Mark Byrnes

There's no hockey, but a grocery store and sports center are drawing people from around the city.

After a decade of waiting, Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens is back in full use, only without any of the professional sports or concerts that once made it such an important part of the city’s identity.

A retail complex debuted in late 2011, but a full transformation of the historic former home of Toronto’s hockey team was finally completed this fall. Purists may be upset that the building isn’t being used for its original purpose. But just like the flagship grocery store that debuted before it, the Mattamy Athletic Center is filled with arena nostalgia.

Original seating is artfully re-arranged and new signs commemorating famous events and people fill the open spaces inside Ryerson University’s athletic center.

But perhaps the most important aspect of the project is the way the building now benefits the neighborhood. When the Toronto hockey team played there, "the building was less of an anchor for the neighborhood because it was generally only in use in the evenings," says Toronto blogger Derek Flack.

Now, the 85,000-square foot grocery store (as well as a liquor store, clothing outlet, and health clinic) give a part of downtown a much needed supermarket, one the neighborhood had been waiting for since Loblaw Companies first purchased the building in 2004.

Ryerson University was also in need of extra space. The school went on an ambitious real estate spree in the early 2000s while expanding to over 30,000 full time students. Students voted to raise tuition to fund the new athletic center. The federal government also gave $20 million; Mattamy Homes (a Canadian home construction company) and Loblaw paid the rest.

Mattamy gets the naming rights to the athletic center, though the name is hardly noticeable along the top of the restored Carlton street marquee. Naming rights were a contentious issue for the building's previous owners, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (owners of the city’s NBA, NHL, and MLS teams), which did not want to see a redeveloped Gardens become a facility that profited off the hockey team’s identity or competed with the new Air Canada Centre. So when it sold the building to Loblaw Companies, MLSE forbid the opening of a hockey rink or concert facility inside.

That condition was part of the sale agreement when Loblaw bought the building in 2004, but when the company reached an agreement with Ryerson, MLSE sued, "simply building that arena was a violation of the restrictive covenant," a MLSE executive told the National Post prior to the lawsuit.

Structural limitations might have prevented anything else from replacing the old arena, however. Engineering studies showed that the arena’s seating was also built to serve as structural support for the building. What was previously the upper deck of seats in the Gardens still remain, surrounding the now 2,600-seat rink with the grocery store underneath it.

Avoiding a lawsuit, Ryerson agreed to not use "Maple Leaf" in any of its marketing (the building is still called Maple Leaf Gardens for city records) and to ensure the venue was not in competition with the 19,000-plus capacity Air Canada Centre.

Almost untouched for a decade, the engineering and legal complications are no longer. Now, the Gardens is back to being an important part of the everyday life in Toronto. "It’s evident when you walk along Carlton Street,” says Flack. "Pedestrian traffic has increased greatly thanks to the sprawling site being in nearly constant use. Now with a steady stream of students heading to the gym and shoppers going about their daily business, the area feels like it's never been healthier."

All photos by Mark Byrnes.

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