Last month, when the for-profit Parkside Student Residence was supposed to be ready for move-in, a few hundred scholars at Toronto’s downtown colleges and universities found the place still shuttered and themselves with nowhere to live.

The $26-million transformation of the 35-storey former Best Western Primrose Hotel, at the corner of Carlton and Jarvis streets, into a 620-bed dorm had not been finished. Inspections by the city had not been carried out. Knightstone Capital Management, the owner, billeted students in hotels across the Greater Toronto Area at the company’s expense in a bid to compensate for the delay – but the gesture wasn’t enough to stop irate prospective tenants and their parents from kicking up a mini-firestorm of protest in local media.

By the time I got down to the site, late last week, the storm had quieted. Young men and women had moved in, and the place was busy, with people studying in glass-walled rooms or dining in the high-ceilinged basement food court, or just hanging out. That said, a few workers were still about, a floor I visited wasn’t yet occupied, not all of the elevators were not operating and an outdoor terrace (a replacement of the hotel’s swimming pool) wasn’t done. But enough of Parkside is complete for any observer to judge the design value of its common areas. Which is, in my view, pretty high. Donald Schmitt, of Diamond Schmitt Architects, has turned the old Primrose into a dormitory with flair usually reserved for upmarket condo developments and private homes. Gone are the days, it appears, when the range of housing options for out-of-town students ran between dingy digs in an attic and a bunk in a barracks-like dorm.

Ace Lounge

 

For $900 to $1,200 a month, a young person in one of our downtown schools can lease a bed in configurations of one to four a unit. The mandatory meal plan costs $500 a month. On the top floor – the former hotel’s ballroom – there are two- and four-bedroom suites. A room has been set aside on each residential storey for a social activity – yoga, sports watching, meditation, cooking and so on. My hunch is that residents will get out of their rooms often, since the public zones are so attractive.

Enter Parkside from Carlton Street, for example, and once past the guards – security is tight, but not intrusive – you find a bright, double-height gathering place that is part open lounge, part study hall, part rendezvous complete with a fireplace. Established with contemporary furnishings, bold super graphics and dashes of postmodern pizzazz, the atmospheres in this articulated space vary from public to intimate, though all invite sociability and exchange.

Parkside Exterior

 

Climb the stairs to the second level, and you discover what I imagine will be the heart of Parkside. Students will come here from their small sleeping quarters to work out in the spacious gym, do their laundry – the washers and dryers have not been consigned to some dark basement – meet around boardroom-sized tables and relax in the lounge overlooking Carlton Street. When it belonged to the Primrose, this north-facing lounge area was shut off from the city by heavy, corrugated precast panels. Mr. Schmitt has removed these opaque barriers and replaced them with broad panes of clear glass, which welcome in cool, glare-free north light.

While opening up the interior to brightness and colour, however, the architect has not erased every trace of the building’s origins in harsh mid-1970s Brutalism. The concrete bones of the structure remain exposed, unadorned. The patterning in the broadloom interestingly mimics expanses of rough concrete.

The Brutalist outside has been altered little. As it was in the days of the Primrose, so now the Jarvis Street façade is a windowless escarpment of concrete. Despite the glass box of the lounge that floats over the sidewalk on the Carlton Street side, the general sense of the slab’s exterior is tough, serious.

Student Bedroom

 

Life inside Parkside will also have a touch of seriousness to it. The business of the Scion Group, the experienced Chicago-based management firm that is looking after the project, is to see that the residence’s culture remains fresh and doesn’t deteriorate into chaos. Video cameras monitor every corridor and elevator lobby and other public space. Residents are expected to live up to the Ryerson University Code of Conduct. There is a trained don on each floor, or one for every 35 students. Such displays of an in loco parentis arrangement, David Lehberg, the developer, said, is largely for the benefit of concerned parents, though, he added, the students appreciate them, too.

But I fear I’m making Parkside sound like an architecturally savvy juvenile detention facility. If impressions gathered during an afternoon walkabout with the designer and developer can be trusted, I can say it is well-located housing for Toronto students in a cautious, visually attuned age – and surely, in terms of design, a quantum leap beyond the rat-traps and soulless residences I lived in while away at school.

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JOHN BENTLEY MAYS
THE PERFECT HOUSE
jmays@globeandmail.com