09 . 09 . 2014

Cultural complex to rise on planetarium site, including Jewish Museum of Canada

AUTHOR Martin Knelman

The U of T proposes to create a complex at 90 Queen’s Park Cres. to house a new Jewish museum as well as a performance hall and space for the Institute of Islamic Studies.

What will fill the void left in 1995 when the McLaughlin Planetarium was forced to close, less then three decades after it was created? On Tuesday, the answer will come via an announcement from University of Toronto president Meric Gertler.

The U of T proposes to demolish the building and create a mega-cultural complex at 90 Queen’s Park Cres. At the heart of it will be a new Jewish Museum of Canada, backed through a partnership with a group of philanthropic families led by Isadore and Rosalie Wise Sharp, with the help of the United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto.

In addition, the university plans to create a new 250-seat performance hall for the Faculty of Music and house the Institute of Islamic Studies and several other university departments, including history and Middle Eastern civilizations.

“We are incredibly excited by this opportunity,” Gertler said in an interview with the Star. “This project will not only benefit the university but will do great things for the city.”

As the founder of the globally revered Four Seasons Hotel group, Issy Sharp knows a few things about location.

“When you talk about real estate, this is the right address for the new museum. It also represents the highest and best use of the land.”

With a fundraising target of $150 million to create the museum, the Sharps are looking for partners. They want to be one of a group of five to seven founding families, with each family contributing $20 million.

Almost half of that funding, $65 million, will be used to create an endowment fund to secure the museum’s future. The museum will be operated by a self-sustaining charitable foundation, privately operated with its own funding, budgets and governance.

As a part of the deal, the museum foundation and the university will jointly raise $60 million towards construction costs for the new L-shaped complex. My prediction: The final pricetag for the whole project will be at least $100 million.

The new museum will become a principal tenant. Next to the new building will be a plaza linking the campus to the Museum subway stop, the ROM and Philosophers’ Walk.

“The museum will tell the Jewish story from the beginning, record the Holocaust, celebrate Jewish contributions to the world and engage the young,” says Rosalie Sharp, who has been exploring the possibilities for years.

Working closely with the Sharps has been Gail Dexter Lord, co-president of the Toronto-based consulting firm Lord Cultural Resources.

The project would bring to an end one of Toronto’s favourite guessing games: How should this prime location — with proximity to the university’s St. George campus, the ROM and Queen’s Park be used to move Toronto forward?

The planetarium is not a heritage site. For years after the planetarium closed it was used by the ROM for storage and office space. At one point during the fundraising campaign for the ROM’s huge expansion a decade ago, William Thorsell, then its CEO, floated a plan to build a condo tower on the site, which was owned by the ROM. (The planetarium, which opened in 1968, was controlled by the ROM. In 2008, U of T purchased the site from the ROM for $22 million.)

Thorsell’s condo plan was shouted down by outraged members of the community who consider the precinct sacred turf mercifully free of high buildings.

According to Gertler, the complex is in the early stages of planning and approvals. After consultations with the community, the next stage will include choosing an architect and principal contractors, as well as securing permits. The Sharps are optimistic that the museum can open its doors within the next five years.

“We are mindful of the fact that the community expects to be engaged and consulted,” Gertler promises. “Our goal is to define the scale of the project in keeping with the city’s interests.”

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McLaughlin Planetarium