When developer Gary Silverberg set his sights on Barrie, he knew that all the pieces were in place for something transformative to take hold in the downtown core. With an increasing number of people relocating to the suburbs due to rising housing costs in Toronto, a push by the provincial government for urban intensification and infrastructure investment, a forward-looking local government seeking to transform its urban environment, and a prime waterfront location equidistant from both Toronto and Muskoka, Barrie had all the ingredients for a successful development. Silverberg just needed the right team for the job.
Enlisting Oleson Worland Architects and Scott Shields Architects, the team introduced Debut Waterfront Residences, a proposal for a pair of 33-storey towers in the heart of downtown Barrie, stretching a full block along Dunlop Street between Mary Street and Maple Avenue. Comprising a total of 272 condo units, grade-level retail, a pedestrian arcade, and plenty of architectural and urban innovations, the project is a first for the city in many respects, and certainly its tallest. But it is more than its height that sets this building apart from the others.
UrbanToronto had the chance to sit down with Gary Silverberg, David Oleson, Principal at Oleson Worland Architects, and Andrew Shields, Principal at Scott Shields Architects, to discuss the project, its design and planning process, and the future of Barrie's growing urban core.
The team began by working from the various advantages that the site and Barrie had to offer: unobstructed accessibility to its waterfront right from downtown; a new event space, a farmer's market, and a transit hub nearby; plus public realm improvements in the works that would enhance the retail and pedestrian experience throughout the core, among others. As Silverberg put it, the bones were already there.
They got to work brainstorming ideas for the site, and, staying within the in-force zoning bylaws, went through upwards of 40 different iterations based on the Province's desired density targets—none of which worked with Barrie's vision for their future downtown. They all resulted in a long, low, massive building that created more of a barrier than a connection to the waterfront and did not allow for much animation of the block.
Shields explains, "Having looked at what was the standard go-to approach and what would be in line with their by-laws, we thought—you know what, there is so much more potential in this city and this urban environment to create something special. We thought a little outside of the box for what was in place at that time, and we went to the City and we spoke to them and we said look, we don’t necessarily think that design should be driven by guidelines and by by-laws, there’s much more to it than that. There’s so much more potential here...and to give the City of Barrie a lot of credit, they listened to us and were very open to these new ideas."
The City bought into the project and its vision and subsequently approved the rezoning application, setting the plan in motion to build Barrie's tallest towers. But as the team explained, height was never the main issue. The driving force, according to Oleson and Shields, was the potential of the site itself and the density that was appropriate for it. Shields adds, "What is a better design approach, is it having towers of 33 storeys or is it having a mass block building at 20 storeys? What brings more light to the street? What brings more animation to the street? What is actually a more friendly and forgiving building in an urban context? There was no question in our mind that it was the 33-storey towers."
The trio of Silverberg, Oleson, and Shields had previously collaborated on Art Condos in Toronto, a mid-rise building just off of West Queen West, which garnered praise for its attention to detail and quality finishes (Shields was at that time an employee of Hariri Pontarini Architects). The team is bringing that same focus and collaboration to Debut.
"It's not often that you find a client that’s so willing to realize the value of design," says Shields. "I think Gary really sees that, it’s not just about the numbers at the end of the day, because having value in design is only going to help the overall development as well. So having a client like that has been fantastic to work with". Shields also describes his firm's relationship with Oleson's as uniquely collaborative, with both bouncing ideas off each other and designing together.
With regards to the design of the towers, the team approached it at three different scales. First, at an urban scale, they wanted to connect the city with the lake and provide a catalyst for the transformation of downtown. Second, at a neighbourhood scale, they wanted the building to engage with the street and create a harmonious, contextual response to the surroundings through active uses and materiality at ground level. Lastly, at a pedestrian scale, they focused on the finer details of how everything gets put together, looking to enrich people's first interactions with the building.
The base of the building is lined with retail featuring 25-foot ceilings that engages with the street. A pedestrian arcade slices between the two towers, introducing porosity to the site and creating a mid-block connection lined with retail from Dunlop Street south to the lake. The development boasts retail on all 8 faces of the building.
Above the retail base is the 6-storey podium, clad in brick to match the more historic surroundings, which will contain the parking levels (underground parking is not possible in downtown Barrie due to soil conditions). But Oleson explains that this is no ordinary parking garage: the north and south ends of the parking are flat, so that at some point in the future, these portions can be converted into live-work units if the need for the parking disappears. The project is actually already pre-zoned for these future live-work units so that the process will be painless if these are converted, something Oleson refers to as "futureproofing".
Above the podium, the tower forms are divided into three stacked blocks featuring a simple grid aesthetic. The blocks rotate as they move up the building, which is significant both conceptually and from a practical point of view. Shields describes the twist as providing a transition from the street-facing south facade along Dunlop to the lake-facing north facade at the top of the tower, creating a metaphorical connection between the city and the lake. The twist also means that three out of the four facades of each tower gets a view of the water.
Within these towers, the residential units have built-in flexibility, much like the parking levels. Many of the units contain a den that can be transformed back and forth between different uses that have been integrated within the design of the space: a home gym, an office space, a storage space, a guest room, or a hobby area. The kitchen island is also on casters, so the space can be enlarged to double as a dining area or for another use. "Everything's got at least two purposes, so you are not captured by your environment," states Silverberg.
Architecturally, the building features some interesting details. Oleson describes the unique approach for the windows of the podium, which are set within custom black frames that protrude out from the facade, allowing the glass to be installed at different depths, sometimes alternating between the exterior face and interior face of the frames, and sometimes forming glass balcony railings. This creates variation in the expression of the facade, as the reflections and shadows change from window to window and in different light. Silverberg describes the effect as musical, like notes on a page.
Shields also points out that they had the opportunity to carry the articulation of the tower down to the ground, something that is typically not seen in Toronto due to the emphasis on podiums and point towers. At two locations - one on the west elevation and one on the northeast corner - the tower cladding interrupts the brick of the podium and extends down to the sidewalk, bringing the tower down to engage directly with the street.
The end product is something that all three men are proud of, and their enthusiasm for the project is evident as they talk about it. "We weren't designing a building just to sell, for the sake of doing a job" Silverberg explains, "we were designing a building for the people who are going to live in it, and to try to figure out what we can do to make their lives better in the future".
The development has indeed proven to be a catalyst for the transformation of downtown Barrie. Since receiving zoning approval, upwards of five other tower proposals have been received, some reaching into the 30-storey range, with large-scale developers like Greenwin and SmartCentres getting involved. The future is looking up for Barrie, and it all starts with its Debut.
Check back for updates as Debut Waterfront Residences works its way toward construction. In the meantime, you can join 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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