The race to the sky is intensifying in Toronto with a roster of impressive supertall towers across the downtown core looking to join the global 300-metre club. With two supertalls currently under construction in the city and several more potential ones in the works, the most recent proposal to join the list is Dream and Humbold Properties' 212 King West development, a mixed-use tower that would rise 80 storeys to a total height of 311.8 metres.

Rendering looking north, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Located at the northeast corner of King and Simcoe Streets—just three properties east of two other proposed supertall towers at the Mirvish+Gehry development—212 King West would include 34 floors of office space and 588 rental residential units above, along with complementary retail, restaurants, and amenity spaces. The building is designed by New York-based SHoP Architects alongside local firm Adamson Associates Architects. The facades of three heritage buildings currently on the site would be retained nearly in their entirety, while a grand central atrium would welcome visitors with an eye-catching coffered terra cotta ceiling.

Programmatic diagram of the building, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

The project made its first appearance at the Toronto Design Review Panel in May, 2021 and the Panel had much to say about the unique building in a lengthy session that ran over time. Panel members picked apart the proposal and provided a mixed bag of commentary that oscillated between aspects they loved, parts they felt were unsuccessful, and borderline philosophical questions, with most topics leaving the Panelists divided on whether they were for or against.

Aerial rendering looking northwest, image via submission to the City of Toronto

Heritage took up a large portion of the Panel comments, as the base of the building sits behind three retained heritage facades. Nearly all of the street-facing facades will be maintained as part of the proposal, with many original aspects of the buildings being restored after having been lost to renovations over the years. A portion of the sides of each building is being kept so that there are returns at the corners with the new construction recessed behind, maintaining some aspect of three-dimensionality to the facades.

Rendering of the King Street frontage, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Insomuch as it was just the facades being kept, the Panel liked the fact that such a large portion of the heritage facades are preserved and that the returns are being included, but the fact that it was only the facades being kept was a bit disappointing for the Panel. The proponent team failed to clarify their approach to adaptive reuse, whether there were opportunities to retain at least some of the existing structures, and how they were going to mitigate such issues as windows corresponding to different floor heights, or whether there was any interior heritage fabric being considered. In short, the heritage component looked great on the surface, but it was only skin deep, and the Panel wondered if there was the opportunity for a more meaningful approach.

Rendering of recessed main entrance and King Street frontage, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Tying into the topic of heritage was the central atrium, a 6-storey high lobby space that opens onto a common amenity space and outdoor rooftop terrace at the level of the heritage buildings' roofs. The design team envisions this as a grand civic social space, with potentially a restaurant or bar at the 6th floor that is accessible to the public and which spills out into the indoor flex space and outdoor terrace, capped by the distinct terra cotta ceiling. The atrium also maintains an important north-south connection between King and Pearl Streets, which is currently a laneway between two of the existing buildings.

Rendering of the central atrium, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Panel members had a lot to say about the atrium and rooftop spaces. They appreciated the grand gesture and were excited about the potential of the space, saying that it could become a high quality amenity. They also loved the materiality and texture of the ceiling.

Rendering of the coffered atrium ceiling, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

However, some Panelists lamented the loss of heritage on the interior, given the uniformity of the new lobby design. The point was made that when passing through the heritage facades on the exterior and entering into an entirely new space that did not correspond to the facades, that the experience of the heritage was lost. It was suggested that perhaps the east and west walls of the atrium could be finished differently to give the feeling of being in between two different buildings and to have more continuity of the heritage aspect. The example of Queen Richmond Centre West was given, where the lobby occupies the space between two heritage buildings whose walls were maintained on the interior, thereby preserving the experience of being between the two structures.

Conceptual illustration of the central atrium, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

The Panel also felt that more could be done programmatically to make the lobby a truly civic space. They stated that as it currently stands, the atrium and rooftop spaces would not create the social and public atmosphere that the design team advertised, and that instead it was simply just a grand office lobby. If the design was to continue in its current direction, they said, call it what it is—a commercial lobby—and design accordingly, but they wished that more could be done to create a truly public space within the building that could contribute to the lively street life of King.

Section through lower floors, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Much of the commentary revolved around a common theme that the Panel has touted for years: you have to give back to the city as much as you take from it. In the case of 212 King West, Panel members were nearly unanimous in agreement that this development gave back very little to improve the city around it.

