With many of Toronto's performance venues currently struggling to stay afloat through the pandemic lockdowns, and many others having closed down or given way to new developments in the years prior, it came as a refreshing jolt of good news when OverActive Media announced plans for a 7,000-seat Esports Performance Venue and Hotel at Exhibition Place earlier this year. Enlisting Populous as architects, an international firm specializing in stadium design, the project also includes a 30-storey hotel tower containing approximately 400 suites, and is intended to be the home of two Toronto e-sports teams, in addition to hosting a wide variety of performances and events.
The project is located immediately west of the Stanley Barracks and Hotel X, at the south end of Exhibition Place adjacent the pedestrian bridge to Ontario Place. Also referred to as Hotel X Phase 2, the project is part of a larger master plan for Exhibition Place that is now Council-approved, more information of which can be found here.
The proposal made its first appearance at the Toronto Design Review Panel in March, 2021 and while the Panel was excited at the prospect of a new venue in Exhibition Place and appreciated the architecture of the building, they had some harsher words relating to its scale and its relationship to the surrounding context.
The nearly unanimous consensus from the Panel was that the building simply did not fit in with its context, with several factors contributing to this impression.
First, they commented that the massing was too bulky and overwhelming, and that the clamshell form dwarfed the adjacent barracks and pedestrian realm. They commented that it was like "an object that's landed" in Exhibition Place, and that it "feels spacecraft-like". It was suggested that perhaps sinking the massing into the ground and lowering the building would help it to better engage with the ground plane.
The suggestion to lower the building also played into several Panelists' comments about potentially activating the roof plane and including it as part of the public realm. Many Panel members commented that the south-facing elevated plaza was a very positive component of the proposal that would offer sweeping views of Lake Ontario, and wanted to see that idea expanded upon by creating a more symbiotic relationship between building and public realm.
It should be noted that several unknown factors may affect how far below grade the building can go. The design team commented that the water table was quite high being so close to the lake, and the topic of archaeology was also brought up, as the historic site has the potential to contain many artifacts and remnants of former buildings buried below the pavement. The proposal also includes an underground garage.
Heritage featured heavily in the Panel's comments, particularly with the adjacent Stanley Barracks. The design team noted that as part of this development, the barracks may be rehabilitated to house new program, but that this was currently being looked at and would be determined by what program is included in the new buildings. At the very least, the fence on the west side of the barracks would be removed and a more integrated public realm would connect it with the development.
The Panel, however, felt that there was little to no sensitivity given to the adjacent barracks, and that the new performance venue and hotel should better integrate with its historic surroundings. These comments went hand-in-hand with the previous proposal to sink the building in the ground as a way to reduce its massing and better relate to its context.
Stepping back to a wider context, a majority of Panel members felt that the venue and hotel should be switched, with the venue on the north side of the site facing Princes' Boulevard and the hotel tower to the south overlooking Lake Shore and the water. The reasons for this suggestion were two-fold: if located along Princes', the tower would appear behind the Princes' Gates when looking westbound along Lake Shore, an important view corridor that has historic significance. The Panel felt that the iconic view of the gates was too important to place a tower behind and that it needed to be preserved.
Another reason for the switch would be to improve the pedestrian realm, though the Panel was more split on this topic as to whether the hotel or venue would better animate and improve the pedestrian experience along Princes'. Overall, though, the Panelists agreed that the pedestrian realm was lacking and needed much more thought and design, which was not helped by the fact that the design team did not present a ground floor plan.
Regarding the architecture of the building, the Panel generally approved of what was presented, saying the hotel tower seemed quite elegant and that the venue was indeed eye-catching. They did agree that the venue should be something that is timeless and iconic, but that it also needed to fit in with its context, and unfortunately the current proposal does not do both.
The Panel also gave a warning about the architecture of the project: do not build another Hotel X. Panel members did not hold back their criticism of the newest addition to Exhibition Place, calling Hotel X "incredibly mediocre" and "one of the most underwhelming pieces of architecture" in Toronto. They recalled seeing the initial renderings of Hotel X, saying they were beautiful and full of so much promise, but that the finished project that stands there today is disappointing. As one Panel member put it: "We were cheated." Panelists urged the design team to look more closely at what happened to Hotel X, to make sure that it does not happen again.
Overall, the Panel was excited about the program and the ambitions of the project, but were not impressed with the lack of a contextual relationship of the building. As one member summed up: "It's flashy, it's iconic, but it doesn't seem to fit".
The Panel voted unanimously for non-support of the project in its current form.
We will keep you updated as plans for the Esports Performance Venue and Hotel continue 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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