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The top 5 unbuilt mega projects in Toronto

Posted by Chris Bateman / January 23, 2014

toronto metro centreIn an parallel universe, Toronto is home to a pioneering offshore community with canals instead of streets. The CN Tower looks weird - it's probably not even called that - and most of the central waterfront is consumed by a complex that includes a massive CBC headquarters and a reworked Front Street.

There are grand avenues and wide European-style traffic circles, the Eaton Centre doesn't exist, and the tallest building in the city is a bizarre semi-transparent affair at College and Yonge. A commemorative plaque at its base recalls the long lost Eaton's College Street store, which was knocked down to make way for the massive structure.

Oh, and there might just have been a few more downtown subway stations.

None of these wonders came to pass, of course, but they all came tantalizingly close. With David Mirvish and Frank Gehry's King West mega condos currently going through the approval process (or dis-approval, as the case may be), here's a look back at several massive Toronto projects that never made it past the concept phase.

METRO CENTREtoronto metro centreIn the 1960s, faced with hundreds of acres of surplus railway lines, sidings, and train sheds, two of Canada's biggest rail companies were keen to cash in and develop their massive and increasingly valuable holdings.

The Metro Centre proposal, the brainchild of Canadian Pacific and Canadian National, would have created a "city-within-a-city" between the Gardiner, Bathurst, Front, and Yonge. "4.5 million square feet of office space, 600,000 square feet of commercial space, and 9,300 residential units," Mark Osbaldeston says in his book Unbuilt Toronto.

The subway bend at Union Station would have been shifted south to Queens Quay, creating three new stops, a new transit hub for buses and trains would be built over the tracks, and there would be a new convention centre and English-language CBC broadcast centre.

Metro Centre got remarkably far: Metro Toronto, the now defunct senior level of government, gave its approval, as did the City of Toronto and its planners, but a group of concerned citizens successfully appealed the decisions at the Ontario Municipal Board, resulting in demands for additional parkland and smaller towers.

The mega project - the biggest ever pitched in North America - fizzled when the 1972 municipal election delivered a major idealogical shake-up at city council. The CN Tower, Roy Thomson Hall, and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre were the only pieces ever realized, albeit to different designs.

HARBOUR CITYtoronto harbour cityImagine living on the Toronto Islands. No, not those - the ones made out of infill just west of the disused airport runway.

Harbour City, the brainchild of the Toronto Harbour Commission, would have been an offshore community stitched together by canals and lagoons. The low-rise, mixed-use buildings, arranged in clusters, would provide living space for 60,000 people from a range of financial backgrounds. Urbanist Jane Jacobs was on board: "Harbour City is probably the most important advance in planning for cities that has been made this century," she said. What could go wrong?

The proposal would have closed Billy Bishop airport and moved it to the Port Lands (where it could handle extra capacity) and likely turned the Toronto Islands into a park. Harbour City wouldn't have been Venice North - a ring road would have provided vehicular access to the community from the foot of Bathurst Street.

Like Metro Centre and the Spadina Expressway, both still real prospects at the time, Harbour City was sunk by local opposition and a fortuitous change of government. In 1972, the feds decided its new international airport would be built in Pickering instead (still waiting) and the plans faded forever, which was probably for the best. The winters would have been hell.

JOHN MARYON TOWERtoronto john maryonFor several years, Eaton's management was earnestly devoted to knocking down its beautiful, historic Toronto stores for faceless office complexes. Case in point: John Maryon Tower, a proto-CN Tower that could have erased the company's College Street store in the early '70s.

Had it been built, the roof of the triangular concrete, steel, and glass tower would have been higher than New York's original World Trade Centre. At its core - literally - would have been a giant radio and TV antenna; tall downtown buildings were deflecting signals, which was one of the reasons the CN Tower became a necessity.

The eponymous Maryon was an expert in tall buildings and he confidently predicted his design would deflect winds of up to 200 km/h and stand for "1,000 years."

Eaton's was forced to back off when things began to go awry down on Queen Street. The company had been unable to build another much-desired office complex (more on that later) and declining sales later in the decade ensured Maryon's mega tower died and stayed dead.

CAMBRAI AVENUE AND VIMY CIRCLEtoronto cambrai avenueFor the most part, Toronto's street grid has remained relatively untouched by mass reconfiguration. Unlike Paris, which had its famous avenues carved out en masse by Baron Haussmann in the 19th century, Toronto has never been significantly made over, though proponents of the various downtown expressway concepts tried.

