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Leaked 1 Yonge Street proposal is likely to join a long line of towers that were just too tall

Preliminary rendering of 1 Yonge Street, view from Queen’s Quay.

It was October when news broke that there were plans to turn the parking lot beside a Toronto landmark into the tallest building in the city. The architect’s drawings were leaked to the press, presumably to drum up interest in the project. It worked, and journalists wrote about it for months, amid official protestations. It was unlikely – bordering on impossible – from the beginning, but it captured people’s imaginations. We like tall things. We love tallest things.

That’s we as humans, not we as Canadians, and certainly not we as Torontonians. With the exception of one moment of collective tumescence in the early 1970s that resulted in the erection of the CN Tower, we’ve preferred our towers flying at half mast. But we’re not alone. In fact, it’s really only the U.S., China and the excitable 14-year-old boys who run the United Arab Emirates who have gone in for this sort of thing in a big way.

You’d think that with almost 200 buildings under construction now in the city there’d be more grandstanding. But it turns out Canadian developers aren’t that different from Canadians in general. Why push an envelope when it might tear? Mare usque ad mare is descriptive enough, I guess (or would be with an extra usque ad mare) but Lucrum ante gloriam might get closer to the heart of the national character.

‘Twas ever thus. That building in the first paragraph was proposed in 1971, for the parking lot next to Eaton’s at College Park. It was going to be 140 storeys, which would have made it the world’s tallest building for the next 37 years. But Eaton’s said they weren’t really interested in selling the parking lot to the architect/developer who’d leaked those drawings, and it went nowhere (the developer ended up building what’s now the Holiday Inn on Bloor across from the ROM).

And of course we reacted the same way a few weeks ago when drawings by Hariri Pontarini were leaked depicting a cluster of buildings in and around the parking lot beside the Toronto Star building at 1 Yonge Street, the tallest of which would be 98 storeys. Though 42 storeys less than the 1971 idea, it would still be the tallest building in the city. Would, but probably won’t.

Preliminary designs for 1 Yonge Street complex

When I called Pinnacle International, the Vancouver developer that’s almost-but-not-quite proposing the cluster, they didn’t want to comment, calling the drawings “preliminary”.  Hariri Pontarini wouldn’t even put anyone on the phone. According to the office of Pam McConnell, the councillor in whose ward the buildings would rise, the city is looking at transportation, and whether current plans could handle this much density there. And Sara Henstock, with the city’s planning divisions, pointed to the forthcoming Lower Yonge Precinct study that lays out what the city wants for the area just to the west of the Waterfront projects like Sugar Beach and the new George Brown campus. She says it won’t be out for another six months, and that though Pinnacle is free to apply whenever they like, applying after the study comes out, and abiding by its stipulations, will increase their chance of approval. There’s an element of the study that city staff is calling “Minimum and maximum standards for building height and massing,” and unless something truly untraditional happens in the next six months, those standards are not going to allow for a 98-storey tower.

There’s more precedent for what some might call the city’s flaccid approach to monumental architecture. Far more. The city didn’t like Harry Stinson’s 2005 Sapphire Tower proposal, which would have resulted in a 90-storey building, but went nowhere after they decided it would cast a nasty shadow on City Hall.

Before that, there was the Weston Tower, which in the 1980s was going to be 75 storeys at Yonge and the 401. Way back in 1927, there was a proposal to build a three-tower complex, called the Toronto Towers, the tallest of which would have been 40 storeys, making it the highest in the British Empire (though still 18 feet shorter than Philadelphia’s 25-year-old city hall). What we got instead, in 1929, was the 28-storey Royal York Hotel, which was itself briefly the tallest in the empire. We got incrementally taller buildings from 1931 to 1962, when we were beaten to the 40-storey mark by Montreal’s CIBC Building. We didn’t get our Commonwealth crown back until 1967 (and we lost it again, this time to Hong Kong, in 1990; it’s now held by Malaysia).

In fact, there’s enough of these stories of unbuilt buildings, many of them canned because they seemed too extravagant, too ambitious, that a book called Unbuilt Toronto, where I got a lot of this information, required a second volume to tell them.

So, we’ll probably get something quite massive down there in the butt end of the city, multiple buildings with lots of office space and condos to satisfy this growth that so few us seem to understand quite yet (and are still, after a decade, predicting an imminent end inglorious end to). But if the Pinnacle tower is taller than any other in the city, we can be almost certain it will only be incrementally so.

Correction: Previously, this article incorrectly referred to Harry Stinson’s 2005 proposal as the Emerald Tower.

All images by Hariri Pontarini Architects

____

Bert Archer writes for Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter @bertarcher.

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