Thanks to new medical-research facilities, museum expansions and hotels, Toronto is experiencing an exciting renaissance. By Sherryll Sobie, July/August 2008
Move over N.Y., T.O. is the new it city. As renowned, Toronto-based urban-studies theorist Richard Florida says, “There are only a handful of city-regions in the world that sit on the front burner of what I’ve called the rise of the creative class. Toronto is one of them.”
Why is it so important to be “on the front burner” of creativity? Florida, the author of several books, including the best-selling Rise of The Creative Class, in which he ranks cities by their livability, maintains that the creative class fosters an open, dynamic and diverse environment. This environment, he explains, is a magnet for creative people, who, in turn attract business and capital.
Marsha Jones, CMP, CMM, is president and CEO of Toronto-based MCC Planners Inc. With almost 30 years in hospitality and planning, Jones can speak with authority on Toronto’s creative transformation.
For innovative meeting space, Jones points to the MaRS Centre, in Toronto’s downtown Discovery District, which opened in late 2005. The MaRS Centre sits at the hub of three interconnected buildings, including what was once the College wing of the Toronto General Hospital, where significant medical breakthroughs, like the discovery of insulin, occurred.
Today, the facility, winner of the 2006 Intelligent Building of the Year award, from the Intelligent Community Forum, a New York City-based think tank, still houses scientists, but it is also teeming with entrepreneurs and investors as well as The MaRS Collaboration Centre, a multi-media conference facility. A convergence of diversity and inclusiveness, the MaRS Centre is the perfect example of Richard Florida’s creative class.
“When I saw it for the first time, I loved it!” Jones exclaims. “The versatility, the high-tech environment, the beautiful atrium (5,000 sq. ft.) with soaring ceilings, and the auditorium (4,600 sq. ft.). We’ve probably been there eight times since it opened.”
“We have all the high-tech bells and whistles, from web-casting, video-conferencing, podcasting and more,” says Allen Gelberg, director, Collaboration Centre. “In one meeting room, we have a trapezoid table so everyone can be seen when doing a video conference.”
Always moving forward, MaRS is already undergoing an expansion. By 2010, a 700,000-sq.-ft., state-of-the-art high-rise will be connected to the west of the existing MaRS infrastructure, placing it at the strategic corner of College Street and University Avenue (marsdd.com).
POWER OF ARCHITECTURE
“Anyone interested in seeing, firsthand, the power of architecture should visit Toronto,” gushes Christopher Hume, the normally blunt and edgy architecture critic for the Toronto Star newspaper.
Hume would not have been so enthusiastic 10 years ago, but in the last five years, Toronto’s creativity cup overfloweth. Two iconic buildings, located in Yorkville, sit opposite one another, separated only by Queen’s Park Road.
So radical was the addition of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), in 2007, that not only did it give the building a facelift, but it transformed the surrounding landscape, too. The Lee-Chin Crystal is an angular, aluminum and glass structure that juts out almost at will into the pedestrian walkway. If you think it looks like an impossible feat of engineering, you’re not far off the mark. According to the ROM website, it’s considered to be “one of the most challenging construction projects in North America.”
Inside is the Hyacinth Gloria Chen Crystal Court, where groups of up to 2,500 can hold a reception. Walk up one level and travel back in time to the Mesozoic era. Here, you’ll discover the James and Louise Temerty Galleries of the Age of Dinosaurs and Gallery of the Age of Mammals, where 80 intrepid guests can dine among hundreds of prehistoric fossils and skeletal remains.
Positioned at the Crystal’s pinnacle is c5, a sleek and modern restaurant that is available for rent and was recently listed in Food and Wine Magazine’s worldwide Top 10 “Best Restaurants with a View” (rom.on.ca).
Directly across the street is the Gardiner Museum, the country’s largest repository of ceramic art. In 2003, the museum underwent a 14,000-sq.-ft. expansion that incorporated what looks like stacked cubbyholes. One cubbyhole balances on stilts over the entryway, functioning like an awning of sorts. In addition to offering docent tours for groups (gardinermuseum.on.ca), the museum also houses Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner, a restaurant by the namesake celebrity chef. The minimalist space, with floor-to-ceiling windows, is available for private functions for up to 200. Groups can also rent the Gardiner’s open-space, limestone-floored lobby for cocktail parties and events.
Innovative space and cutting-edge architecture is all well and good, but let’s face it, you can’t be an it destination without a luxury shopping experience. And you can’t have a luxury shopping experience without a posh setting.
So it goes that the new Bloor Street Transformation Project, located in the heart of Toronto’s tony Yorkville district, was born. Once a bohemian hangout for the likes of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, Yorkville long ago traded its tie-died tees for Dolce and diamonds. Today, it’s peppered with 700 designer boutiques, fashionable restaurants, plush hotels and world-class galleries.
The Transformation project, funded by the local BIA and the city, will see widened granite sidewalks, public art, decorative street lighting and furniture. The project is expected to be complete by 2009 (bloor-yorkville.com).
The Hazelton Hotel, which opened for business in late August, 2007, is the latest luxury accommodation in Yorkville and the city’s only five-star hotel.
Tara Beckett, event manager, Antibody Communications, planned a presentation and dinner at the Hazelton two months after it opened. The event took place in the Yorkville Room and pre-function area, which has a maximum capacity of 75.
“The room was a luxurious setting, with dimmable lights, and the tables were dressed fantastically and professionally,” she says. “The pre-function area appealed to us because it was separate but still in the same area, so it provided us privacy from the rest of the hotel.”
In a joint survey by Fortune Magazine and Wallpaper, the 77-room Hazelton was recently named one of the World’s Best New Business Hotels of 2008. It scores points for its free wireless Internet access, 24-hour business centre on each floor, on-hand computer engineer and in-safe laptop charging.
One of the ‘wow factors’ – and there are many – is the $2-million, 25-seat screening room, where groups can watch presentations in private. The mohair-lined walls provide excellent acoustics (thehazeltonhotel.com).
You know you’ve made it when you don’t need to tell people your name. That seems to be the case with CiRCA, an entertainment complex and nightclub in Toronto’s entertainment district that sports no signage over its twin stainless-steel doors.
A walk through the four-storey, 55,000-sq.-ft. space, with a capacity of 2,600, reveals that Richard Florida’s concept of “creative” has been taken to a whole other level. Art installations found throughout the complex are ever-changing: one month, you might see an homage to light; the next, fashion or photography. Everything is a canvas; one hallway has mannequins projecting out of the walls, their torsos parallel to the ground, as they lean on crutches.
The Washroom Bar is so named because of the wrap-around serving station resembling a white porcelain toilet seat; the floor is concrete, as you might find in a lavatory. Oddly, a dentist chair, complete with operating lights bearing down from above, was plopped in the room. Marketing coordinator Michaela Peker says it has become a favourite spot for picture-taking.
For more sophisticated sensibilities, check out the ballroom on the third floor. With red-velvet appointments that sparkle in the glow of a massive disco ball, this room is a classy retreat for sit-down dinners. The stage and projection screen are useful for award ceremonies and presentations.
Although CiRCA has been open for less than a year, Peker says management is already planning to renovate the fourth floor into a corporate lounge. Any part of CiRCA is available for rent (circatoronto.com).
– Sherryll Sobie is a Toronto-based freelancer writer.