Adding shine to the downtown smile

The citys move into the former Capitol Theatre could
lead to great opportunities for heritage buildings

MARK SPOWART PHOTO
The city's planning division has moved into the space created by the renovation of the former Capitol Theatre and Bowles Lunch buildings. John Fleming, director of land use planning, says the new space keeps many features of the past while opening up new opportunities for how business can be done in the division such as the use of elevating desks that allow employees to literally work standing up.

If you think of downtown London like a smile, then two of its teeth are shining particularly bright these days.

The teeth in question are the former Capitol Theatre and Bowles Lunch buildings at 204 and 206 Dundas St. that have been combined and reopened as the new home of the city's planning division.

The renovation of the buildings was done by the owner, Farhi Holdings Corporation, at a cost of $4 million after the city agreed to a 20-year lease of the space.

John Fleming, director of land use planning, says the new space not only gives city planners a great place to work, but it also shows the city's commitment to making sure the downtown has a healthy smile.

"We're not the owners of the building; we have signed a lease. But we feel like we have adopted the building. In the sense I think we have had a major influence on the way it was restored on the pieces that were retained. We have worked with Farhi; it has been a real collaborative effort," Mr. Fleming says. "We knew certainly preserving a heritage building gives it a chance to revitalize whereas demolishing a heritage building is the end of the story. There is a finite supply of great heritage buildings and we can't afford to lose them, particularly when they are on our downtown's main street. We also know a continuous commercial streetscape is a very important thing. A lot like a smile, when you are missing a tooth, a gap in your streetscape in favour of parking really does hurt a commercial streetscape."

Charles Howard Crane who designed 250 theatres across North America such as the Fox Theatre in Detroit was the architect of the building that began its life as the Allen Theatre in 1920. It was renamed the Capital theatre in 1924 and remained open until finally closing in 2002.

The planning division's move to downtown could almost be seen as destiny as it was city staff who first approached council about doing what it could to stave off the proposed demolition of the location.

"This building was at one point slated to be demolished. We as a planning group did present a presentation and a report to council saying we shouldn't be demolishing the building. We had no recommendation, at the time, for the city acquiring or leasing the building. We were there standing up for the preservation of the building. The owner at the time wanted to demolish it in favour of parking and we knew that was not the proper thing," Mr. Fleming says. "We played a role in the preservation of the building and now we are playing a more tangible role in occupying it and breathing economic life into the building by locating our offices here. The collaboration has brought out the best elements of the building, both the exterior and the interior. I give council a lot of credit for not just requiring the building be maintained, but being actively involved in breathing economic life back into the building."

The cost of the city's lease for the space amounts to about $5.8 million over 20 years, including things such as improvements and operations, with the base rent being approximately $190,000 a year.

The decision to move the planning division is one Mr. Fleming says shows the city's commitment to preserving its heritage buildings.

"I think we're very much vested in our role in downtown revitalization, our role in being a part of downtown revitalization. It is easy for planners to get wrapped up in the theory of planning, in the theory of something like downtown revitalization. But it's quite exciting to be, both symbolically and in reality, a part of the revitalization. And it isn't just downtown revitalization, but also the adaptive re-use of a heritage building," Mr. Fleming says. "I think this move is symbolic of the efforts we are hoping to bring forward in the community. That sense of collaboration, teamwork, working with communities more closely in a real genuine, meaningful way. I take pride in the fact the planning division is moving that way. I take pride in the fact we are putting our money where our mouth is in terms of both heritage preservation and downtown revitalization. I think it is a good indication of how council and administration feel quite passionately about those issues."

 

The building's renovation has led to a unique space for the 27 members (although there is space for students, co-op positions and future growth to as many as 34 employees) of the planning division. The new location features high ceilings with large windows; exposed brickwork and several shared more informal - workspaces.

