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2005 11 17
Sapphire in the Rough - 2
imageAt about 330 metres, developer Harry Stinson’s Sapphire Tower would punctuate the city’s skyline and be to the Bay Street community what the ROM Crystal is to the city’s cultural sector – a symbol of optimism for the future of downtown Toronto.

City Council does not share that vision. Tuesday afternoon a majority of councilors voted to deny Stinson’s plan for the 66 Temperance Street tower, which is two blocks south of City Hall just west of Bay Street.

What are their reasons for the veto? The building is too tall and the councilors must “protect the City Hall’s public square” from the tower’s thin but none-the-less inevitable shadow.

This is the second time in as many weeks Toronto has scorned a high-rise proposal. The first was the ROM’s plan for a condominium tower to the south of its main building.

William Thorsell tactfully withdrew the ROM’s proposal when the local community told him a tower in the museum precinct did not make sense. That is not true about the location of Stinson’s Sapphire Condominium.

If there is a ten-block district in Canada that can support a tower like this one it is Bay Street near Queen. Toronto’s business district has a history of tall buildings that, when built, changed people’s perception of the city. The list includes City Hall itself.

The British Empire’s tallest building was, for a while, our own Royal York Hotel. Mies Van Der Rohe’s black Toronto-Dominion towers challenged the city’s skyline along with Canadian’s view of Modernity. Both became admired symbols for all of Canada.

What has changed? When did we lose our ability to embrace the new and provocative?

“I’m not surprised that the tower was turned down,” said Stinson. “The shadow and height were the main problems they had but above-ground parking was also mentioned.” “City Council is very parochial.”

Council’s view was not shared by everyone. Robert Verdun, a resident of 1 King West, another of Stinson’s properties, spoke in favour of the project at Tuesday’s council meeting. Verdun says that, “Downtown is not Harbourfront.” “Walking across Lakeshore Boulevard and under the train tracks is too much a barrier to pedestrians.” “People living there do not contribute to the usability of the city’s urban core.”

“Toronto needs a lot more middle-class people who live downtown and take the city seriously,” Verdun said. “Stinson’s developments help do that.”

What are Stinson’s next steps? He will “definitely go to the OMB,” because the “OMB has a more balanced review of the facts.” In the interim Stinson promises to “Work on the building by adding some interesting twists that will fascinate people.”

Good because we hope this building – shadow issues aside for a moment – is not built as currently depicted. Looking like a copy of a copy of buildings seen from Hong Kong to San Paolo, the proposed Sapphire tower will not convince Torontonians to break the rules. Look at architect Santiago Calatrava’s tower proposal in Chicago for an example of how well designed, tall buildings can inspire change.

In the past, Business district buildings that pushed Toronto’s limits of acceptance came from some of the world’s most respected architects: people like I.M. Pei, Mies Van Der Rohe, Edward Durell Stone, Viljo Revel, and Toronto’s own John Parkin. Maybe this is the surprise Stinson has in mind – an ambitious and skilled design unique to and worthy of Toronto.

City Council has changes to make as well. The shadows of tall buildings affect other urban squares as prestigious as Toronto’s. Look at the Piazza San Marco, for a classic example, or New York’s Rockefeller Plaza, just to mention a few. The Sapphire’s shadow impact is fleeting and Nathan Phillips Square is not a beach, it is near the centre of Canada’s most important business district.

I can’t imagine the City Councilors who approved Revel’s City Hall design or Mies’ TD Bank would limit the city’s economic and social prosperity for this reason.

In the sixties, seventies, and eighties our politicians, nudged on by activists like Jane Jacobs, avoided the mistakes that destroyed so many U.S. cities; however, few wanted a permanent museum display of a sixties Toronto. They certainly did not want to force businesses to move elsewhere.

But that’s what is happening. If it continues, the city’s core will whither leaving something far more destructive than a shadow behind.

This story is cross-published in today's National Post

Image ©Cassius Adams, http://www.cassiusadams.com
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 11/17 at 04:45 PM

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