New plan to rebuild St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts to go before Toronto city council

After two years of public consultations, Toronto city council will finally see a glimpse of what a re-imagined St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts might look like.

Councillors will look at a proposed building plan Wednesday for the new venue, which would be built at the current centre’s location on the south side of Front Street East near Yonge Street.  Advocates say after years of dialogue, they’re excited to work toward creating new art spaces after the COVID-19 pandemic forced many existing venues to shut down. 

“We really have this one-time opportunity to look at this and make it one of the most equitable spaces for the arts in Canada,” said Clyde Wagner, the president and CEO of TO Live, the city agency that manages and operates Toronto’s three major civic theatres.

Opened in 1970, the current complex houses the Bluma Appel Theatre, which seats 868 spectators, and the 499-seat Jane Mallett Theatre. TO Live says a new St. Lawrence Centre would add tens of thousands of square feet to create “flexible performance spaces” that can adapt based on local artists’ needs, and can serve as a cultural hub for the community. The total cost is estimated at more than $420 million.

TO Live and CreateTO, the agency that manages the city’s real estate portfolio, hope to create sustainable gathering, creative and green spaces such as theatres and studios, rehearsal halls and workshops. They also want to create an outdoor public plaza by closing a portion of Scott Street and connecting it to Meridian Hall and Berczy Park.

“The creation of spaces that are permanent art, studio and rehearsal spaces for the city is a really, really valuable asset that’s needed that doesn’t currently exist in that building,” said Wagner.

2 years of consultation

TO Live has said the current centre doesn’t reflect industry-wide standards for performing arts companies and doesn’t provide accessible entryways throughout the building. The agency says it would cost more than $40 million to bring the building to a state of good repair, all of which prompted city council to endorse the redevelopment of the property in 2020.

Coun. Gary Crawford,  who represents Ward 20, Scarborough Southwest and is on the redevelopment committee, says it’s exciting to have the plan finally come back to council.

“A lot of work has happened over the last number of years and it’s the consultation component that I think has really brought this potential project to light.”

Over the past two years, the city and external consultants got feedback from the arts community and Toronto residents. The findings showed that there was a lack of green, affordable and accessible spaces for artists in the city — specifically ones that are technologically suited for in-person and online use.

In My Body by Bboyizm/Crazy Smooth is a dance performance that premiered at the Bluma Appel Theatre from Mar. 17 to 19. The Canadian Stage, a non-profit contemporary performance arts company in Toronto, frequently uses venues at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. (Rita Taylor/The Canadian Stage)

The consultation also showed the new centre could address the isolation that damaged the neighbourhood socially and culturally due to the pandemic, if the plan is approved.

“I’m confident that the council will support taking the next step,” said Crawford.

“[But] the funding will be one of the big challenges.” 

The initial design and consultation fees for the project are estimated to cost $295.5 million. However, factoring in the cost of construction and potential changes in design as the project develops, the total cost is estimated at $421.4 million, which TO Live says will be funded in part by the city, other levels of government and the private sector.

Retaining Toronto’s artists

TO Live says if city council approves the plan, it will launch an international design competition this summer to find architects. A confirmed budget would come back to city council by the spring of 2023, while construction would start in 2026.

Despite the long wait, the new centre would be crucial to retaining the talent bleeding out of the city as the cost of living rises, says Jacoba Knaapen, the executive director of the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, which represents 112 professional theatre, dance and opera companies.

According to the Toronto Arts Foundation’s most recent annual poll from 2019, nearly one in five artists have been “renovicted” — meaning landlords evicted them so they could renovate their properties and charge higher rents — while 73 per cent of artists and arts workers have thought about leaving Toronto.

“It’s been so clear that throughout the pandemic, arts and culture is a crucial part of the well-being of all Torontonians,” said Knaapen.

“This is not the silver bullet solution, but certainly this is part of the solution.”

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