"There was a plan early in the game for these great open spaces to be individual offices. We flipped that around and designed it so the shared spaces what we are calling the we spaces are the prime real estate in the building. The best spaces are the ones that are storefronts, the brightest, the high ceilings. That is where our staff, members of the public, will enjoy the space the most," Mr. Fleming says. "What we call the me spaces are not necessarily the prime real estate. It is open concept, but there are also some smaller spaces. The building is entirely equipped with Wi-Fi (a wireless Internet network) so by setting up some of these shared spaces it allows people to get out of their me spaces and get into these pleasant shared areas, use the laptop, do any emailing. It gives employees a lot of variety in the terms of workspaces they have the opportunity to use."

In addition to being fully accessible (yes, the building has an elevator for reaching the second floor), Mr. Fleming says another innovation was designed to help employees before they ever walked in the door.

"It was important to us to provide leadership by way of example for cycling, alternative transportation modes," Mr. Fleming says. "To support cycling you need two things, showers to make it viable and secured parking. There will be secured bicycle parking built out back and showers downstairs."

The new office includes what would have been the hallway of the former Capital building as well as all of the old Bowles Lunch building. While the entire Bowles Lunch building was preserved granted, with extensive renovation the actual theatre house portion of the Capital Theatre was demolished for parking.

But what the city and Farhi Holdings Corporation have created, Mr. Fleming says, will create benefits to the planning department and therefore the city for years to come.

"It is designed to create an atmosphere, which encourages collaboration between staff, a real sense of team, a free flow of ideas. I think the common thread of our operations, as a planning division, is change. We are changing on a number of different fronts," Mr. Fleming says. "It isn't just change for change sake, but a change in genuine response to a desire to improve. There are lots of opportunities for collaboration. I think that is a positive thing; that free flow of ideas. Planning is that type of function that benefits from multiple ideas, from collaborative thinking, from teamwork. We are much better tackling issues as a team than individuals. So this type of office environment really lends itself to that."

Looking back on the time leading up to the decision to work with Farhi to create this new office space, Mr. Fleming says while he couldn't have imagined what would be accomplished, he is pleased to have been a part of it.

"We could envision certainly the buildings being revitalized. What's evolved over time, together with the owner, is realising the vision of both the interior and the exterior. We weren't as aware what was behind the tin. We knew there was something special back there; we had some account of what it looked like in the past. But we didn't know how beautiful it as. So as the two buildings were renovated we were very excited," Mr. Fleming says. "I think it is a testament to what can be accomplished when a municipality and property owner work together on revitalization of a heritage building. Particularly, what happens when you give a heritage building the chance to find that right economic use that can help perpetuate it. Sometimes it takes a lot of patience before the use comes along to preserve the building. But when you demolish the building, that opportunity is lost."

It has been said that change doesn't happen overnight. Well, for the planning division, it almost did.

"We began packing in earnest the week of Feb. 1. We moved on Feb. 5, everything was packed up as a group and we were moved out. We arrived on Feb. 8, on the Monday, and unpacked. It was astonishing to see our technical services division staff come in on the Friday halfway through the day, when I came in on the Saturday, all our computers were set up. We essentially lost just a half-day of computer time," Mr. Fleming says. "The boxes are taking a little longer to get through. We did a huge purge. As planning division we have been in that building for 40 years. Planners as a rule are packrats. We want to hang on to that item we just might need someday. We've had to let go a little of that."

And while planning division staff were busy getting rid of some of their old materials, one extra piece of history was discover. A poster for the movie The Parent Trap was found in the building and it has since been put up in its own display case a little tribute to the building's past.

"It (the poster) was found by an employee, it's from 1961; that is going back what, 50 years. It's nice to have the little touches. We have lots of exposed brick, we asked them to take more of the drywall off. Our concern was we had this great heritage building and yet we weren't seeing some of the character. So we worked with the owner who was very cooperative, to keep these pieces, the exposed brick, the raised ceilings. It really does connect to the past."