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From car wash to new home of the stars

Partners in new TIFF headquarters say it will raise the bar in a sometimes rowdy Toronto party zone

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

TORONTO — It's a year before builders aim to call it a wrap on the Toronto International Film Festival's new headquarters, and creative differences have arisen between the "director" - architect Bruce Kuwabara - and the "producer" - King and John Festival Corp.

The issue is whether an outdoor staircase connecting the rooftop of the five-storey Bell Lightbox movie theatre with the pool area of the Festival Tower condominiums should be accessible to both Bell Lightbox visitors and Tower residents - or closed to all. Mr. Kuwabara wants it open. King and John has other ideas. And so it goes.

It's certainly not a show-stopper. Indeed, it's but a minor hitch considering the differing aims of the commercial and cultural partners who have spearheaded the mixed-used development rising from a former parking lot three blocks north of the CN Tower.

As movie stars and film lovers fan out across the city this Thursday for the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), they might include a side trip to the construction site to scope out what should be the hub of activity for the festival this time next year.

TIFF's fundraising campaign - the target totals $196-million - is on track, as are the construction schedule and condominium sales, partners say.

"We have another $50-million left to raise, so there is a sense of urgency," TIFF co-director Noah Cowan conceded. "But as the funding campaign is composed of three parts - capital, endowment and operating funds - we have various ways of recombining these amounts so we can stay on schedule."

Festival organizers are hoping events at this year's TIFF will yield more contributions. "There's no better opportunity than the upcoming festival to showcase to our donors and prospective donors what we can do," Mr. Cowan said.

He stopped short of comparing raising money for Bell Lightbox with that of producing a film. "Donating philanthropic moneys for a top-notch global organization is far less risky than investing in a film. We don't call our donors investors."

That is, with the exception of the Reitman family - the filmmaker Ivan and his sisters Agi Mandel and Susan Michaels. They are wearing two hats: as donors to the TIFF fundraising campaign and as joint venture partners with Toronto home builder Daniels Corp. in King and John Corp., which is developing the 41-storey condo tower above Bell Lightbox.

"I bought a penthouse there myself," Mr. Reitman said in a phone interview from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Part of King and John's $22-million donation consists of the land that the project occupies, until recently a parking lot, but the site of a car wash when Klara and Leslie Reitman purchased it in the early 1960s.

Mr. Reitman calls the fruition of his parents' vision for the area "the culmination of a great immigrant story." They came to Canada from Ukraine after escaping the Holocaust, "penniless and not even able to speak the language," he said.

"My parents would be incredibly proud of what we're doing today, because when he purchased the car wash over 50 years ago, he said the city would come back to the area one day. And he was right."

The area, now known as the Entertainment District, has come back with a roar - some would say too much of a roar. There have been complaints about noise and rowdy patrons at the many bars and clubs that have sprung up over several blocks in the past 15 years. But the TIFF partners believe their project will bring a sense of maturity to the district.

Mr. Reitman says it will be "a centrepiece for the Entertainment District, providing not only a focus for two weeks in September, but all year long."

Thomas Dutton, senior vice-president at Daniels, isn't worried about the effect of the district's reputation on condo sales. "Selling in the Entertainment District has not been an issue for us at all; neither from the point of view of people who want to live there, who see it as an exciting, dynamic area, nor when it comes to construction. We've suffered no vandalism," he said, adding that 80 to 85 per cent of the condos are sold.

Daniels' donation to Bell Lightbox, through King and John, consists of management fees during construction, Mr. Dutton explained.

He expects the theatre will raise the district's tone.

"The area is not nearly as bad as people make it out to be," he said. "Most of the night life areas are further north around Richmond and Adelaide. If you walk along King Street, there are several excellent individually owned restaurants, theatres, Roy Thomson Hall, Holiday Inn, Mountain Equipment Co-op and offices, so it's fairly stable.

"But I do think the project will bring a certain momentum and raise the whole standard for the area, because TIFF will be running programs all year long."

Mr. Kuwabara, a partner in Toronto-based Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, agrees.

"It just feels great being in the city during the film festival, and having all that activity focused in this area not only for 10 [days] but for 365 days a year will be incredible," he said in an interview at his office, which overlooks the construction site.

In designing Bell Lightbox and Festival Tower, Mr. Kuwabara said he aimed to create a modernist structure that is "highly animated at street level" - with a bistro, retail boutiques and TIFF-run gift shop, lobby and museum at ground level. Screening rooms, archives, workshop areas, bar, restaurant and offices occupy the floors above. The second floor restaurant and a bistro downstairs will remain the property of King and John.

Mr. Kuwabara calls Bell Lightbox "a city of film unto itself," and his design indulges his love of films: A flight of stairs referencing the stepped roof of the Villa Malaparte on the Mediterranean island of Capri - where Jean-Luc Goddard shot his 1963 film Contempt, starring Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance - sweeps up from the rooftop terrace to the condo's pool area.

Mr. Kuwabara's fingers stroked the staircase of an architectural model of the project. He bemoaned the notion that the stairs connecting Bell Lightbox with Festival Tower probably will be cordoned off. "It ruins the continuity."

And so it goes.

Special to The Globe and Mail


The credits roll

It's not quite a cast of thousands, but financial support for Bell Lightbox, the new home for the Toronto International Film Festival, runs far and wide:

The Governments of Canada and Ontario - $25-million each.

The Reitman family and Daniels Corp. through their joint venture King and John Festival Corp. - $22-million.

Other donors, which include several individuals and corporations: Visa Inc., the Copyright Collective of Canada, NBC Universal Canada, the Allan Slaight family, the Brian Linehan Charitable Foundation, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, and TIFF's board of directors, staff and volunteers have also contributed.

Corporate sponsors for Bell Lightbox include:

Bell Canada, which has naming rights and preferred supplier status through 2018, with an option through 2023.

Royal Bank of Canada is a major sponsor and the official bank.

Ingrid Phaneuf

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