Cambrai Avenue, Vimy Circle, Passchendaele Road, the principal features in Toronto's ill-fated make-over plan, would have carved through the area between Front, Spadina, Queen, and Yonge to create a large traffic circle (Vimy) just south of where Osgoode station is now, and two broad streets, one running north from Union Station to Queen (Cambrai), and another winding from Wellington and Spadina to Queen and University (Passchendaele.)

The principal features of the plan, a revised and distilled version of an earlier scheme, all took their name from key battles of the first world war. St. Julien Place, a small public garden, was imagined in the centre of Cambrai Avenue, just south of Queen.

The project was halted (for the most part) by the will of the people in January 1930. A question on the municipal ballot sought authorization to finance the project just months after the stock market crash and, not surprisingly, the "no" voters prevailed by about six per cent.

That said, the now lost Registry of Deeds and Land Titles office and the extension of University Ave. to Front St., both pieces of the plan, were built.

EATON CENTRE TOWERStoronto eaton centreBefore Eaton's conceived of its downtown shopping mall, an entirely different scheme was in the works for Queen and Yonge that involved the destruction of Old City Hall for, you guessed it, office towers.

Eaton's wasn't erasing itself, far from it. A new flagship store and shopping atrium - the largest in the world, no less - was planned for the northwest corner of Queen and Yonge. Behind it, at the expense of the recently defunct Old City Hall, would rise a whopping 69-storey central tower, three office buildings (two 57-storeys, one 32,) and a 20-storey cylindrical hotel, a nod to the new City Hall building just to the west.

The collection of matching towers would be set in a large swath of open space, similar to Mies van der Rohe's TD Centre.

The original Eaton Centre seemed destined to become reality when Eaton's abruptly pulled the plug amid discussions about retaining Old City Hall in May 1967. The company said the proposed stipulations and limitations had made the project unsustainable and its executives refused to meet with officials from Metro Toronto who were keen to reach a deal.

The blueprints went in the garbage for good in 1967. In 1968, the Eaton Centre mall as we know it was proposed.

For more unbuilt delights and greater detail on several of these mega projects, Mark Osbaldeston's Unbuilt Toronto: A History of the City that Might Have Been and Unbuilt Toronto 2: More of the City That Might Have Been, both of which provided details included in this post, are well worth a read.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Telegram Archives, Toronto Public Library.



piero / January 23, 2014 at 01:22 am
Very cool piece! Thanks for sharing Chris.
stan / January 23, 2014 at 01:47 am
Wow. I had no idea. Very interesting!
Not William Dendy / January 23, 2014 at 09:20 am
In the cases of the original Eaton's plan and Metro Centre, citizen opposition to the destruction of Old City Hall and Union Station helped to doom both schemes.

Re Metro Centre - the CBC broadcast centre also got built, along with the office towers at Metro Hall, although also altered from the original plans.
Marc / January 23, 2014 at 09:37 am
I wish we had built the traffic circle.
iSkyscraper / January 23, 2014 at 09:40 am
Metro Centre was ahead of its time, and quite prescient in the big picture.
Andrew / January 23, 2014 at 10:20 am
Amazing post. I wish the city stuck to its plans with Harbour City and Metro Centre.
Jane Way / January 23, 2014 at 10:21 am
The top 5 legacy-building monoliths by egotistical white men that Toronto narrowly avoided

(Can we avoid #6, too, pretty please?)
jennsanerd / January 23, 2014 at 10:27 am
What is this? A centre for ants?
Jonny Bee / January 23, 2014 at 10:42 am
"The subway bend at Union Station would have been shifted south to Queens Quay, creating three new stops, a new transit hub for buses and trains would be built over the tracks."

I think this would have changed Toronto immensely. The central hub would have been away from the business centre. The former "dead" space between the train tracks and the gardiner would have been built up earlier, and there would have been better connections for public transit to the lakeshore (and perhaps across it). And perhaps this would have given more of an impetus to create a downtown relief subway line.
jaaaaaaaaaaat / January 23, 2014 at 10:55 am
harbour city could be really cool. i imagine it'd be like the MVVA-designed donlands, but with more landscape.

Yardl / January 23, 2014 at 11:31 am
Its too bad that more of that high-rise, street-widening, and mega-development isn't as easy to put through today, we could have a wealthier and more opportunity-filled city with high productivity and intense&successful residents not clamouring for more affordable housing or free services. And now we have ghetto and people call it hip and community and street-presence. Jane Jacobs - what a monster. People were better then (it would seem).
libtards / January 23, 2014 at 11:54 am
You can thank mostly LIEbreals for making these and a lot more city plans, fade away.

