A man wearing black glasses and a dark suit looks at the camera. In the background, a man holds a video camera: the lens is directed towards the man wearing glasses.

St. James Town: Towers in the Park

The Towers in the Park

730 Ontario Street

A man wearing black glasses and a dark suit looks at the camera. In the background, a man holds a video camera: the lens is directed towards the man wearing glasses.

Architect Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) receives the Sikkens Prize in Amsterdam. September 26, 1964. Image by Joop van Bilsen. Courtesy of the National Archives of the Netherlands.

A city street, showing several cars parked in front of a row of multi-storey brick homes. Trees and power lines can be seen overhead.

The intersection of St. James Avenue and Rose Avenue, St. James Town, 1956. Image by Bruce M. Young. Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032, Series 844, Item 11

An aerial view of several high-rise buildings, all contained within a defined square space of urban land.

Aerial view of St. James Town apartments. 1969. Image by Panda Associates. Courtesy of the Canadian Architectural Archives, University of Calgary. 261A_98-02_PAN_69722-004.

Numerous high-rise apartment complexes against a blue sky. All buildings are at least ten storeys tall. In the foreground, a small park with several trees.

St. James Town apartments, looking north-west from Rose Avenue Circle, ca. 1980-1998. Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 47, Item 3.

Urban renewal

The transformation of St. James Town to a bustling modern high-rise neighbourhood began in the 1950s. In addition to increased awareness of the city’s derelict boarding houses, Toronto planners sought a large-scale solution to a growing housing crunch. At the time, new ideas about architecture and urban planning were reshaping cities all over the world. Many urban planners advocated a drastic solution to modernize: raze and rebuild. This program was often framed as urban renewal, which saw the demolition of entire city neighbourhoods to build new, modern streetscapes.

Toronto city planners sought development proposals that would add density to its downtown neighbourhoods. In the early 1960s, Howard Investments Ltd. proposed a $50 million apartment complex to be built in the St. James Town neighbourhood. The urban renewal project promised housing for up to 16,000 residents, spread across five newly built high-rise apartment buildings. To some, the project was a perfect solution. The apartment buildings would alleviate Toronto’s housing crunch while simultaneously demolishing the area’s many derelict Victorian boarding houses. In February 1965, the Board of Control approved the St. James Town project.

Le Corbusier’s dream

The St. James Town proposal drew heavily on Modernist architecture, particularly the work of Le Corbusier, also known as Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965). Le Corbusier was a Swiss-born architect and known largely for his “Towers in the Park” model of urban planning. Le Corbusier pointed to the 19th century as the source of many modern urban issues: crowded, narrow streets and dark Victorian buildings which offered minimal exposure to sun and fresh air. His “Towers in the Park” was intended to be a solution to these problems of pollution and overcrowding in cities. Large apartment towers surrounded by open green spaces would simultaneously provide dense urban housing while maintaining residents’ access to fresh air.

A new neighbourhood

The “Towers in the Park” model became popular during the mid-20th century and was adopted in numerous cities throughout the world, including Toronto’s St. James Town project in the 1960s. Many of the new towers in St. James Town were named after Canadian cities. The “Quebec” (730 Ontario Street) and “St. John’s” (700 Ontario Street)  were the first high-rises to be completed in the area.  At 14-storeys each, they introduced over 1,000 new apartments units.

Three other buildings followed, (99 Howard Street, 670 Parliament Street, and 135 Rose Avenue) with a combined 711 units. Over several decades, 21 residential towers were built in St. James Town, four public and 17 privately owned, within about 32 acres.

Swinging singles

As buildings were completed for the St. James Town project, managers hoped to appeal to a new generation of independent, working Torontonians. Some of the buildings boasted amenities geared towards urban singles, such as: parties, a ski club, and basement communal TV rooms. Other advertisements boasted an “adults only” community.

However, the design of St. James Town may have hindered community and connectivity. Le Corbusier’s idea for tall buildings amidst large green spaces isolated the neighbourhood, and made residents feel disconnected from the rest of the city. As a result of the numerous towers, many streets in St. James Town became dead-ends, often with no pedestrian pathways. As the desirability of the neighbourhood waned in the 1980s, crime increased. By the late 1980s, many residents of the St. James Town towers began to complain of derelict building maintenance and a lack of community space.

Further Reading

-“$50 Million Complex Gets Board Approval”, The Globe and Mail (February 11, 1965), p. 5

-Alexi Marmot, “The Legacy of Le Corbusier and High-Rise Housing,” Built Environment, Vol 7, No 2 (1981), pp. 82-95