Rendering along King Street, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

The argument was made that little to no public amenities were provided in the proposal, with the Panel not buying into the central atrium as a public amenity. The suggestion was made to perhaps expand the POPS of the neighbouring Theatre Park Condos, which would mean losing the westernmost heritage facade but which would also provide some more public open space along King. It was also commented that the ground floor retail was too shallow and the units too large to meaningfully activate street life, and that perhaps more porosity along the street-facing facades could be considered.

Conceptual illustration of the rooftop amenity space, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Moving up the tower, the concept of social resiliency was also raised for the residents of the rental units. The question was posed whether having a single residential amenity cluster on the 45th floor was enough to serve the 35 floors of units above it, and that perhaps building dwelling units high in the sky warrants some more careful consideration of liveability. It was suggested that having a variety of amenity spaces interspersed throughout the residential floors might better serve the residents. 

Rendering looking north along Simcoe Street, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

How buildings are being used during the current pandemic could also factor into the current design, with considerations suggested by the Panel that include how using the apartment unit as an office changes the design approach; the stairwells more frequently being used to traverse within the building for shorter trips to visit amenity floors or neighbours, rather than simply serving as exits; what happens when the elevators go down during an extended power outage; or even how one takes their dog for a walk if they're living up that high.

Conceptual illustration of the rooftop amenity space, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

The massing and architecture of the building itself elicited some passionate responses from Panel members on both sides of the spectrum. Some Panelists loved it, saying it was appropriate and well-proportioned, while others called the building "bland", saying that it "needs to inspire awe, to be a work of art like the Gehry towers". Comparisons to the Mirvish+Gehry towers next door were inevitable, with some saying the building complemented them, but with most saying that the design needed something more if it was taking such a prominent place in the skyline.

Aerial rendering looking northeast, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Concerns were raised about the massing and height of the tower. The height was criticized by the Panel, but mainly because there was no architectural rationale for it; when asked why the building was so tall, the answer was simply that the developer wanted that much program fitted onto the site, and not because, as the Panel members had hoped, it was proportionally or formally appropriate from a design perspective. Panel members were also concerned about the large floor plates of the office levels, and of the 12.5-metre separation distance between the office floors and the neighbouring Theatre Park Condos. Unfortunately, due to the past OMB settlement that gave the green light to Theatre Park, that tower had been built with zero setbacks from the east and west lot lines, which makes development of the adjacent properties much more difficult.

Ground floor plan, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

The materiality and finishes of the tower were unanimously praised by the Panel. The design team is proposing to use three-dimensional terra cotta panels on the lower that twist along their height, reflecting the light in interesting patterns at different times during the day. The cladding is inspired by the materiality of the heritage facades and the past industrial associations of the heritage buildings. A lighter colour would be used on the lower office portion and a darker colour used on the upper residential portion, with the design team acknowledging during the presentation that they are intentionally avoiding an all-glass tower for both aesthetic and sustainability purposes. The Panelists loved the approach to the materials and were very encouraged by this aspect of the project.

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

A final comment from the Panel, aimed more toward City staff, was the state of Pearl Street. A diagram was presented showing that all built, approved, and proposed developments in the immediate vicinity had placed all of their loading, service, and parking garage entrances on Pearl, creating a rather depressing and hostile streetscape. 212 King West was no exception, and the question was posed as to whether the current proposal could do something to perhaps improve the pedestrian experience along Pearl. The Panel was split as to whether it was the responsibility of the design team to attempt to improve it, or whether it was that of the City, or whether any improvements should be done at all since it seemed that it was too late to salvage Pearl.

Ground floor plans of 212 King West and surrounding developments (loading areas shown in grey), image via submission to the City of Toronto.

The lively and lengthy discussion around 212 King West went in many directions, but one message was clear: we need more. The Panel was insistent that a building of this size and stature needs to give back a lot more to the community around it, and that in its current form, the development has failed to do so.

Despite their admiration of certain aspects of the project, the Panel ultimately voted for non-support of the proposal in its current form by a wide majority of 6-1.

Aerial rendering looking northwest, image via submission to the City of Toronto

We will keep you updated as 212 King West continues to make its way through the planning process, 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, IBI Group, RWDI Consulting Engineers and Scientists, STUDIO tla, Urban Strategies Inc.