ULI Toronto Blog

Tour of the Historic Distillery District

The Distillery District is becoming one of Toronto’s top destinations. A favourite backdrop for wedding photos, the intimate walkways and historic industrial buildings offer a unique destination and a great reason to explore this otherwise underdeveloped segment of the city. On October 6th David Jackson and Jamie Goad, partners at Cityscape Development Corp, led a tour of the Distillery District to share the history of this national historic site and the details of their award-winning adaptive reuse project.

In the condo sales centre, around a model of the residential condo buildings, David and Jamie began the tour with a history lesson. The distillery was founded in 1832 by Gooderham and Worts. The team started out by processing grain from Ontario farmers and shipping it out; the grains not fit for consumption were distilled. It didn’t take long for the distilling business to become the main focus of Gooderham and Worts.

In 1859 the Stone Distillery was built, it is the oldest building on the distillery site today. Through the 1860s construction continued, and by the 1880s Gooderham and Worts became the largest distillery in the world. Once prohibition hit, business slowed and eventually fell on hard times. The company was sold in 1923, but continued operation until it was sold again to a pension fund. The distillery officially closed and production ceased in the 1990s. It was purchased by Cityscape in 2001.

David explained that Cityscape’s plan was to restore the historic buildings and create a thriving arts, culture and entertainment centre. They estimated that project would be complete in about 5 years. Instead after only 18 months, and a whirlwind of restoration activity, the Distillery District was up and running.

Throughout the construction process the Distillery District project attracted media attention and the support of City Hall. Due to classification as a national historic site, the project benefitted from several exemptions that helped keep the process moving. When it came to floodplain and contamination issues, Steven Heuchert, Manager of Development Planning and Regulations at the Toronto Region and Conservation (TRCA) addressed the group. The project required the support of several government agencies to work through the complexities of development on a floodplain site. Together, the TRCA, the City and the Province worked to create “a special policy area” which allowed for higher risk. Steven emphasized that this was an instance of the Conservation Authority and the Province working well together to determine a sustainable solution.

Held under private ownership since 1832, Cityscape had to introduce the Distillery to a public that had almost no prior interaction with the property. Cityscape engaged Artscape, Soulpepper Theatre Company, George Brown College and important galleries around the city. The retail strategy was simple: no chains. Cityscape wanted something different, iconic. They also needed to create exposure and so began putting programming into place. With limited funds, Cityscape went to the public for ideas, and projects such as Woofstock and the Distillery jazz festival poured in. It was clear, David explained, that the community was “thrilled that something was happening with the distillery; it was an adaptive reuse project that made sense.”

Jamie acknowledged that there were weaknesses with their redevelopment platform. They lacked public funding and the private sector was looking for an established market. This problem was evident when they couldn’t find any restaurateurs willing to take the risk of opening up in the distillery. No one wanted in until someone else was successful first. So, they decided to open their own restaurant. It was “an unusual way of getting tenants” said David, but it worked. Soon enough the Mill Street Brew Pub took up residence and built their image around the distillery. It wasn’t long before other restaurants followed.

When purchased, the distillery site was assessed at $2.5 million, these days the Distillery District is assessed at $38 million (not including the residential component). It was a leap of faith full of roadblocks, but one that has proven to be wildly successful. Not only is it a destination for Torontonians and visitors, for others it’s a place to live, work and play. It has transformed an abandoned piece of the City’s historic landscape, and created a dynamic place that that will be enjoyed for generations.

Adrienne Smith
ULI Communications Committee
Oxford Properties Group

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