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Toronto residents push back against U of T’s proposed 90 Queen’s Park facility

University aims to provide more space for students, faculty, opposition concerned about impact on surrounding area
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The proposed building design.COURTESY OF DILLER SCOFIDIO + RENFRO
The proposed building design.COURTESY OF DILLER SCOFIDIO + RENFRO

Several residents’ associations have opposed U of T’s proposed facility at 90 Queen’s Park.

According to U of T President Meric Gertler, the building aims to “create a meeting space for scholars and the wider city around us.” Several different departments are expected to occupy space in the building, including the Department of History and the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations.

Several local groups have opposed the construction of the building on the basis that it will undermine the area’s architectural integrity. The first public consultation was held in June of 2019, to which U of T responded by modifying the building design.

However, the new design did not satisfy the opposition, and on July 1, 2020, the Queen’s Park Coalition, which represents eight residents’ associations, released an open letter addressed to Councillor Mike Layton in hopes of challenging construction once again. “To allow this would alter the character and streetscape of Queen’s Park forever,” reads the open letter. A second public consultation was held on July 14.

Initial response to criticism 

After the initial 2019 consultation, U of T decreased the size of the building. According to Charles Renfro, a partner of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the design and architecture studio in charge of the project, classroom count and exhibit space was cut, and the recital hall — previously a concern for how it loomed over neighbouring buildings — was moved to better blend in with the building. 

Furthermore, the colouration and style of the building were changed to better match the area and decrease shadow impact on Philosopher’s Walk.

Some attendees at the July 14 consultation were concerned about the building’s height, questioning whether a residential building with the same number of floors would be as tall as the proposed building. Panellists responded that the two types of buildings were non-comparable and floor sizes were as small as they could be. 

In an interview with The Varsity, Scott Mabury, U of T’s Vice-President of Operations and Real Estate Partnerships, said that “the building has significantly evolved as a direct result of dozens of conversations that we’ve had with community members and others going back almost 10 years.” 

He added that the university believes the building has an “exceptional design that will support the academic teaching and learning research and discovery activities that will go on in this building.”

On the topic of preservation of the McLaughlin Planetarium, which would be demolished to construct the new facility, Mabury stressed that the university “exhausted all possibilities” for keeping the planetarium, and noted that the university intends to build a new planetarium when they replace the existing astronomy building.

Mabury further justified the plan at the consultation on July 14 by explaining that as the university directs efforts to re-enter after the COVID-19 pandemic, it will need more space to meet academic needs. Moreover, he noted that the university currently has to rent space and it often has to turn down events that the government proposes because it does not have the space to host them.

Ongoing public concerns

Despite the changes, the university’s plan is still being met with opposition from numerous groups.

While representing the Queen’s Park Coalition at the July 14 public consultation, Bronwyn Krog, Vice-President of Land Development & Planning at Wittington Properties Limited, said that the size of the facility would have an unacceptable impact on the buildings that surround it.

Others have said that the architectural style of the McLaughlin Planetarium deserves to be protected. The planetarium was built in 1968 and, at the time, had an innovative design that distinguished it from the university’s Gothic buildings.

Jeff Balmer, a professor of architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who is from Toronto, has advocated for its preservation through online platforms such as Change.org. Balmer has collected over 12,000 signatures on a petition to stop the demolition as of time of publication. 

In an email to The Varsity, Balmer wrote that the demolition of the planetarium would be a “significant loss of architectural heritage,” since the building is a representation of the “iconic and distinctive work of mid-century architecture [of] Toronto.”

Elizabeth Sisam, former Assistant Vice-President Campus and Facilities Planning at U of T, shared this sentiment. In an interview with The Varsity, Sisam responded to a comment made by Gilbert Delgado, Chief Planning, Design and Construction at U of T, in which he called the building a “cultural corridor.”

Sisam remarked that “a corridor is a passage” and said that the new facility “looks more like a barrier.” She highlighted that it almost entirely blocks the Edward Johnson Building (EJB) and “diminish[es]” the Royal Ontario Museum and other buildings in the area. 

In a previous interview with blogTO, Sisam claimed that the new facility would “destroy the cultural landscape,” a comment she clarified for The Varsity by adding that the new building does not create a “cohesive landscape” by respecting the “mass, height, and external materials” of other buildings in the area.

According to Sisam, the changes U of T implemented to the plans to curb criticism are “not enough.” She believes the issue with the building is its “massiveness.”

Student and faculty perspective

Several students attended the second public consultation and voiced their opinion on the issue. Lucas Granger, who served as the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s 2019–2020 vice-president external, introduced himself as the former U of T representative for the project and commented that students and faculty need the space the building provides. He noted that the building had already been reduced in size, which came at a sacrifice for students and faculty. 

A student in the music department asked whether there was any possibility that EJB, which is located right next to the new development, could be demolished to create more space for the project. He added that the building, which some believe should be a heritage site, is old, unpopular, and nonfunctional for students, especially those with accessibility challenges. 

Mabury responded that, while the university is aware of the deferred maintenance problems of EJB, it does not want to demolish it without considering all other alternatives. He added that the university has made efforts to rehabilitate the building.

According to Jon Cummings, a sessional lecturer at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, construction of the new facility should begin approximately a year from now and take around 34–36 months.