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Toronto Loft Conversions

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Modern Toronto Lofts

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Unique Toronto Homes

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Condos in Toronto

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Toronto Real Estate

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Tag Archives: Kensington Market Lofts

Would you buy this building for seven bucks?

Dave LeBlanc – Globe and Mail

There is a glow around architect Paul Oberst when he talks about Kensington Market Lofts.

The 64-year-old transplanted Kentuckian seems a rather positive fellow to begin with, but when he casts his mind back, the enthusiasm is palpable: “I think the building’s quite good, but I thought the story was really, really good.”

It’s a triple-scoop of a good story, actually, from little things such as what was retained in the three heritage structures, the bigger story of the complex’s history as various educational institutions and, finally, to how a neighbourhood came together in the 1990s to see their vision realized.

Standing in dappled shade of the building’s private courtyard, he points to where a sizable chunk of the glazed-terracotta-clad 1952 building was removed to allow for this amenities space. Set back into the new facade are generous balconies with zigzagging curtain walls, and below these are little square windows into the parking garage made from reclaimed glass block. “So you walk into the parking deck and there’s natural light in there,” he says, pleased.

Sure, it’s a little thing that he and the other designers did, but it’s thoughtful: so too was keeping the many original, wide terrazzo staircases. The stairs are wide, he reminds, because of the “hundreds of people” that studied here.

The first group arrived in the form of little children, when the William Houston Public School – a handsome three-and-a-half-storey building of rug brick and oversized windows – was built on Nassau Street in 1923-24. Surrounded by a large yard with a baseball diamond (a local resident who attended the school showed Mr. Oberst where it had been), by the Depression it was all but empty as kids were pulled out of school and put to work.

After a stint as a military training facility during the war and then as the Ontario College of Art afterward, the building became the Provincial Institute of Trades in the early 1950s, when the two terracotta buildings were built to train plumbers, gasfitters, welders and electricians.

When Mr. Oberst first moved to the city in 1970, he’d often walk past and marvel at the lightshow provided by student welders behind the glass block: “In the evening there’d be all of this sparking in the windows, it was really fun.”

George Brown College took possession of the buildings in 1968 and would train an entirely new generation of tradespeople until 1993. When the college declared the buildings surplus shortly after that, Councillor Rosario Marchese got the neighbourhood together to discuss their fate.

Mr. Oberst was at that meeting, as was another architect, Robert Barnett, who had worked on the building for George Brown. Interestingly, Mr. Barnett’s father, also an architect, had worked on the building decades before.

Despite their size, everyone wanted to see the buildings stay put, and while some ideas weren’t financially sustainable (such as an art centre), the two architects convinced the group that housing was the only real choice. The community working group then came up with a wish list – such as bringing retail back to the Baldwin Street sidewalk, having front yards on ground floor units along quieter Nassau Street and forbidding pedestrian access between the two streets via the complex – and even though they weren’t obligated to do so, officials at George Brown agreed to present the list to potential buyers.

Surprisingly, finding a buyer wasn’t easy. The provincial government, which could have purchased the complex for seven dollars, thought it was a “white elephant,” says Mr. Oberst, shaking his head at the memory: “An acre-and-a-quarter in downtown Toronto, 200,000 square feet of building and you don’t want it for seven bucks?!”

The municipal government didn’t want it either, and a deal with Artscape fell through, so the community group decided to prepare an offer; taking into account various deficiencies, they came up with a market value of $1-million.

Unfortunately, George Brown’s number was several times that amount, so the complex hit the open market. “I don’t think it was even 20 groups that came through,” remembers Mr. Oberst. Regardless, the college did get at least one offer, which was, ironically, $1-million, and it was accepted.

When that developer couldn’t close the deal, Mr. Oberst convinced a friend and colleague, architect Lloyd Alter and his then development partner Howard Cohen (who, without Mr. Alter, started Context Development before project’s end) to come take a look. They were able to buy the existing contract and secure financing from the Ontario Realty Corporation due to meeting the affordable housing threshold.

“We had AutoCAD drawings ready to go,” says Mr. Oberst, who at that point still wasn’t sure he and Mr. Barnett would get the nod as chief architects on the project. However, because of his relationship with Mr. Alter and an agreement to hire the “new, up-and-coming, hot guys on the block” Martin Kohn and John Shnier as co-designers, it happened. Good thing, since marrying three vintage buildings, carving them into lofts, adding three levels of parking and fulfilling the community wish list wasn’t easy.

Less than a year after hundreds of happy new owners moved in, the project won Honourable Mention at the City of Toronto’s 2000 Architecture & Urban Design Awards. “The community-driven development process for this project is commendable,” began the awards booklet, which hailed the design as a “skillful rehabilitation of a surplus building.”

While no mention was made of the new glow in the sky overhead, it’s still there if you look long enough.

Contact Laurin Jeffrey for more information – 416-388-1960

Laurin Jeffrey is a Toronto Realtor with Century 21 Regal Realty. He did not
write these articles, he just reproduces them here for people who are
interested in Toronto real estate. He does not work for any builders.