Jeff Lewis

As the construction teams descend on Toronto’s waterfront this summer, the industrial façade long associated with the city’s eastern docklands will be torn down to make way for green space and mixed-use developments. 

For Cinespace Studios, this means the demolition of its Marine Terminal 28 (MT28), situated in the East Bayfront near Jarvis Street and Queen’s Quay. At just less than 140,000 square feet, the building comprises four studios with adjoining production amenities.

At the same time, another studio complex is rising in the West Donlands, near the intersection of Don Roadway and Commissioners Street. Filmport is being built by Toronto Film Studios Inc. (TFS) in partnership with the Rose Corporation, a privately held merchant bank.

Its first phase, scheduled to open in December, will cover 232,500 square feet and include six soundstages, paint and carpentry shops, wardrobe facilities, and post-production offices.

Phase one also includes the construction of a 45,000-square-foot “Mega-Stage,” a unique soundstage with a vaulting roof that clears 65 feet - a space which Filmport’s website boasts is large enough to house a full-sized replica of the Greek Parthenon.

Although Filmport’s facilities will dwarf those at MT28, the new studio doesn’t open its doors until later this year, a lag that Karen Thorne-Stone, Toronto’s film commissioner, says the city is working actively to mitigate.

“There’s no question that we regret that we’re losing the stages at MT28 without replacement immediately available,” she says. “We’re working with those projects that were scouting Toronto and perhaps considering MT28 to ensure that we’re able to accommodate them elsewhere in the city.”

It’s a concern that is echoed by Elis Lam, an art director with 14 years of experience, who worked out of MT28. In the shuffling of lands, leases, and schedules, she worries that the interests of working people have fallen by the wayside.

“I’m disappointed all around,” she laments. “The priority seems to have shifted from people’s livelihoods to a vision of the city, and it’s commendable, I can’t say that it’s not, but for the difference of 18 months you’d think that the city could wait.”

While the relocation of other East Bayfront businesses went largely unnoticed, the demise of MT28 has been marred by a bitter tenant dispute. Cinespace claimed that the two-months notice it was given to vacate was unfeasible, and requested an 18-month stay on the development.

As Jeff Steiner, CEO and president of the Toronto Economic Development Corporation (TEDCO) tells it, Cinespace knew the waterfront development was in the cards and had in fact been given more than one year’s notice to leave the building.  To delay moving off a highly-coveted plot of real estate, Steiner says the studio chose to stir controversy.

“The plan for that area has been part of public discussions and meetings for the last three-and-a-half years,” he says. “So it’s not a surprise where the park is—it’s no surprise that this waterfront revitalization is coming.”

Incorporated in 1986, TEDCO is a self-financed corporation led by a Toronto city council-appointed board of directors. Its aim is to facilitate redevelopment in Toronto. As the principal landowner in the Portlands, TEDCO has played an active, if sometimes unpopular, role in current plans for the lakefront.

“It’s true that everybody knew the property was slated for waterfront development,” says Lam. “That’s a given down to rank and file—it’s going to happen sooner or later. But nobody operates on a sooner or later, especially not industries.”

After a lengthy period of he-said-she-said correspondence, Cinespace was told that its doors were to close as of February 21. In a letter to members of the Toronto Film Board, Mayor David Miller called the grounds at MT28 a “crucial element” in the future of the waterfront. “Effective revitalization,” he wrote, “calls for other important employment uses on this site.”

Over at TEDCO, Steiner is of the same mind.

“There’s a bigger picture,” he says. “Some pieces are going to have to move on the chess board, and the net result is always much more positive.”

That Filmport has broken ground at all reflects Toronto’s commitment to ensure the film and television industry is a priority within its waterfront revitalization. Steiner says that despite pressure to convert the land into condos and parks, TEDCO reserved a portion of the Portlands—what is now Filmport—specifically for the industry.

“We did that because TEDCO knows, as the city does, that the film industry is critical.”