But hey.. more LRT's and streetcars for all.
Ugh. No vision.
Jeff / January 23, 2014 at 11:57 am
Eaton Centre Towers would be condos now.
Big Bear / January 23, 2014 at 12:21 pm
I suppose that there are pros and cons to all of these projects. The fact that they didn't get built has pros and cons in each case as well. But I'm sure thankful that Union Station wasn't destroyed in the same shameful way that New York's beautiful old Pennsylvania Station was. While you don't want to turn your entire city into a museum, blindly bulldozing your past sure doesn't help you build your future, either.
sean / January 23, 2014 at 12:36 pm
everyone already knows about the biggest projects of all, the spadina, crosstown and scarborough expressways, that would have saved us from the eternal gridlock we now experience. you can all thank transplanted yank Jane Jacobs for selling everyone the lie that it was expressways that ruined american cities instead of the flight of white families to the suburbs after the great migration.
Todd replying to a comment from Big Bear / January 23, 2014 at 12:50 pm
You should look up old pictures of Front St. Sad to say that area was blindly bulldozed as well... only Union Station remains.
sawbhu / January 23, 2014 at 01:28 pm
Harbour City... I wish.
Geoff / January 23, 2014 at 01:42 pm
Let's not forget the PRESTO CARD. That's still not fully built and integrated for you whole trip on the TTC.

Donald / January 23, 2014 at 04:28 pm
Where does "Ataratiri" fit into this list. I remember because the city started to expropriate land around King east, River St, Don river area in the late 1980's and there was great surprise at the city's ability to do so as well as valuation.

It seems the PanAm games site is about 1/2 the planned Ataratiri discussions. Anyway, doesn't matter, except for expropriating Elte carpets, nothing was done.
Spike replying to a comment from Yardl / January 23, 2014 at 04:54 pm
Is there ANYTHING that you can comment on about development in Toronto without blasting Jane Jacobs? What the heck did she do to you?
stopitman / January 23, 2014 at 06:39 pm
Metro Centre did happen, albeit in a new form and later than it was supposed to in the form of CityPlace. Same thing, decades later.

@jensanerd - nice use of a Zoolander quote
phil replying to a comment from Spike / January 23, 2014 at 07:45 pm
she ruined our city. see above
Spike replying to a comment from phil / January 23, 2014 at 10:01 pm
No she didn't, asswipe; one woman COULD NOT 'wreck' an entire city all by herself. Progressive-thinking people and politicians who care about their city (unlike you and the other denizens of the Tea Party/Ford Nation) didn't want these buildings to be built in Toronto, and so they were (most likely due to them-NOT just Jane Jacobs) not built-the Scarborough expressway was stopped due to citizens caring about their city over getting someplace fast in their cars. Not everybody is as full of shit and uncaring about your city as you and the other stupid idiotic neocons are, and what they did saved Toronto as a city from ending up like most American cities in the 60's and 70's with crappy inner cities that were falling apart but with great suburbs.

Please watch and read something other than Sun News Network and The Toronto Sun; you'll learn more about life that way, and be a better person, instead of being a stupid dumbass full of shit spewing shit from their mouths instead of from their asses.
Uziel Snyder / January 24, 2014 at 12:27 am
I just read that book last month and it was fascinating!! Other favorites were a CN Tower sized downtown Willowdale building to be built OVER the Yonge and Sheppard intersection, and the opera house.
phil replying to a comment from Spike / January 24, 2014 at 01:06 am
read seans comment above dummy.expressways had nothing to do with the decline of american cities
Steven replying to a comment from Spike / January 24, 2014 at 09:09 am
Wow because someone has an opinion that this city needs a better expressway system you paint them with a brush that accuses them of supporting a bigoted party and an addict liar mayor. It's people like you that feed Ford Nation, douche.
RCL / January 24, 2014 at 04:13 pm
As a tiny bit of trivia from my CN Tower historical project, the 3-legged communications tower didn't get chosen or built because it was fundamentally unstable. The engineers also didn't know how it could be built. John Andrews and his associates stepped in, as part of the Metro Centre architectural team, and came up with the design concept of today's CN Tower, which was ultimately quite more complex to build but much nicer to look at and more structurally sound. There's quite a long history to the Metro Centre project before it got shelved by the "new" right wing Metro Council in the early to mid 1970's but I hope to document and get that info online one day as a pre-cursor to my CN Tower construction historical project.

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