“New Ideas Need Old Buildings”

Question is, can our planning systems even begin dealing with ensuring sunshine on our sidewalks?


I dreamt recently that I was on a streetcar travelling through piles of demolition rubble, through a completely unrecognizable landscape. Another night I woke up fearing the whole city was going to end up like the ludicrous tower going up at Yonge and Bloor. What’s happening to Toronto’s heritage architecture is giving me nightmares. 

January’s sudden demolition of Stollery’s has led to lots of navel-gazing about how it happened. The simple answer is that the heritage process is too cumbersome and under-resourced. 

The Toronto branch of the Architectural Conservancy Ontario (I am the branch president) recently lobbied hard to protect York Square at Avenue Road and Yorkville, including doing significant research. It took two years to get the Ontario Municipal Board proof-of-designation report written and passed, racing against a property owner who was planning redevelopment. 

At the recent planning meeting on that redevelopment project, the heritage of York Square was given the same weight as transportation, shadow studies, wind and retail, as if being designated under the Ontario Heritage Act were just one more thing to think about as we blast away at Toronto’s fabric. The current proposal would destroy about 75 per cent of the site’s designated heritage attributes, obliterating the physical record of York Square’s significance in the history of international urbanism. 

How hard would it be for no to mean no?

If thrift were a fundamental value in our society, we’d never have to talk about heritage preservation. We’d just keep and repair what we have, making additions or building new buildings in other places. Instead, we find ourselves struggling with a complicated web of planning, environmental and heritage laws and policies designed to interrupt the destruction of perfectly usable buildings and pick out the “special ones.”

Only the tiny fragment of Toronto’s built fabric that’s been deemed to have sufficient “cultural heritage value” for heritage designation will bear future witness to past generations. We could fail to retain enough of the city’s fine-grained historic fabric to support the interesting, sometimes quirky or just ordinary activities housed within it – things captured in Jane Jacobs famous quip, “New ideas need old buildings.”

Questions in my mind at the moment: Can Toronto’s planning and heritage systems even begin to deal with ensuring sunshine on our public sidewalks? Or preserve our enjoyment of places like King Street’s restaurant row or Kensington Market, where entrepreneurs and small businesses can own property and operate independent of chain retail or unaffordable newly developed retail space.

The issues are similar to the tensions between fast and slow food, global and local economies. Toronto as a creative city depends on retaining such places, yet depends on the beneficence of people like the Zeidler family to provide affordable addresses like 401 Richmond West for artists and cultural entrepreneurs.

Our heritage system is all we have to retain our building stock, but is it robust or nimble enough in the face of overheated development? The neighbourhoods lined up around the block to become Heritage Conservation Districts (HCDs) are hoping it will be.

The recent release of Heritage Toronto’s State Of Heritage Report, the third and most ambitious report since amalgamation, covered a lot of territory. I should declare that I was a panel member in one of the sessions.

I read State Of Heritage with three current heritage issues flashing across my email screen: the Kristyn Wong-Tam and Josh Matlow motion to prevent premature demolitions by exploring simpler mechanisms to identify property of heritage interest the heavily contested and narrowly averted threat to the Heritage Preservation Services budget and the scramble before the Toronto Preservation Board on January 20, where only six of the 16 nominated areas for Heritage Conservation Districts were put forward for study in 2015-16 (Baby Point, Bloor West Village, Cabbagetown Southwest, the Distillery District, Kensington Market and the Kingsway.)

All three of those issues reflect a city hoping to preserve much more, and much faster. The report talks about the challenges of getting buildings on the Inventory of Heritage Properties, and the frustration of volunteers willing to help but unable to penetrate the system.

It also speaks to the lack of municipal resources dedicated to the enormous task at hand, but applauds the addition of more than 5,000 properties to the inventory between 2006 and 2014.

Finally, it points to Heritage Conservation Districts as an important way forward, and applauds ongoing efforts and a budget request to support the work.

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Prior to amalgamation, only four HCD’s were in place: Fort York, Draper Street, Wychwood Park and the East Annex. Between 2001 and 2009, the city experienced a rapid increase in HCD implementation, adopting 15: four in Cabbagetown, two in Harbord Village, as well as Blythwood Road, Kingswood Road South, Lyall Avenue, North Rosedale, South Rosedale, Queen Street West, Riverdale, Union Station, Weston and Yorkville-Hazelton. Many of these designations were achieved by volunteer research with support from a heritage consultant, at relatively modest cost.

I was involved in four of these projects as the heritage architect, and found that these community-driven plans and studies built an extraordinary neighbour-to-neighbour commitment to preservation and succeeded in achieving their goals. For example, Harbord Village Phase I’s study and plan were completed in one year, start to finish, and have stood uncontested for 10 years now.

In spite of its successes, however, Toronto has pretty much abandoned this approach. In the name of standardizing the process, HCD implementation was suspended while the city developed a consolidated policy on the preparation of HCDs that was issued in March 2012. This document added many new requirements for studies and plans, in excess of what’s required by the Ontario Heritage Act, and has made implementing HCDs far more expensive, requiring much larger professional teams and leaving little room for meaningful community involvement.

In their effort to ensure that all listing, designation, HCD studies and plans can stand up to the tests put to them at the OMB by developers, city staff have made the process more complex and resource-intensive. It’s a Catch-22.

It will take more than improvements in heritage administration to preserve all that is valued in Toronto. Losses happen because the province’s planning and building development system is stacked against old buildings. 

Municipal councils can say no to the demolition of old buildings, but here’s the rub: those decisions can be overruled by the OMB. 

We have a long way to go to save even the “special” buildings, let alone the ordinary fabric that makes Toronto such a vibrant place to live.

Catherine Nasmith is a heritage architect, president of the Toronto Branch of Architectural Conservancy Ontario and represents the province on Heritage Canada The National Trust. She lives and practises in Kensington Market and publishes the online journal Built Heritage News.

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