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Transforming U of T's downtown Toronto campus

St. George is a “very open space in our city,” says KPMB's Shirley Blumberg. “It’s our Central Park.”

“Toronto is very different city than when these spaces were built, ” Blumberg says (all images courtesy KPMB Architects, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) and Urban Strategies)

They won the job of transforming the downtown Toronto campus at U of T with a plan that built on the strengths of the leafy, historic landscape.

And the latest designs show the architects have “done a great job of listening and tweaking the plan” to make it even better, Professor Donald Ainslie said. 

After four months of consultation with university stakeholders and the wider public, the Landscape of Landmark Quality project team of KPMB Architects, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) and Urban Strategies released updates to its plans. Revised drawings revealing subtle but significant adjustments to the designs were on display at an all-day open house April 12 at Hart House.

Read more about the exhibitition

“They started with a good plan that was respectful of the strengths of the campus,” said Ainslie, principal of University College and co-chair of the Landmark Committee that selected the KPMB/MVVA/Urban Strategies consortium.

“In the course of the consultation they have done a great job of listening to what people want and tweaking the plan to make it more successful.

“That was the direction I was hoping for. We’ll continue to get feedback and make sure we have a campus that works for people.”

Most of the changes are discreet. While the necklace of walking paths around King’s College Circle is unchanged, the slopes initially envisioned for the front plaza of the Medical Sciences Building are now combined with broad steps.

“There was a lot of feedback on the value of the steps,” Shirley Blumberg of KPMB said in a morning presentation.


The position of the parking entry pavilion adjacent to the plaza – one of two pavilions leading to a parking facility under the lawn – has been shifted slightly to preserve the view of the Front Campus from the MSB.

Removal of surface parking from King’s College Circle was one of the terms of reference of the Landscape of Landmark Quality competition,

Read more about the competition

Nearby Convocation Plaza is enlarged, but not to the extent of accommodating a tent for guests of graduation ceremonies. This prospect was favoured by some as means of protecting the Front Campus lawn, which itself will be ungraded with improved drainage, better soil and more durable turf. Blumberg said that grass restores itself if protected after the dismantling of a tent – a procedure now in use at Princeton University. 

The parking access pavilion to the south of the J. Robert S. Prichard Alumni House is situated closer to the perimeter of King’s College Circle and not in the parking lot, which is the property of Knox College.

“The glass still does not protrude past the buildings,” Blumberg said of the canopy, noting that the parking lot was never part of the competition property.

Changes to the Sir Daniel Wilson quad involve mainly upgraded bench seating. “It’s beautiful as it is,” Blumberg said. “It just has to be brought up to its full potential.”

The initial plan as unveiled in December included a dramatic bridge leading over Hart House lawn to Queen’s Park Crescent West. This has been replaced by a less intrusive but still accessible pathway. Blumberg said that some expressed concern that the bridge would interrupt campus views.

Read more about Landmark

Another proposed change to the Hart House environment is a loop road to allow pickup and dropoff – a priority for wedding guests as well as those with accessibility needs. This circle leading back to Queen’s Park will keep traffic on King’s College Circle to a minimum. The fate of the Lewis B. Stewart Observatory is still under discussion.

The new stress on pedestrianism might mean that tour buses will need to schedule visits rather than arrive at indiscriminate times. Tours will, however, continue.

“We like the fact that 30 or 40 people get off at Hart House and take selfies,” commented Professor Scott Mabury, U of T’s vice-president of operations and co-chair with Ainslie of the Landmark Committee.

Bicycle parking will be available underground and on the surface throughout the renovated areas. Since students often arrive at classes in the nick of time there needs to be bicycle parking near the entrances to academic buildings.

All buildings affected by the plan will have improved accessibility. Granite is preferred over asphalt as a surface, although Blumberg said the cost of this option has not been fully projected.

While the public and visible elements of the plan attracted most interest, there was discussion also at the presentation of access to the recycling depot behind the MSB. Service vehicles now must cross the MSB plaza to reach this facility. Another point of access must be found.

Further updates are expected in June before the final plan is submitted in September. Blumberg said the team will continue to balance the imperatives of tradition and modern reality.

“You’re taking something that has very good bones but has been benignly neglected and bringing it back to its former glory,” she said of the central St. George campus area. “But it’s not a restoration. We’re taking into account that Toronto is a very different city than when these spaces were built.

“We have addressed contemporary use and the kind of polyglot city that we have. This is not a monastery. It’s a very open space in our city. It’s our central park.”