It's one development bad dream after another for residents of old-town Toronto. Condo plans in the area - a 45-storey tower above the Hummingbird Centre, a 15-to-25-storey building near 70 the Esplanade, a development at 2 Church and the redesign of a block at Church and the Esplanade (where Fionn MacCool's and the Keg are located) - have residents worried there'll be little of the 1800s enclave south of Front to call "old" once builders are done.
A two-tower development proposed by Cityzen Urban Lifestyle at 40 the Esplanade, where condos could rise to four times the allowed height (33 and 16 storeys), is causing the most outrage.
"It's not just about saving old buildings," says Edward Nixon, executive director of the South East Downtown Economic Redevelopment Initiative. "It's the way development fits in with the context and heritage significances in the area."
The problem, however, goes beyond the developers. First, the old town, the area between Jarvis and Yonge, from Front/Wellington south to the railway tracks, is not officially designated as historical despite the fact that it includes many significant heritage properties and was once the commercial hub of the old city of York.
Second, the area is also not protected by the King-Parliament Secondary Plan, which mandates height limits and heritage guidelines further north and east. A land assembly agreement the city made with developers during redevelopment of the St. Lawrence neighbourhood saw to the exclusion.
"The Esplanade was rebuilt as a housing neighbourhood," says city planner Gregg Lintern. "There are a lot of heritage buildings, so that very much shapes the character of the area."
Still, that's not enough to keep big towers from taking over. The community is now discussing whether they want a heritage designation. A majority of residents must agree before that can happen. In order to qualify, the area "has to have an identifiable heritage character" that guidelines can be set up to protect or enhance, says city preservation officer Brian Gallaugher. It's not an easy proposition. There are only seven heritage districts in the city.
The problem for the old town, Nixon says, is its residential-commercial mix. Many businesses worry that a heritage designation will place limitations on redevelopment later on.
The St. Lawrence Market Business Improvement Association insists that a conservation district is something it's wanted for a while. "We want to preserve our history because it's part of our business, too," says BIA chair Michael Comstock. He just doesn't believe it's something businesses and residents should be organizing. "The heritage department is funded to look at these things," he says.
Gallaugher suggests that because "many of the proposals are for large towers set back from the street..., there might be a way to build towers and still have a heritage character."
Some developers are less impressed by the area's heritage.
"Some buildings along Front and Church are frankly not of much value to the community," says developer Brian K. McCauley, vice-president of eastern operations for Concert Properties Limited, which plans to file a development application in the new year. "They're probably the ugliest buildings along Front. There is a chance to enhance the pedestrian experience along that part."
Area councillor Pam McConnell says large developments like Cityzen's will adversely affect the area. "I don't think it's fair, and I don't like it," McConnell says.
But she also worries that developers will march straight to the developer-friendly Ontario Municipal Board should the city side with residents and resist development.
"The OMB's a crapshoot," agrees Nixon, "because the nightmare scenario is that the developer might go back and ask for 25 and 33 storeys with no amenities."
Cityzen, meanwhile, has a decidedly different take on the controversy over its proposal.
"At the root of it, some people who live at 25 the Esplanade are afraid we're going to block their view," says president Sam Crignano, who points out that the area was highly industrial before. "We've tried to deal with residents' issues. We've gone well beyond what's required in the Planning Act," including $700,000 for a new park. "People have their own selfish interests," Crignano says, who adds that Cityzen is trying to incorporate the 19th-century warehouse look into its proposal by putting a five-storey base on one of the towers, and brick on the facade.
"Our development doesn't really have much of an impact on the community," he says.
Nixon remains pessimistic that a historical designation will solve anything. "If you've lost the scale of the neighbourhood, you've already lost one of your most interpretative storytelling devices."