In the UK there is the Rubble Club, "open to all who have had buildings destroyed in their lifetime." Its founder said “I’m a great believer that buildings should be reused as much as possible, the public are entitled to live in a somewhat stable visual environment.” I used to practice as an architect and have over the years seen many of my buildings renovated beyond recognition, but the first of the new buildings I designed is about to come down. I was initially relieved, happy to join the Rubble Club, Toronto Branch; I thought it a horribly ugly thing. But at the time, I was trying to do something innovative and different.
Back in the 80s, a lot of developers wanted to do two level retail, usually a typology where neither level gets much visibility at all; in fact most were awful. Fortunately it has been killed off by universal accessibility requirements, but at the time it was a big deal.
This building was a study in how you could do it and make it actually work; every stair run was calculated, every angle of the glass was designed to bring it as close to the sidewalk as possible while maintaining open stairs to the lower level. It was further complicated by the slope of the site, so every storefront was at a different level.
The problems arise when you care more about the mathematics and sight lines than the aesthetics – it was not what you would call beautiful. In fact, in the study that was done for the city as required for rezoning, ERA architects noted that “2369 Yonge Street does not exhibit any unique design or physical value and is not representative of a particular design style. Nor does it have any significant historical or associative value.” (Thanks, guys!)
When I first read in BlogTO, Toronto blog that it was coming down, I was quite relieved, given that I thought it quite ugly and embarrassing. However I soon got a real lesson, as people started commenting on Facebook about it. How it was the only place in the area where they could get a cheap Korean meal, a “Perfectly good retail strip plaza, that used to be filled with the types of businesses that a liveable neighborhood needs, obliterated to build yet another condo that's completely unsuitable for where it's going to be built.”
Or “That is a great building with historical and associative value. I am certain they will redo it as a flat maximized storefront without any differentiation. Those new stores will be without character and you will walk by without ever seeing what is sold there or noticing the store.”
Or “The sad thing is that the new buildings will never support they same level of small-shop retail density. Your design had so many narrow storefronts!“
It was significant enough a loss that Joshua Errett of CBC News contacted me for an interview. He grew up in the area and writes (autobiographically, according to what he told me):
High school students from nearby North Toronto Collegiate Institute used to frequent a video game store in the plaza, Gamerama, to play free video games in the 1990s and into the 2000s. A sports bar held a space on the top floor in recent years, becoming a place to UFC matches. And in recent years, Korean Cowboy earned a following for its fusion-style tacos.
"After saying I'm not sorry to see it go, I can see that buildings like this have a real role to play in the city," said Alter.
I have written before that when the condos come in, the city becomes a corporate monoculture of big banks, big drug stores and big food chains, and there is no room for the little jeweller and Korean Tacos joint and used game store like this mall had. But I had no idea how people would reach out to say how much they would miss them all.
Jane Jacobs wrote in the Death and Life of Great American Cities:
There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.
Perhaps I should be proud of my ugly, disorderly two level strip mall. It evidently met a real need. As the CBC article concluded:
"You're not going to open up a record shop, tattoo parlour or video game store in one of these big fancy condos," Alter said.