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Work to begin on $42.7-million makeover of Nathan Phillips Square

A new two-storey restaurant, permanent stage and a renewed and relocated peace garden are coming to Nathan Phillips Square as part of a long-awaited makeover that officially begins Friday.

When the $42.7-million project is finished in two years, Toronto will boast a public square that rivals the planet's best piazzas, said Councillor Peter Milczyn, an architect helping to steer the revitalization.

"I think it's going to be one of the most dynamic and attractive squares in the world," he said.

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For that privilege, Torontonians are paying the bill.

Council originally asked that philanthropists and corporate sponsors be tapped for $24-million, the portion of the $40-million estimate that's above the $16-million already set aside for repairs to the aging square.

But the new Toronto Office of Partnerships, which took over the fundraising assignment in 2007, found donors shy of cash after a major drive for the city's museums and cultural gems. Plus, "people felt the front yard of city hall was a different kind of project," which should be paid for with public dollars, said Phyllis Berck, director of the partnerships office. Council was also dead set against offering naming opportunities beyond modest plaques or a wall recognizing benefactors.

With the fundraising effort over before it began, council agreed in 2008 to cover the full cost, which now includes an extra $2.7-million to replace compressors beneath the ice rink.

"If you want high-quality public squares, then the public has to pay for them," Mr. Milczyn said.

The square's redesign, which has already won an award of excellence from Canadian Architect, suggests the public will get its money's worth.

The plan by Toronto firms Plant Architect Inc. and Shore Tilbe Irwin & Partners updates Finnish architect Viljo Revell's vision for city hall's forecourt.

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"It will be a space of pure potential," said Chris Pommer, a partner at Plant. "It gets back to Revell's vision where parties, protests and everyday human interaction can go on."

Inspired by the ancient Athenian agora, the revived square will feature a rebuilt skate pavilion, a new two-storey restaurant with roof terrace and a glass-topped stage on the west side of the grounds, a new tourism kiosk at the corner of Queen and Bay Streets, and more than 100 new trees in a leafy border around the plaza.

The peace garden - opened in 1984 and not part of the original design - will be expanded and moved from the centre to behind the new stage, leaving a wide-open square with embedded lights and nine subtle misting fountains.

Each new building will connect to the square's elevated walkways, which lead to the first phase of the project, a $4.5-million green roof slated to open May 29.

Ground-level construction is scheduled to begin on the west side of the site, with the revamped skate pavilion and washrooms and change rooms ready for next fall. The entire site is expected to be finished by mid-to-late 2012. In the meantime, rotating work means much of the square will stay open, including during the G20 meeting in June.

"It's the most incredible thing we've ever worked on," Mr. Pommer said. "It's also a place we really love. We feel a responsibility to get it right."

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