designing the district. Since this project is still many years away before being fully realized, they emphasized that the master plan and the buildings need to be adaptable to changing workplaces and suitable for jobs that may not even exist yet. They stressed the importance of being forward-thinking in the design of the district.

Rendering of the Soap Factory building, image courtesy of First Gulf.

Overall, the Panel was pleased with what they saw and encouraged the design team to continue on their current path.

Though things are coming together for the East Harbour, it is still a long way off from being realized. It was stated that First Gulf is aiming for a 2023-2024 date for the first phase of the project, and it should also be underscored that this entire development is fully dependent on the necessary infrastructure being in place - namely the transit hub and the Broadview Avenue extension. When asked, the City said there is no official date for delivery of this infrastructure, but that they are working closely with the developer to ideally get everything in place for 2023-2024.

Arial photograph of the Unilever site looking north, image courtesy of First Gulf.

We will keep you updated as the East Harbour plan 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.

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Related Companies:  Adamson Associates Architects, Entuitive, Urban Strategies Inc.