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The 100-year-old historic complex that used to be a manufacturing hub for railway parts will be reimagined as a new development
By Enzo DiMatteo
May 16, 2021
The Dominion Wheel and Foundries Company site, the largest concentration of heritage buildings in the 40-hectare West Don Lands precinct
Urbanist Jane Jacobs coined the concept that new ideas need old buildings. It’s true. Cities where heritage buildings have been preserved actually enjoy higher density, more diversity and entrepreneurial spirit.
In recent years, Toronto has seen many buildings from its industrial past reimagined and repurposed. The Toronto Carpet Factory, 401 Richmond, the former Spadina Hotel and Canadian General Electric building on Wallace Avenue are just a few examples where re-use has inspired artistic and technological innovation.
The city, however, has also lost plenty of heritage buildings to development long before their best years were done. The Dominion Wheel and Foundries Company site on Eastern in Corktown, part of a 100-year-old historic complex of four buildings that used to manufacture railway parts and machinery for Canadian National, is the latest example.
Unbeknownst to locals or city officials, the province sold the site to a developer in September 2020 to make way for two condo towers of 48 and 34 storeys, and a rental building of 18 storeys on the site. A Ministerial Zoning Order (MZO) had been granted to clear the way for development, despite the site’s heritage designation.
In January, heavy machinery showed up to start work. Protests ensued. The Ontario Divisional Court granted an injunction after the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood Association raised funds on behalf of the ad hoc group Friends of the Foundry for a legal challenge to pause construction. But not before the Gatekeepers House was demolished.
In his order granting the injunction, Judge D.L. Corbett offered that “serious mistakes” had been made by the province in handing down the MZO for the site.
The demolition had begun not only in contravention of the Heritage Act, but a separate agreement between the City of Toronto and province covering development on the property.
That agreement binds Ontario to provide a Heritage Assessment report that “satisfies” the city before any work can begin on the site. The agreement also contains a requirement for “public engagement” on any future development.
The judge’s decision went on to offer that provincial officials seemed to have “simply forgot or overlooked” rather than “deliberately flouting” the requirements of the Heritage Act and the province’s agreement with the city. Heritage watchers would disagree. There have been too many examples of developers and governments defying heritage preservation laws to make way for gentrification.
The current provincial government, in particular, has already demonstrated its disregard for local planning autonomy issuing MZOs on a number of development proposals. The Foundry’s site is only the latest example – and an egregious one at that considering its place in local history and the fact the site makes up the largest concentration of heritage buildings within the 40-hectare West Don Lands precinct that’s part of Waterfront Toronto’s proposed development for the area.
The buildings were constructed between 1917 and 1929, marking Toronto’s industrial evolution. The city added the properties to its list of heritage properties in 2004 noting the Classical design details of the buildings and their historical place “as a good example of an industrial enclave in the area adjoining the lower Don River.”
At the height of its operations, the complex provided the machinery to keep the trains running as well as hundreds of jobs for Torontonians close to where they live.
Contamination of the site from decades of industrial activity has arrested its development. But plans have been afoot to redevelop the site since 2006 when Waterfront Toronto floated its vision, which includes pedestrian and public spaces
In the wake of demolition, architects, urban designers and affordable housing advocates have started an exploratory process of reimagining the site for a mixed-income, mixed-use development.
A number of concepts have been floated, including proposals for a performing arts facility, galleries and maker spaces and educational uses to go along with condo development. A food hub and urban farm proposal has also been suggested.
They’re all great ideas. Too bad the province didn’t see fit to ask for public input before it moved to send the site to the charnel house. Now it will be left to a Superior Court panel of judges to decide what happens next.
Hidden Toronto is a weekly feature exploring the city’s alternative history through contemporary landmarks. Read it online each Sunday.
Enzo was born in Belgium and emigrated with his family to Canada in the heat of Trudeaumania. He is a winner of numerous writing awards and the only (alleged) Commie banned from entering Cuba. It’s complicated. Claims to fame: champion wood-chopper.