Condos don't fit St. Basil's neighbourhood

By  Fr. Paul Mcgill, Catholic Register Special
  • June 6, 2008

{mosimage}It was only last November that John Bentley Mays gave the seventh annual Somerville Lecture at the Newman Centre in Toronto.  The subject of his excellent talk was the future of the Christian urbanism in Toronto.  In it he says that, although major decisions are being made that will affect the “living textures and structures of the secular city for generations to come,” any form of Christian intervention in the debate is “oddly lacking at the present time.” He says that he cannot understand this lack of participation, adding: “However it is explained, the public silence of Christians about the contemporary city must be accounted a significant failure of imagination and will that should concern all believers.” 

Mays may be surprised but I, for one, am not because when the parishioners at St. Basil’s Church objected to a proposed massive condominium development in their backyard, they were ridiculed.

What does surprise me, however, is Mays’ own contribution, in his column in the May 25 edition of The Catholic Register, “Nerves touched by St. Basil’s development,” to stifling just those voices that he claims he is so desperate to hear. In that article, Mays criticizes the objections that have been made by the clergy and parishioners of St. Basil’s Church to the condominium development that is planned for the land that is immediately adjacent and to the north of the church building.  

He quotes me as having said that the proposed 55- and 45-storey towers would be “monstrous” and “sterile” and he says that he considers my opinions to be “extreme and beside the point.” I note that he does not explain why he thinks this.

Something that is “monstrous” is overwhelming in size, gigantic, massive and out of proportion. The artist’s rendering that appears in the print copy of the article only shows a few storeys of one of the towers so it is difficult to get any idea of scale or perspective from it. There are other artists’ impressions that show a better perspective of the towers, but none of these was selected to illustrate Mays’ article, or the earlier version of it that appeared in The Globe and Mail on May 2. The two towers are 175 metres and 145 metres high and the entire development would include 830 residential units plus office and retail — all in the backyard of our designated heritage church. This would make the taller of the two towers almost 10 metres taller than the Manulife Centre at the corner of Bloor and Bay Streets. Furthermore, it would be situated only a few metres from the church building. St. Basil’s Church, including the bell tower, is at most 30 metres high. I do think it is appropriate to say that the proposed towers would be gigantic, overwhelming and out of proportion, in relation to the size of the church.

Even Toronto Councillor Kyle Rae, who is firmly in favour of the development, concedes the point. When pressed about the massiveness of the development by Jojo Chintoh of CityNews in an interview on Feb. 28, he responded, “That’s downtown. That’s what’s permitted.”

Overwhelming, gigantic and massive. I stand by what I said.

High-rise buildings, whether they be office towers, condominiums or rental units, are not conducive to creating and nurturing healthy urban communities and neighbourhoods: they take, and keep, people off the streets.  Human beings need to connect with things on a human scale.

The point is that the proposed towers do not in any way compliment, or integrate with, any of the buildings that make up the St. Michael’s College campus. A good example of doing this is the Sorbara Hall students’ residence which blends in very well with Odette Hall (Clover Hill), the oldest continuous in-use academic building at the University of Toronto. 

A living city is about people and their communities; it is not just about architecture, parking, green space and traffic. A community without life is sterile, and a building that takes life out of a community is, in itself, also “sterile.” I stand by what I said.

Mr. Mays prefers to describe the proposed development as an example of “austere and elegant modernism.” If by “austere” Mr. Mays means cold, forbidding, bleak, dour, grim, hard, harsh, severe or stark, I happen to agree with him.

(Fr. McGill is pastor of St. Basil’s Church in Toronto.)

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