What do UFO Restaurant — a hybrid convenience-store-slash-diner with an upstairs apartment unit in Toronto’s West Queen West neighborhood — and the TIFF Bell Lightbox (a condo tower with a world-renowned cinema complex at its base) have in common? Both are examples of “creative mixed-use” projects that bring together multiple activities on one site — and move beyond the Toronto development industry’s standard mixed-use pairing of condos and big-box retail.
“The Toronto specials are single-family homes and giant condos with a Shopper’s Drug Mart at the bottom,” says architectural designer Phat Le. This year, Le and the rest of the team at the University of Toronto’s Infrastructure Institute mounted the exhibition “+(plus) 2.0: Imagining the Future of City-Building Together Through Creative Mixed-Use” as a way to reckon with the ubiquity of these two typologies and cast a spotlight on less conventional — and more socially engaging — urban developments.
After making its debut in January during the DesignTO Festival (where it went on to win a Best in Festival award), “+(plus) 2.0” has been revived for an encore that runs through September 27. In a way, the two different venues that the exhibition has appeared in so far echo its central thesis. Originally mounted in a former bread factory in Liberty Village, it is now on view at Collision Gallery, a creative space carved out of a downtown office building’s lobby. If an industrial production facility can make for a compelling gallery, and so can a skyscraper, then what are some other ways that cities can be using their real estate to its full potential?
Essentially, “+(plus) 2.0” is about the art of the mash-up. By encouraging more eclectic combinations of land uses — at every scale — Le and his colleagues hope to demonstrate that there’s room for greater experimentation when it comes to city building. “It doesn’t need to be one-size-fits-all,” says Le. The Infrastructure Institute team sees particular opportunities when it comes to combining public, private and non-profit uses. But Le also cautions that successful creative mixed-use development is not as straightforward as simply dedicating a floor to a different program. “It’s great to have this vision, but you also need to provide the support that allows organizations to become intertwined in the space and have a real purpose there,” he says. In other words, a successful pairing depends as much on a strong relationship as it does on great architecture.
On a horseshoe-shaped plywood display table at the centre of the Infrastructure Institute’s exhibition, “before” and “after” models outline how several programs are typically addressed in Toronto, and how the buildings that result could be reimagined to welcome additional activities. In one example, a retirement home is co-located next to housing, a daycare and a café as a way to combat feelings of social isolation among seniors. Slice-of-life illustrations by Irina Rouby Apelbaum imagine how these ideas might look in practice — depicting, for instance, a range of different age groups making use of the same courtyard.
The exhibition posits that, along with making more efficient use of limited real estate, creative mixed-use planning often results in richer social encounters. Sure enough, staging “+(plus) 2.0” in the heart of the Financial District has meant that many of the show’s visitors are neighbouring office workers who draw on their 9-5 experience while touring the displays. “There have been a lot of great conversations about how the offices here are sitting pretty much empty,” Le says. “Could we be rethinking what they’re used for? How do we get some housing in there?”
Community feedback was also the genesis for the five models presented in “+(plus) 2.0”. The show has its origins in an earlier Infrastructure Institute initiative — appropriately named “+(plus) 1.0” — that prompted Torontonians to brainstorm possible mixed-use scenarios. “We asked the audience what kind of building combinations they could see happening that would be really cool, but also what kind of combinations they thought would be awful,” Le says. Pulling from both lists, the Infrastructure Institute then moved ahead with five examples. “It became a way for us to experiment with playing out these ideas.”
One of the more radical combinations that “+(plus) 2.0” presents is a building that fuses a church with a music venue — then throws in a market and hostel for good measure. While it explores one of the pairings deemed to be the most challenging during the Infrastructure Institute’s crowd-sourcing exercises, Le is still confident that it could work. “North American congregations are dwindling,” he notes. “A lot of churches are surviving by renting out their basements. Meanwhile, many queer DIY music spaces are now popping up in warehouses in the Stockyards because they don’t have access to spaces downtown anymore. Even though these two kinds of programs might not relate to each other, by operating at different times of day, they could be building out this 24-hour usage of the same space.”
Admittedly, the partnership would likely require working out some differences. To the exhibition organizers, that’s part of the point. “We tend to shy away from conflict sometimes,” Le says. “But listening to each other’s point of view is easier than you think. We need to be able to have the empathy to understand that, we might not all have the same ideas or interests, but there is a common goal. We’ve got to take care of each other — and sometimes that means we need to work together to have a space that everybody benefits from.”
Lest the concepts presented in the show seem idealistic, a wall of real-life case studies proves that many of them have already been successfully implemented. For instance, Montreal’s St Jax Anglican Church currently doubles as an event space that has hosted DJs and pop-up speakeasies. A number of recent Toronto examples are also profiled — but Le still feels that the city’s developers and planning staff have some catching-up to do. “Look at the Eglinton LRT line, where all the new stations are these glamorous glass boxes that have taken so much time,” he says. “Transportation infrastructure is important, but could there have been another opportunity to build something else there too?”
Admittedly, these projects often require a great deal of cooperation between public and private sources. The Infrastructure Institute’s online case study catalogue details the complex funding and partnerships involved in a variety of local projects. “You might want to have these amazing combinations, but a strange kind of bureaucracy hovers over many of these ideas actually coming to life,” Le says.
On a promising note, the Infrastructure Institute is currently in the process of evolving one of the examples proposed in “+(plus) 2.0” for a site at 260 Adelaide Street West. Working alongside the CreateTO agency — established by the City of Toronto to reimagine municipal real estate assets — the team is exploring how to combine a new fire hall with high-rise affordable housing. It’s another mixed-use pairing that might conjure a strong knee-jerk reaction, but Le says not to sound the alarm bells just yet. “Fire trucks don’t usually turn on their sirens until they’ve left the station,” he says. Indeed, similar projects have already been completed in Washington, Vancouver, Calgary and Victoria, and another is currently underway in Chicago. Especially if we want to keep our communities equitable, affordable and interesting, the city of the future might just depend on these types of unconventional pairings. Time to start match-making.
In its exhibition “+(plus) 2.0,” U of T’s Infrastructure Institute illustrates the benefits of embracing creative mixed-use.