At the Toronto Design Review Panel (DRP) session held last week, Panel members got their first glimpse at the massive Union Park proposal from Oxford Properties, a 4-tower development located directly across the rail corridor from the Rogers Centre. The highly prominent project will have a major impact on the city's skyline, while adding a huge number of jobs and residents to the edge of the Financial District. Designed by American firm Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects along with local firm Adamson Associates Architects, the development was submitted for rezoning just last month.

Rendering of Union Park, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Along with two office towers of 48 and 58 storeys, two residential rental towers of 44 and 54 storeys, and three floors of retail at the base, Union Park also includes a new 8,400 m² park built over top of the rail corridor, connecting to the Rogers Centre and CN Tower Plaza to the south. You can read more about the specifics of the proposal in our previous articles published here and here, but for now we will focus on the presentation and comments heard at the DRP.

Rendering of the park overbuild, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

The presentation from the proponents highlighted the team's design approach and rationale behind the form and appearance of the towers. Claiming that this was their 71st iteration of arranging the buildings on the site, the design team explained that the buildings are placed and sculpted in order to maximize outward views and minimize views between buildings. This is most apparent in the two residential towers, with the northern one oriented with its short side running east-west, and the southern one featuring a curved form to avoid having a solid rectangular building blocking views.

Diagram showing sculpting of the buildings to maximize views, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Context also played an important role in shaping the buildings. Located in a void in the skyline adjacent to the most iconic structure in the city, the architects acknowledged that the buildings needed to stand out in their own right, but be clearly subordinate to the CN Tower and Rogers Centre. They also noted that the location of the site provided important connections between the Entertainment District to the north and the "sports district" to the south, and from the residential area to the west (CityPlace and Fort York) and the Financial District to the east.

Taking these factors into consideration, the buildings step up in height from west to east, providing a transition from the lower buildings in the west to the CN Tower and Financial District to the east. The buildings are also sculpted to open up toward the lake, giving a gesture of openness and motion. The tops of the towers are designed to be expressive to give an identity to the complex and to accent its important spot in the skyline.

Elevation showing the placement of Union Park in the city skyline, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

The reception from the Panel was rather lukewarm. They applauded the ambitions of the project, particularly the park overbuild, but offered plenty of criticisms and advice for improving the project moving forward.

Most Panel members focused on the park overbuild, as it is arguably the most significant aspect of Union Park. Panelists expressed concern about the relationship of the park to grade level. The overbuild spans between the bridges at Blue Jays Way and John Street, but given the required clearance and massive structure needed, the park itself is actually higher in elevation than both bridges. While the park meets the Union Park buildings to the north and the Marriott Hotel driveway to the south at grade level, there are plenty of stairs proposed everywhere else in order to get into the park itself.

Rendering of Isabella Valancy Crawford Park on the corner of Front and John, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Panel members also emphasized that the park needed a stronger identity and a "bigger idea to bring it all together". They noted that this is the first time anyone has ever done this in Toronto (referring to a rail corridor overbuild at grade; the CIBC Square overbuild is elevated) and stressed that "we should be surprised and wowed by it". They pushed for further development of the park layout, design, and relationship with its surroundings.

They also pointed out the issue of what happens when 50,000 Blue Jays fans pour out of the stadium after a game, saying that the park design must accommodate these sudden influxes of people.

The grade relationship of the complex in general was a big issue for the Panel, who were both confused and disappointed with the street-level design of the podium. They advocated for a more fine-grained approach to the base, and a reshaping of the building to better respond to the public realm. One Panel member stated: "You spoke of shaping the buildings for maximizing views, but there needs to be a reshaping at ground level to respond to how people move around the building. You should also give the entrances a presence at grade….currently there are several levels of retail and curtain wall with the entrances recessed. Curtain wall retail provides a long blank slate, which is not very interesting from the pedestrian experience."

Diagram showing relationship of lower levels to the street, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Another Panelist elaborated: "I struggle with walking around the building and trying to navigate the public realm. The first 30 feet [of the facades] needs that level of small-scale detail, they are getting lost in the global condo aesthetic. Big sheets of glass at the ground level still seems very corporate, it needs more fine grain and a less corporate feel".

Rendering of the building at the corner of Front and Blue Jays Way, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

This sentiment also translated to the relationship of the podium to the park overbuild. Once again lined with curtain wall retail, the Panel pushed for a more interesting and responsive relationship between the building and the park. They also urged the design team to approach the winter garden sandwiched between the two office towers with the same level of detail they have used for the park design. As one Panelist stated: "How does the winter garden not become detached from its place? How does it not become sterile, like a mall entry to a park? You need more of a dynamic relationship between inside and outside rather than just a visual relationship through glass".

Diagram showing relationship between the buildings and park overbuild, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

The Panel also waded into the murky waters of commenting on the building aesthetic, but first cautioned that it would be difficult to criticize on such a thing because it is largely subjective and a matter of taste. Nevertheless, some Panelists suggested some changes to the architectural expression of the buildings given their prominence in the city.

One Panel member was not entirely sold on the explanation of the design from the architects, saying that what appears in the renderings doesn't quite achieve the openness and motion they were striving for. They pointed out that the buildings seem to have a front and a back, with the front oriented toward the lake. They suggested that, "if the tops of the buildings are to be that expressive, they need to be viewed in the round, not just having a front and a back. So maybe there is more expressiveness happening in plan, and less so as a flair on top of the building". They also commented that the podium seemed divorced from the towers above, and suggested having more dialogue between the two.

Rendering of Union Park from above, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Another Panelist offered an alternative massing, arguing that the step up in the height of the towers "conflicts with the importance of the CN Tower". They elaborated that, "there is a lot of void around the CN Tower and it is always viewed with the context of blue sky. These towers now provide a backdrop to it as there are no other towers within proximity". They suggested perhaps the middle tower should be the tallest, with the easternmost stepping down as a gesture of subordination to the CN Tower, and that they might consider "re-examining the tops of the buildings and the skyline articulation".

Rendering of Union Park in the skyline, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Sustainability also weighed heavily in the Panel's comments. The design team explained some of their sustainable gestures as the project aims for achieving Toronto Green Standard Tier 2, including the use of a triple-glazed curtain wall with a low-E coating along with the potential of incorporating solar panels on the roof and upper portion of the towers. However, Panel members pushed for more, saying it "should have higher carbon goals". Given that thousands of people will be inhabiting these buildings, one Panelist urged the design team to view this complex as a community rather than individual structures, and to look for opportunities to share heating and cooling loads and energy consumption throughout the entire development. They also urged the designers to consider stormwater management in the park overbuild.

Close-up rendering of the facade of the south residential tower, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

In the end, the Panel voted unanimously in support, but only on the condition that the relationship of the building to the street at grade level, including the park overbuild, was revisited and redesigned. They did approve of the placement of the buildings and the efforts of the designers to resolve the many issues of such a complex site and program, but stressed that such an important project needs more thought and attention to detail.

Union Park will likely return to the Design Review Panel in the future, and is certain to undergo some changes, big or small, as it moves through the planning process. Check back for updates as the project evolves, and 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, Brook Pooni Associates, Oxford Properties Group, Urban Strategies Inc.