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Toronto Maple Leafs arena converted to university recreation facility

Toronto Maple Leafs arena converted to university recreation facility

Using steel reinforcement and massive box trusses, a Building Team methodically inserts four new floors in the landmark arena while preserving and restoring its historic exterior.

By David Barista, Editor-in-Chief | October 8, 2013
This photo depicts the athletic center project after construction. The $60 milli
This photo depicts the athletic center project after construction. The $60 million effort, funded by Loblaw Companies and Ryerson University, with help from the Canadian government, converted the landmark area into a mixed-use recreation center and retail and restaurant space.

Home to the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs from 1931 to 1999, Maple Leaf Gardens was widely considered one of the “cathedrals” of ice hockey. The 16,300-seat arena, designed by the prominent Montreal-based firm Ross and Macdonald, also played host to concerts, sporting events, and political rallies, and was known for its superb sightlines.

By the late 1990s, the grand ol’ gal had seen her better days, and an ownership change in the Leafs organization meant the club would be moving to the newly built and larger (18,800-seat) Air Canada Centre. For the next decade, the historic arena sat mostly idle as the new kid in town attracted the major events in Toronto.

In 2004, Loblaw Companies, Canada’s largest food retailer, purchased the Gardens and proposed several unpopular schemes for redeveloping the arena—including one that called for converting the interior to a Real Canadian Superstore and parking structure. It wasn’t until Loblaw was approached by Ryerson University that it would develop a plan that stuck. The downtown-based university was in dire need of a recreation center and a facility for its hockey team. The two organizations, with funding from the Canadian Federal Government and private donors—including a $15 million gift from Canadian homebuilder Mattamy Homes—committed to partner and bring the building back to life.

Their plan was audacious: retain and restore the building’s historic exterior fac?ade, including its steel-frame dome, while gutting the lion’s share of the interior spaces to make way for a new, four-level, multipurpose structure to house a grocery store and retail space at street level (85,000 sf) and the university’s sports complex on the three floors above (220,000 sf). Topping the new structure is a 2,800-seat, NHL-sized ice rink that emulates the original Gardens, with angled corners, rail seats, and its famous “corner blues” seats, which were restored. The $60 million project also added a level of below-grade parking. The iconic marquee was rebuilt and became the new entrance to the Ryerson University Athletic Facility.


The project involved constructing a four-level, multipurpose structure, topped with an ice rink, within the existing shell.
The complex program required methodical demolition and excavation work inside the shell without affecting the historic structure. This was particularly difficult since the arena’s poured-in-place concrete seating bowl, which had to be removed to make way for the new interior structure, held up the exterior walls of the building, acting as a form of interior flying buttress. To support the shell during the restoration, the Building Team installed temporary steel bracing to prop up the original concrete frames at the building’s east and west sides, and inserted large box trusses spanning some 215 feet between the existing buttresses on the north and south ends.

Throughout the project, the team monitored the existing structure and exterior walls for movement and strain, using a proprietary computerized fiber-optic system that sounded an alarm and sent email notifications when it registered readings beyond the prescribed tolerances.

Toronto, Ont.

Building Team 
Submitting firm: BBB Architects Toronto (architect, Ryerson University component) 
Owner: Ryerson University 
Developer: Loblaw Properties 
Architect: Turner Fleischer Architects (base building) 
Historial architect: ERA Architects
Structural engineer: exp 
Mechanical engineers: The mitchell Partnership (Ryerson University); SNC Lavalin/LKm (base building) 
Electrical engineers: Mulvey Banani (Ryerson University); Hammerschlag & Joffe (base building) 
General contractor: Buttcon
General Information 
Size: 305,000 sf 
Construction cost: $60 million 
Construction time: January 2010 to October 2011 
Delivery method: CM at risk

Once the shell was stabilized, the team demolished most of the seating bowl structure and then excavated 23 feet below grade to accommodate the parking level. From there, the four-level, poured-in-place concrete structure was erected in tiers and tied to the existing structure, providing the required support for the shell. The temporary bracing was removed and large openings were cut into the corner buttresses to accommodate parking ramps and the main entrance. A large, 80-by-16-foot opening was created in the north fac?ade to accommodate a new loading dock.

Placing the ice rink atop the new interior structure—50 feet above street level—posed a number of issues for the Building Team. Chief among them was ensuring that the rink would be fully isolated from the structure below. This was accomplished by installing a waterproof membrane to manage against leaks and a thermal barrier sandwiched between the chilled rink slab and the structural slab to help regulate the temperature. A portion of the refrigeration’s waste heat keeps the under-slab of the third floor warm enough to prevent condensation below, and a network of piping in the 3-inch-thick under-slab circulates warm water to keep temperatures constant.

The Reconstruction Awards judges praised the Building Team for its close collaboration in executing this complex redevelopment and restoration project while meeting the requirements of working on a National Historic Site.

“You can’t pull off a project this complex this beautifully without having everyone of the Building Team members on the same page,” said judge Rick Juneau, LEED AP, President of Residential and Restoration with Bulley & Andrews (

Juneau and the other judges noted that the project serves as a good case study for cities and municipalities dealing with outdated or derelict sports venues.

This cross section shows the different functions in the facility. The program includes: university athletic space (blue), university circulation areas (yellow), Loblaws retail space (beige), back-of-house space (green), washrooms and locker rooms (red), and common circulation space (gray).


The program also incorporates a 1,000-seat basketball/volleyball gymnasium, training gym, fitness studios, fitness center, and academic and lab space for the university’s sports sciences, kinesiology, and sports therapy departments.

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