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Princess of Wales faces curtain call if David Mirvish development becomes a reality

David Mirvish reads in his King Street office in Toronto on Friday.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

A bold move to redraw the landscape of the city's entertainment district has shocked the theatre community and is sure to crank up debate over the scale of development downtown.

David Mirvish will raise the curtain Monday on his latest blockbuster – a soaring three-tower condo development involving renowned architect Frank Gehry that will require the demolition of Mr. Mirvish's own Princess of Wales Theatre.

The massive project on King Street West also will include a new gallery for Mr. Mirvish's private collection, as well as exhibition and classroom space for nearby OCAD University. It will add 2,600 condo units to Toronto's core in towers rising as high as 85 storeys, a new residential benchmark for the city and among the tallest in North America.

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The extreme makeover of the King Street entertainment strip will necessitate a public conversation about the appropriate scale of development and the services required to sustain it, planning experts say.

"It is turning up the volume in an incredible way," said architect and urban planner Ken Greenberg.

If Toronto is going to become a city with the kind of dense, high-rise streetscape like Manhattan, it must plan for it with investments in transit and public space, he said.

"People literally are falling off the street now," he said. "It is becoming a different city. We have to ask, Are we up to it? Are we ready for it?"

Jennifer Keesmaat, the city's new chief planner, expects to see a formal application for the project this week and said she is committed to ensuring there is opportunity for public discussion.

"Most cities are clamouring for growth," she said. "We've got it on our doorstep. Our challenge is managing it and ensuring we get the city we want as a result."

Mr. Mirvish, in teaming up with Mr. Gehry, a Toronto native famous for landmarks such as the Guggenheim Museum in Spain and the Art Gallery of Ontario, is looking to transform a part of Toronto that already bears the imprint of his late father's vision.

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"I am thinking about the legacy we want to establish here," Mr. Mirvish said, noting his family's long involvement in developing the area.

"What we're trying to do is identify the centre of the entertainment district and the heart of downtown so we have something iconic on the horizon that says you are in Toronto and it is a distinguished and distinct place. It is a vote of confidence of where the city has got to that I believe it will let me do something like this."

Still, news of the planned demolition of the Princess of Wales left members in the entertainment community mourning the loss of a playhouse that opened to much fanfare less than two decades ago.

"Any time you are losing a theatre, it is never a cause for celebration," said C. David Johnson, who starred in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert at the theatre. "It is such a grand space for staging big musicals."

Mr. Mirvish, who also owns the Royal Alexandra Theatre on King Street, and rents the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre, said his venues are operating at between 50 and 60 per cent capacity. The city could easily absorb the loss of the 2,000 seat Princess Of Wales Theatre, he said, which opened in 1993 with a production of Miss Saigon.

Mr. Mirvish said he has no intention of stepping back from the industry and could build another theatre in the future if there is demand.

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Councillor Adam Vaughan, who represents the area, described the development as "an amazing opportunity for the city."

He said efforts are being made to protect the existing features of the neighbourhood, including restaurant row on the south side of King Street.

"There will be some concerns about height," he said. "And we will have those conversations."

Mr. Mirvish said the condo towers are needed to pay for the rest of the project and hopes the public will look beyond concerns about height and density as they consider the proposal. "I'm hoping that people will recognize that this is a contribution and not something we are taking away from anyone. Although we are losing a theatre, I believe it will not weaken my activity in the theatre world."

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