Thursday, February 4, 2010

Heritage: Unbuilt Toronto

Author Mark Osbaldeston prepared to give a talk on his "Unbuilt Toronto" book to the Swansea Historical Society on 3-February-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - For some reason, despite all the awards it has received, I had never bothered to read the book "Unbuilt Toronto." Thus, when author Mark Osbaldeston spoke at the Swansea Historical Society last night, the material he presented was all new to me, and made it all the more obvious to me why the book has won such profound praise.

While the book was organized by topic (unbuilt transportation, retail, etc.), in his presentation, Osbaldeston instead took a street segment, Queen Street West from Yonge to University, and chose to highlight all the unbuilt projects related to that area. Being in the core of downtown Toronto, that meant everything from a Queen Street subway for streetcars to a much larger version of the Eaton Centre to a wonderful monument traffic circle that could have been built near Queen and University to hide the jog in University that would have cost just five figures.

Much of the presentation focused on what would happen on the location that today hosts City Hall and Nathan Philips Square. Originally purchased by the city to create a civic square between (now-Old) City Hall and Osgoode Hall, the property languished for years as different proposals, many of them replacing Old City Hall, came and went. One was even an early version of a Public-Private Partnership, which would have built a new building on the Old City Hall site that would have initially contained retail space catering to downtown workers until the city needed additional space. Most surprising to me were the proposals to create a "Federal Avenue" (later going under other names) that would have run from the center of Union Station directly to the site on Queen. Imagine what it would be like today to look from City Hall or Union Station and see the other building!

Arguably the most visionary project was Buckminster Fuller's proposal for re-connecting Toronto with its waterfront, including an atrium in which University Avenue would have extended south, crossed the railway lands, and reached Lake Ontario. It seems amazing today that more than forty years later, Toronto is still trying to re-connect with Lake Ontario, making progress in fits and starts. This proved to be a major theme of Osbaldeston's presentation, that old ideas come back and are eventually implemented. The current Eglinton light rail designs resemble the original Queen designs, much of Toronto's retail did move north (just to Bloor, not College), and George Brown College is building a waterfront campus.

Yet, the bigger theme appeared to be that Toronto has (almost) always developed pragmatically. The Eaton's plans for a mega-city development did not proceed because there just weren't enough prospective tenants. The monument traffic circle on University wasn't built because the construction of the University extension was funded by a local improvement district that wasn't interested in such niceties. Most amazingly, the parking lot underneath City Hall was built first, to help fund the project, and all proposals for the design had to incorporate the already-existing garage!

Considering this reality, it's amazing that we have the significant buildings we do have in Toronto. Mark Osbaldeston did a great job of putting that in perspective.

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