From the pool deck atop Hotel X, there's a panorama to the north and east of Toronto's ever-growing high-rise skyline. To the south is Ontario Place, framed by Lake Ontario. And to the west is the sweeping shoreline of Humber Bay.
The hotel's unimpeded view gives it a unique advantage, but its location just inside the Princes' Gates at Exhibition Place also presents a challenge.
"It's always been a destination for special events and now we want to turn it from a come-and-park destination to a come-and-stay destination," said Celso Thompson, the director of sales for the 406-room Hotel X, the first Canadian property for Library Hotels Collection, whose portfolio includes four boutique hotels in New York and hotels in Budapest and Prague.
The five-star hotel's location, three kilometres from Toronto's core with parkland rather than shopping malls for neighbours, has led to shifting the concept of what was originally named Hotel in the Garden to an "urban resort," he said. The amenities include an indoor tennis and squash club that will offer memberships, three theatres, two pools and several restaurants. The roof will feature a pool and three-level lounge area.
Construction recently topped off at 29 storeys and the hotel will officially open in April of 2016, capping a saga that goes back to 1998. That's when the board of governors of city-owned Exhibition Place decided that the site needed a hotel to help attract meetings and conventions to the newly opened Direct Energy Centre, said Dianne Young, chief executive officer of Exhibition Place.
"We had really particular needs. We wanted a full-service conference-oriented hotel with no condos," which have become prominent features of other new hotels in Toronto's core, she explained. But the project lingered because by the time the first request for bids was issued in 2000, the economy had stalled. It wasn't until 2004 that bidding was reopened and three hotel companies submitted proposals.
Then it took several more years to get the project shovel ready.
Because the hotel is on city land, Library Hotels' winning bid had to be approved not only by the Exhibition Place board but also by city council. Then, the design by New York-based Stephen B. Jacobs Group PC Architects and Planners in collaboration with Toronto-based NORR Ltd. Architects & Engineers had to make its way through the city's planning board and a development committee. The hotel is leasing the land from the city for 49 years, renewable for an additional 49 years.
The city paid a lot of attention to every detail, but ultimately the approvals were the same required of any hotel project in Toronto, said David Northcote, a principal with NORR Ltd. A unique challenge was that the site is one of the oldest heritage areas of the city.
Before construction could begin, three seasons of archaeological digs had to be completed on the site which had been covered by parking lots for decades. The foundations of the former 1840s enlisted mens' barracks for nearby Fort York were uncovered and they've been worked into the plan, and will be conserved beneath a roof and a glass floor at one of the hotel's entrances.
The asphalt hid other surprises as well. "A lot of the land here is landfill. It was the dumping ground for debris and for decades it was a parking lot. We found the same kind of gasoline and asphalt contamination we found in building the Direct Energy Centre," Ms. Young said.
The city took responsibility for the contamination and city council approved up to $5-million for soil remediation costs for the nine-acre property. "We expect that to be spent," she added.
Excavation finally began in July of 2013, but two of the most brutal Toronto winters in decades dealt delays to the schedule for construction by Brookfield Multiplex Canada. Extremely low temperatures meant concrete couldn't be poured through much of February of 2015, and high winds meant work couldn't be done on open floors, Mr. Thompson said. Because of that, the original schedule for opening in time for the Pan American Games this July has been set back to April of 2016.
The hotel is aiming for LEED gold certification, Mr. Thompson said. All the glass in the building is triple-glazed for insulation and soundproofing, with a custom coating to reduce heat absorption because the building gets full sun in all directions.
"We're making efforts to future-proof the building with the latest technology, because we know it will cost more if we have to refit later," he said. An example is the decision to spend an extra $250,000 to upgrade the specifications for fibre optic cable throughout the hotel to the latest Category 6 Ethernet wiring. There will also be a charging station for electric cars in the parking garage.
And now that it's time to market the hotel, there are other hurdles. "Basically the No. 1 argument meeting planners had against having meetings here is you're too far from the city," Mr. Thompson said.
To answer that, the hotel will offer a shuttle bus service to downtown attractions. It's also within a five-minute walk of the TTC's transit loop and GO station at Exhibition Place.
And the architects have turned the hotel's lack of high-rise competitors into an attraction.
"We've capitalized on the outdoor space," Mr. Northcote said. "The building itself covers three acres and there are six acres of landscaped spaces [being designed by Dillon Consulting]. We're creating a plaza in front of Stanley Barracks that will define where the former military parade ground would have been."
Part of that project is a yet unveiled public artwork that runs the full length of the site and reflects the history of the regiments that were based at Fort York, he added.
Now that the hotel has taken shape, sales momentum is building, Mr. Thompson said. The hotel that features 11 meeting rooms now has bookings for conventions and conferences as far out as 2019.
There's disappointment but "not a lot of angst" about the delays the hotel project has encountered, Ms. Young said. "We're willing to wait to make sure it meets our needs, rather than just put up something that meets a schedule. It's a hotel that's going to last a long time here."
$160-million: Building cost of Hotel X.
$240-million: Total cost of project, including furnishings, decorations and landscaping of surrounding park.
$5-million: Cost of contaminated soil remediation, borne by City of Toronto.
$250,000: Extra cost of a decision to upgrade fibre optic cabling to rooms to highest level category 6 Ethernet lines.
Source: Library Hotels Collection
382,000: Number of hotel rooms in Canada in 2014, up from 378,000 in 2013.
1.1 per cent: Increase in new hotel rooms in Canada in 2015.
4.4 per cent: Increase in new hotel rooms due to open in Toronto in 2015.
9 per cent: Average rise in hotel values in downtown Toronto in 2014.
6.8 per cent: Estimate of rise in value of hotels in Canada in 2015.
14.2 per cent: Projected rise in value of downtown Toronto hotels in 2015.
Source: Canadian Hotel Investment Report 2015, Colliers Canada
5: Number of five-star hotels opened in downtown Toronto between 2010 and 2014.
$172: Average daily room rate in downtown Toronto (up by 7.6 per cent from $159 in 2014).
$139: Average room rate in Greater Toronto Area.
Source: Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, Feb. 2015
64 per cent: Forecasted occupancy rate of hotels in Canada 2015.
287,000: Number of hotel employees nationally.
Source: Hotel Association of Canada