The Atrium on Bay is one of those quiet landmarks in Downtown Toronto: you won't find it in any tourist guidebooks, nor does it typically appear in any Toronto histories nor architectural textbooks, yet almost every resident of the city knows of it and can easily recognize it. Built in 1981, the 14- and 15-storey commercial building occupies a prominent site at the northwest corner of Yonge and Dundas, directly across from the Eaton Centre and Yonge-Dundas Square, sprawling to fill almost the entirety of the city block between Yonge, Bay, Dundas, and Edward Streets. Architecturally, it features a distinct geometric postmodern design, with repetitive blue glass bay windows and two impressive interior atriums. It has always been the lesser-known little cousin of the neighbouring Eaton Centre, but it has always held a special place in the city's heart, a proud backdrop building at a major destination that usually contains some restaurant or retail shop that appeals to each person that passes through.

Site plan, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

In recent years, however, the owners have been looking to refresh the aging property. Previous owners H&R REIT had submitted a rezoning application to add five additional floors to the complex's 14- and 15-storey towers, which was approved in 2013. That proposal resurfaced in 2017 with a redesign, which would have significantly altered the architectural expression of the building while severing the interior atriums at ground level. These plans were never built out, however, and the site was sold to KingSett Capital in 2019.

Rendering of the previous 2017 proposal by H&R REIT and IBI Group, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Following the pandemic, KingSett claims that nearly 30% of the building will soon be vacant, with tenants either relocating or downsizing with a shift to more work-from-home business models. They are looking to inject some new life into the complex and diversify its uses, capitalizing on its prime location to introduce residential and more retail development to the property. They shelved the plans to modify the existing towers, and instead submitted a rezoning application in 2021 to redevelop the northeast corner of the property with a new mixed-use residential tower fronting directly onto Yonge Street.

Rendering of the Atrium on Bay expansion, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Currently occupying the northeast corner of the site is an 8-storey annex to the main Atrium building, which steps down to 4 storeys along Yonge Street, containing office space with grade-level retail. KingSett is proposing to demolish this portion of the building and replace it with a 34-storey residential tower designed by Hariri Pontarini Architects, to contain a total of 317 residential units with grade-level retail. The proposal was presented to the Toronto Design Review Panel in March, 2023.

Existing portion of the building to be demolished outlined in red, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Given the highly constrained site, there are several unique aspects to the development. Most notably, there is an existing billboard structure on the property immediately south of the tower that needs to be maintained, and which is deceptively tall, rising nearly the full height of the Atrium's 15-storey tower.

KingSett explained that the signage is actually owned not by them but by one of the original developers of the Atrium, and is protected by legal easements and restricted covenants that prevent any modifications or obstructions to it; KingSett, in fact, had to buy the rights to the north side of the billboard in order to allow them to obstruct the view of the signage. As a result of this billboard, the lower 18 floors of the proposal will have no south-facing windows. Above the billboard, an additional 15 metres of clearance is given before the tower floors cantilever out over the billboard by 9.1 metres at the 24th level.

Renderings showing relationship of the building to the billboard, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

The lower two floors of the proposal will be occupied by retail, and will provide an improved retail-lined access corridor directly from Yonge into the Atrium's existing mall, replacing the little-used unanimated service corridor that currently exists there now. Given structural constraints, the Atrium's existing loading dock is not large enough to accommodate the requirements of the new residential uses, and so the development will include a second loading dock for the new tower. There is no additional resident parking proposed within the building.

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

In the tower floors above, outdoor amenities are provided on the third and 34th floors. Interestingly, given the small tower floor-plate, the indoor amenities are interspersed throughout the building. The large common areas are concentrated on the third and 34th floors, but on every fourth residential level, a "common room" will be included, which is meant as a shared lounge space that all residents can use as a meeting place, a place to work, or simply a space to escape to for a change of scenery.

Rendering of the third floor roof terrace, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Though it is still early in the design, the renderings show the intent of the building's architecture. A brick facade is proposed with a rigid grid pattern of punched windows, playing off the traditional brick facades of Yonge Street's remaining heritage buildings while offering a stark contrast to the existing Atrium building. On the south facade where the building faces the billboard, the gridded brick pattern will continue uninterrupted, but with infilled brick panels instead of glass where the windows would normally go.

Renderings showing materiality and architectural expression, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

The Design Review Panel commended the proponents on the project, saying that it is an "excellent response to the goals of the client on this site" and that it strikes a fine balance between the various issues of building in a dense, urban environment. There were, however, three main points of contention that the Panel felt needed improvement.

The biggest issue for Panel members was the billboard, and how much it impacted the design of the building. While they did concede that there may be little KingSett could do since they do not own it, they did lament the impact that the billboard has on the units adjacent to it, limiting them to narrow east- and west-facing windows and denying them access to sunlight, sky views, and views of Yonge-Dundas Square to the south. It was also pointed out that the tower will likely far outlive the billboard, and if the signage is taken down at some future date, then all that will be left will be a blank 18-storey facade with an inexplicable cantilever. One Panelist, however, stated that the demographic of residents in this building know what they are signing up for, choosing to live next to the most action-packed intersection of the city, and that the sign may not matter as much since it is just another part of living in an extremely dense, urban locale.

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

Panel members also flagged the separation distance between the existing Atrium office building and the new tower as an issue, which is currently proposed at 18 metres, less than the City's standard of 25 metres. They cited concerns over privacy, access to sunlight, and sky views, and worried that it would impact the quality of life in the west-facing units on the lower floors.

Typical upper tower floor plan (24th floor and above), image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Finally, several Panel members pushed for more of a setback at grade level along Yonge Street. The current proposal shows a 4.4-metre wide sidewalk, and the proponents noted that the Yonge TOmorrow project, which will begin early works this year, will fully pedestrianize Yonge Street at this location. However, the Panel still pushed for more of a setback, pointing out that this stretch of Yonge is the busiest and currently the most hostile for pedestrians, and any expansion of the public realm would help improve the streetscape.

Rendering of the ground plane looking south along Yonge, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

The final vote from the Panel was unanimous in support of the proposal, however, it came with the condition that the design team work to improve the issues with privacy, access to sunlight, and sky views in the residential units caused by the billboard and the narrow separation distance to the adjacent office tower.

UrbanToronto will continue to follow progress on this development, but in the meantime, you can learn more about it from our Database file, linked below. If you'd like, you can join in on the conversation in the associated Project Forum thread or leave a comment in the space provided on this page.

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Related Companies:  Adamson Associates Architects, Aercoustics Engineering Ltd, Bousfields, Entuitive, Ferris + Associates Inc., Grounded Engineering Inc., Hariri Pontarini Architects