Monday, August 19, 2019

Condo development project in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood threatens heritage

Sometimes, a city gets exactly what it needs when it needs it.

For instance, the year the CN Tower opened was the same year Toronto finally eclipsed Montreal to become the largest and most economically powerful city in Canada.

For Toronto to get there, however, it needed confidence; it needed places that felt new, different and worldly. Up until the 1930s, Toronto had maintained the stiff upper lip of its English and Scottish heritage: a nice place to live and work, but there was little play. Dinner was to be served at home and Sunday was legislated as the Day of Rest.

And then Toronto got what it needed when a little bohemian community blew a big raspberry at that stiff upper lip. Starting as early as the 1930s but intensifying in the late-1940s, as new arrivals from Eastern Europe blew into town, a Greenwich Village-type scene of artists, coffee houses and art galleries blossomed on Gerrard Street West between Yonge and Elizabeth Streets.

However, as development pressure pushed this scene out by the early sixties, a new Bohemia had to be established, and that’s when Toronto got what it needed for the psychedelic sixties: Yorkville Village. After establishing itself as the epicentre of the folk movement with the first coffee houses opening in late 1960 and 1961 (and the legendary Riverboat in 1964), Yorkville would become Toronto’s Haight-Ashbury from the mid-1960s until the mid-70s. And, because it had indeed started life as a Victorian-era village until it was annexed by Toronto in 1883, it retained the pokiness, charm and the scale of one.

When inevitable development pressure came by the late 1960s, however, Yorkville’s hirsute denizens wouldn’t stand for glassy towers. And, luckily, neither would “with it” developer Ian (Dick) Wookey, who, in 1968, hired architects Jack Diamond and Barton Myers, both graduates of the University of Pennsylvannia – where they’d studied under Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi – to create York Square at the northeastern corner of Yorkville Avenue and Avenue Road.

“In terms of Canada’s planning history, it’s just such an important place,” said Linda Lewis, Yorkville resident since 1969 and professor emeritus at Ryerson University’s faculty of communication and design. “It created the new Yorkville … this integration of old with new, respect for scale and materials, creating a highly dense space in a very small area, which has become characteristic of the rest of Yorkville.”

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