The Old City Hall Conundrum

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Old City Hall in Toronto is a building that has served as a Provincial court-house since the construction of New City Hall in the 60s.  It is a classic example of Romanesque Revival architecture and at one time was the largest civic building on the continent.  It is an iconic fixture of our public realm

In September the City adopted a staff report that confirmed they would not extend the Province’s lease beyond 2021.  That same report authorized staff to release the reservation placed on some areas for  future use as the Toronto Museum Project and to create publicly accessible space.

So clearly there is a move afoot to consider its use as a  museum….of something.

At the same time, the report recommended that staff report back with final recommendations for a strategy for new tenants at Old City Hall which — of course — precludes any final decision on a Museum.  Perhaps the plan is to use rental revenues to offset the cost of installing a museum.

Since September the City hired a Real Estate Consultant to advise them on the ‘highest and best use’ for Old City Hall.  Their conclusion?   Conversion to a retail centre that contains a mix of food service, leisure, event and civic uses and provides some encouragement for future office.

Old City Hall is located next door to the two biggest shopping malls in the City. The Eaton Centre and The Bay Store on Queen Street.  So…retail?  Really?

Clearly, the City’s real estate consultants responded to the terms of reference they were given.  But I would argue that what the City needed was not a ‘highest and best use’ assessment, but rather a business case to justify keeping Old City Hall an entirely PUBLIC building and to do so at little or no net cost to the City.  How do we strategically and financially  justify its use as a public amenity now and in the future?

Old City Hall is an iconic building in an iconic location.  Few citizens know that it is a court-house and a jail.  But they know it as a public building.  They know it as part of the architectural fabric of this city.  Grand steps to the front doors and a monument to lost soldiers out front.; the backdrop of every Remembrance Day Ceremony.  It contributes to the ‘look’ of our city as it sits as a visual anchor looking north from Bay Street.  In many ways, it is the logo of the Toronto brand.

How does one keep the origins of this building intact, while facing the inevitability of change?   How do we ensure that it’s ‘highest and best use’ is to keep it as a public building?

The City owns two premium properties in addition to Old City Hall; the Central Library on Yonge Street and the Toronto Archives on Spadina Road.

The Central Reference Library occupies half a city block and while in its day it was viewed as ‘cutting edge’ architecture, in fact it is a static building.  Half of the floor plate is given up to a four story vaulted ceiling, and it offers little to nothing in the way of contributing to life on the street.  It is a wall of brick.  It fails to help animate our city in a way that should be demanded of all public buildings.

The Toronto Archives building is a small building that occupies a large site on Spadina .  It is in a residential neighbourhood and the site would be better suited to high end residential development.   It is also not a building that contributes in any meaningful way to the life of the street.

My business case is this:

Sell both the Central Reference Library and the City of Toronto Archives properties and use the significant proceeds to convert  Old City Hall into the new City of Toronto Central Reference Library and City Archives.    What could be more fitting than an old building housing old books?   If there were a demand for a ‘museum’ at Old City Hall, then what better than to couple it with our city archives?

Bring in some limited retail that is synergistic with a library. The retail could generate revenue to help off-set operating costs.

A  City such as ours has a multitude of moving parts: assets, liabilities, challenges and opportunities.   The measure of our success is determined by our ability to move those parts and assets around in order to achieve our greatest opportunity and deal with our greatest challenges.  Old City Hall is one of those challenges….and one of those opportunities.

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Author: paul nodwell

Paul Nodwell draws on almost 33 years of experience in Urban Design and Landscape Architecture. He is a passionate student of the public realm and believes that great 'place-making' cannot happen without listening to stakeholders, shaping the project around a big (not necessarily complex) idea, and wherever possible, introducing metaphorical and even poetic elements that engage the public in their own experience of the built environment. Early in his career Paul's work took him to Southern California with Peridian Group Landscape Architecture and to Paris, France with Walt Disney Imagineering, but he has enjoyed most, his participation in helping to shape the Greater Toronto Area. As part of the senior management team for the Town of Markham, Paul played a key role in bringing The New Urbanism to southern Ontario. In private practice, Paul has designed a myriad of public parks, streetscapes and condominiums. He has played a key role in the design of a number of new mixed use communities including Angus Glen, Cornell, The Galleria, Concord Floral, Vaughan Metro Centre and Markham Centre. Paul is the recipient of more than a dozen awards for urban design and landscape architecture. He has served on the City of Vaughan Design Review Panel for three years and continues to enjoy serving as adjudicator at the University of Guelph. Even more, he enjoys the dip of his canoe paddle in a northern Ontario wilderness and the challenge of paints and a blank canvas.

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