Canada’s largest retail shipping container market opens in Toronto

In 2014, architect Janna Levitt was contacted by Matt Rubinoff, a young Toronto entrepreneur with a background in real estate and marketing. Rubinoff lived near a vacant, city-owned site next to Fort York, and wanted to see something done with it—along the lines of the container markets that were then popping up in London, England. He reached out to Levitt’s firm, LGA Architectural Partners, because they had built Market 707, a set of retrofitted shipping containers for start-up retailers next to the downtown Scadding Court Community Centre.

Five years and miles of bureaucratic red tape later, the largest shipping container market in Canada—dubbed Stackt—has opened. “It started out as a line of shipping containers along Bathurst,” recalls Levitt of Rubinoff’s initial idea. As the team explored the constraints of the two-block site, they uncovered different zoning designations, which began to suggest ways the whole 2.4-acre-area could become inhabited with a range of activities.

LGA approached the project as an urban planning exercise, designating a main street that stretched from the primary Bathurst Street entrance to the secondary Tecumseth Street entrance, with side streets and laneways branching off from it. A food and beverage area flanks a big lawn, and south-facing courtyards look out towards the active rail corridor, providing sunny areas for lounging in the summer and trainspotting in the shoulder seasons. A microbrewery at the rear of the site—which uses shipping containers for its bar, brewing, and washroom areas—anchors the project.

A variety of retailers—from coffee and artisanal donut shops to a tattoo parlour—occupy the ground floor containers. To meet health and safety regulations, new shipping containers needed to be used for these occupancies. However, the team also wanted to introduce recycled containers. To do so, they built up a second and third storey of reclaimed containers that cantilever and zig-zag across the site. These rougher elements, towering above, give the project an industrial-cool aesthetic, and their Jenga-block-like placement adds to the feeling of urban adventure in exploring the project’s offerings. Seen from the nearby Gardiner Expressway and the neigh-bouring condo towers, the snaking containers create a signature presence for the project.

LGA designed the individual retail containers using a kit-of-parts strategy, with the same glass doors, sidelights, mechanical systems and amenities. Larger units are composed from multiple modules. Minimalist window frames and black metal hardware contrast with the roughness of the corrugated shipping container walls, the exterior of which have been finished in matte black.

The uniform details aimed to level the playing field for retailers, but also will allow the containers to eventually be re-deployed to other sites. There is no guarantee that Stackt will stay on its current site more than a few years—and there are plenty of vacant sites in the city where a mini- or mega-version of Stackt would add vibrancy and amenity. Levitt points in particular to development sites that sit empty for several years while they are stranded in the limbo of the municipal approvals process. They are a perfect place for temporary occupation with the Stackt units, she says. “You can’t take a building down and redeploy it, but you can do that with containers.”