What should Toronto do with the Hearn Power Generating Station?

This week, city councillors vote on a motion that could begin to bring one of Toronto’s most unusual buildings back to life.

Abandoned building almost as big as the Rogers Centre

A look at the exterior of the abandoned plant. (David Donnelly/CBC)

This week, city councillors vote on a motion that could begin to bring one of Toronto’s most unusual buildings back to life.

The Hearn Power Generating Station was opened in 1951 to provide electricity for the fast-growing Toronto region.

The building — almost as big in volume as the Rogers Centre — once housed 8 giant turbine generators used to produce power. Everything about the Hearn is larger than life — the smokestack itself is 700 feet tall — so high that east-bound jets taking off from the island airport are forced to climb steeply to clear the smokestack.

City councillors are voting on a motion to have the city manager prepare a detailed report about the services and costs involved to turn the Hearn into a sports, cultural and mixed use/social enterprise public facility.

Developer David House is part of a consortium which has submitted a formal proposal for what that might look like — led by two non-profits, Evergreen of Evergreen Brickworks and the Toronto Sports Council along with House’s development firm, Earth Development.  

What makes the Hearn exceptionally well-suited as a potential sports facility, says House,  is what builders call ‘clear-span space’ — space unobstructed by pillars.

"So think of a space," says House, "where you could put almost four NHL ice rinks end to end. And imagine that you have a building which is almost as big as Skydome by volume which is sitting vacant. So that’s an opportunity to do some really cool things.”

The Hearn is one of dozens of retired generating plants across North America, abandoned for years or decades as their coal-fired systems became political and environmental liabilities.  

Some cities have begun repurposing their power plants to foster new business activity and bring the massive buildings back into the life of their communities. Baltimore’s power station has become an entertainment complex; the Seaholme Power Plant in Austin, Texas  is a venue for concerts and civic events; while the power plant in Sydney has become Australia’s largest and most popular museum; London’s Battersea power station is becoming the focus of a residential community.

The Hearn is one of the largest of those decommissioned power stations. Developing the Hearn will also require a lot of political smarts.  Like almost every site on Toronto’s waterfront, ownership is complicated on this site at Unwin Avenue, east of Cherry Street, south of Lakeshore Boulevard.

The retired power station is owned by the province by way of Ontario Power Generation while the adjacent shipping channel comes under federal jurisdiction. The City of Toronto would have to provide municipal services such as electricity, transit and sewage to make the site viable as a public facility. Add to the mix a couple of private lease-holders -- Paul Vaughan of Studios of America and developer Mario Cortellucci, who have most of a 20-year-lease remaining on the property, and you have a web of ownership that makes the Hearn one of the most complicated sites on the waterfront.

But the Hearn is also an incredible opportunity. Architect Thom Payne, part of the consortium with developer David House, calls the Hearn "a rock on the waterfront". Payne, a veteran architect, has helped reclaim other sites to create architectural gems like the Young Centre for Performing Arts in Toronto’s Distillery District and the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.  

But the Hearn is a relic of a different order.  Built to house massive turbines spinning 24 hours a day for 50 years, Payne says it’s hard to imagine any structural load that the Hearn can’t handle. “It is incredibly well-founded,” says Payne. “It just goes right down to bedrock.”

It also has a strange beauty all its own.  Inside the building, massive concrete structures built to hold the giant turbines without shattering under tonnes of vibrating pressure still stand, although the turbines themselves have been dismantled and melted down for metal.

The concrete shapes form a majestic avenue of arches across the ground floor — reminding visitors like Payne of "ancient Roman catacombs" — wide enough for a couple of city buses to drive through. The light pouring in through the factory windows that cover the south face slants across massive steel beams and shines on giant puddles, left behind by the previous night’s rainstorm.

For the people behind the Hearn proposal, rehabilitation of the Hearn is urgent. After more than 30 years of neglect, the building’s exterior corners are showing cracks. And while the roof is in good repair, a rainwater leader — an interior downspout leading rain into the storm water system, recently burst, flooding the three-metre deep concrete floor when it rains.

Walking across the vast space — a total of five acres inside — Payne says that whatever plan is finally adopted for the Hearn, the building will have to be "re-honoured".  It’s the kind of space that forces everyone involved to think on a new scale. "I don’t think it wants to be like anything else," says Payne. "It doesn’t just want to be malled in where you bring in the laneways of retail circulation." 

To Payne, the Hearn, with its massive steel structure and beautiful play of light, invites its proponents to think in both poetic and visionary terms — and renews his faith in the city’s future.

"The thing that’s overwhelming when you’re here is the bounty of it all and the greatness when you think of Toronto’s future," says Payne. "If you’re thinking in the most most expansive way, you just really feel tremendous optimism for Toronto."

For Payne, the Hearn, is not only a launching pad for the development of the Port Lands, but a chance to think of it "as a massive new precinct that should be for everybody and to make Toronto an even better place to live."

About the Author

Mary Wiens

Journalist/ Producer | Metro Morning

Mary Wiens is a veteran broadcaster and a regular on Metro Morning. Her wide-ranging beat includes stories that are sometimes tragic, often funny, occasionally profound and always human. Work that is often honoured with RTDNA awards (The Association of Electronic Journalists). One of her favourite places - Yonge Street. "It's the heart and soul of Toronto," says Wiens. "Toronto's Main Street!"