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Architects reveal plans for $70M pharmacy building

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U of T has quietly begun hearing from architects vying to build a $70 million pharmacy building, but has yet to come up with a concrete plan to relocate the historic greenhouses and unique plants that currently occupy the site of the proposed building.

At an unpublicized Simcoe Hall meeting held on the final day of reading week, three firms chosen as finalists presented plans to the design review committee and fewer than 20 onlookers, including Leslie L. Dan, Pharmacy’s benefactor.

Although the plans lacked detail because the firms had only 11 days to prepare for the meeting, they presented various grand visions that would make the building a standout on the so-called “hospital row” strip on University Avenue.

The closest any plan came to preserving the greenhouses was the one from a New York firm, which noted that the public is used to seeing the “delicate greenhouses” at Queen’s Park Circle, and suggested that great care must be taken with the outer appearance of the building or it “will be seen as a large unfriendly presence that has taken away the green spaces.”

Their proposal would “bring the memory of the greenhouses into the courtyard with glass structures” that would contain plants. The interior courtyard would likely be invisible from the street.

A rival Toronto firm appeared to have the most advanced plan, proposing two glass towers with a space between them wide enough to shed daylight onto a broad flight of Spanish steps that would lead to the underground level of the building. The stairs would recall the grand 18th century Scalla di Spagna in Rome.

Another firm, from England, wants to create a glass lower level to make visible the building to the north of the greenhouses—the Tanz Neuroscience Building, constructed in 1932 as the Botany Building—and give the illusion that the projected Pharmacy building is afloat.

But Botany student Ferit Kocacinar is worried that the university has yet to deal with the consequences of removing the greenhouses from their current site.

“I feel badly because of the history and because such a huge collection of plants will be lost,” said the Ph.D. student, who uses the greenhouses to study desert plants. “It doesn’t matter how much care you take in moving them, you will lose some of the exotic plants.”

Although new state-of-the-art greenhouses being built on the top of the Earth Sciences Centre will be climate-controlled and more convenient for graduate students, the structures will be shaded by a solid structural element of the building that runs between the two glass-enclosed tunnels.

“The greenhouses on the west will have no sunlight in the morning and the greenhouses on the east will have no sunlight in the afternoon,” said Kocacinar. “People will say we have artificial light in the greenhouses, but it is not as effective as sunlight and is a waste of energy.”

The university is currently looking at moving the central part of the greenhouse to Allen Gardens. Ron Venter, the university’s vice-provost of space and facilities planning, says given their age it is unknown how well they would survive such a move.

Architect Elizabeth Sisam, director of campus and facilities planning, notes that she liked the suggestion that the greenhouses should be commemorated.

“The idea is that there should be something there so people recognize that there were greenhouses,” she said, indicating that one possibility might be to indicate the former location of segments of the greenhouses in a tile pattern on the floor. The university may also erect a historic plaque on the site.

But Kocacinar believes it would be best to ensure the greenhouses stay on campus.

“As botany students, you want to show the world that we have a collection and show enthusiasm for new students,” he said. “I would leave them close to the corner of College and University, rather than move them to Allen Gardens.”

Venter says the greenhouses cannot be incorporated into the design of the projected Pharmacy building because they aren’t structurally sound. However, he says if relocation negotiations currently underway with the city are not successful, it is possible that a small part of the greenhouses may be included in the landscaping or “tacked as an art form into one corner.”