Buildings in Toronto were cheap in the 90's; not only was there a recession, but much of downtown's wonderful old buildings had very restrictive zoning, designed to keep office and residential uses out to preserve industrial jobs which were fleeing offshore and to the suburbs. However artists' studios were considered industrial so Margie Zeidler bought 401 Richmond and filled it with artists. Since then she has gone on to demonstrate that social action, green design and creative restoration can go together profitably. She tells John Bentley Mays:
The required reading in my first year included Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities. It blew me away, especially the chapter on old buildings — warehouses, factories, buildings that no longer served the purpose they once served. I'm not talking about museum-piece buildings, though they are beautiful and wonderful ingredients of any good city. I'm talking about old buildings whose owners are no longer worried about paying the mortgages, so they can provide cheap rents for people with low earning power — the writer, the inventor, the artist. These buildings are neat parts of the city. I remember reading that old ideas — banking, accounting and so on — can afford new buildings, but new ideas must use old buildings. Right away, I thought that could be a wonderful use for the old industrial buildings I love."
"I'd always found it a really beautiful building, and always admired it, so I bought it for $10 a square foot. The city had zoned the building industrial, but that area of downtown wasn't any longer suitable for heavy industrial use. This zoning meant there were a limited number of tenants you could take in, but artists were one of those groups. I was aware that there were a lot of artists out there looking for space, and I knew what their price point was."
Her next project, the Robertson Building, mixes green renovation with social action. John Bentley Mays says : Here, the developer was able to give bones to a dream she had nurtured since her days in African relief work: the establishment of a common address for a wide variety of social agencies, some non-profit, others for-profit. It would become the Centre for Social Innovation. Margie says:
::Globe and Mail
"I had been talking to people around the city who were doing things in the social sector, and who needed a fax machine, a desk, and a phone, and camaraderie. It started with 14 tenants from the cultural sector, the environmental sector, and so on." Today the Centre hosts 100 tenants, spread out over 20,000 square feet.
"It's about social innovation and entrepreneurship,They are doing things to make the world a better place."
green roof on the Robertson building
"In June 2004, a 4,000 square foot, extensive green roof was installed over one half of the Robertson roof. The green roof, designed and installed by Gardens in the Sky, is supported by approximately six inches of organic, light-weight planting media with over ten species of Ontario native perennials planted into this special soil. These vibrant meadow flowers have thrived over the past growing seasons, despite the at times harsh weather they encounter in this elevated ecosystem, and provide a gorgeous addition to the urban landscape that can be viewed from the glass atrium and deck that completes this rooftop area."
"In March 2004, a 24-square meter living-breathing plant wall, or "biowall" was installed in the main lobby of the Robertson Building. Designed by a team from Air Quality Solutions Ltd. the biowall is composed of several varieties of native and exotic indoor flowering plants that are snuggled into their own individual pockets in a blanket of special planting material that allows water to filter through the plant roots. This unique feature graces the building with a stunning blend of colour and fills the lobby with fresh humidified air on a continuous basis. It is a calming respite from the busy street outside."
view from Robertson Building roof garden, Frank Gehry's Art Gallery of Ontario under construction (the blue box) and will Allsop's OCAD floating over the park. Photo credit Emma Rooney