The project's headline backer, arts impresario David Mirvish, announced Thursday he will challenge the city's resistance to the condo towers next year at the OMB, which hears appeals on planning and zoning matters and can overrule city staff and elected officials.
It's not that planners don't want Gehry or don't admire his designs. The Mirvish project would be 84-year-old Gehry's first bottom-up landmark in Toronto, his native city (he previously designed the Art Gallery of Ontario's renovation).
"I think it's quite stunning, and we've been quite excited by it," Gregg Lintern, the director of community planning for the Toronto and East York district, told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Friday.
"What it comes down to is how much this project can fit into King-Spadina and the area. It's got some game-changing elements to it."
The Gehry-Mirvish vision is for three soaring condo towers each at least 80 storeys high. They would blanket the area on the north side of King Street from John Street, on the west, to just west of the Royal Alexandra Theatre, on the east.
The plan for the 2,700 condo units, with a six- or seven-floor base for retail, university classrooms and art galleries, would also require demolishing four heritage buildings. The Princess of Wales Theatre, built by Mirvish and his father, the late "Honest" Ed Mirvish, would be torn down.
The height and heritage consequences have planning staff concerned, Lintern said. The next-biggest building in the immediate area is the TIFF Lightbox and Festival Tower, at 46 storeys.
"This proposal represents an order of magnitude over and above what we've seen in that area in the last 10 to 15 years," Lintern told host Matt Galloway. "If development gets approved on one site, it certainly starts to set the tone and the context for the next site, and the next site, and the next site, and then you've got something that you hadn't bargained for.
"There are four designated heritage buildings on the site, all four are proposed to be demolished. That's very unusual. I don't want to say it's precedent-setting, but it's maybe close to precedent-setting. We typically have been able to put new development in on a site that has heritage in some way, shape or form that respects the heritage and works with it, integrates it."
'Don't stick out'
The city also has to determine whether the current infrastructure in the area — everything from public transit to community services — could sustain an influx of thousands of more residents, Lintern said.
In announcing the project last year, Mirvish declared he wanted to building something "distinct and remarkable" and "unlike anything that has been built in Toronto." But this week he said the type of thinking he's come up against is more along the lines of, "don't put your head up too high; don't stick out."
The city's Lintern said that's not a fair characterization of the city's architectural ethos.
"You look around the city, I think there's lots of examples of people who have put their head up high and stuck out a little bit," he said. "I think there's room for a project like Mr. Mirvish's, which clearly is going to be exemplary in the way that they're presenting their architecture, while at the same time not overbuilding."