Here’s why people are rallying to protect this Toronto heritage site from demolition

The provincial government has paused demolition of the Foundry site in West Don Lands after an outcry in Toronto


Community members and Toronto councillors are fighting to protect four heritage buildings on the Foundry site in the West Don Lands after the province started demolition on January 18.

The Dominion Wheel and Foundries Company site at 153 to 185 Eastern Avenue is a provincially owned property that falls under a Ministerial Zoning Order (MZO) issued by the province.

The MZO, which was issued back in October, allows the provincial government to sidestep the city’s heritage designations and accelerate the planning processes.

The provincial government has said it plans on tearing down the buildings to build new affordable and market housing. In the week following the first demolition efforts, community members rallied together, starting a petition, protesting on site and eventually filing an injunction on Thursday with the Ontario Superior Court.

The province and lawyers on behalf of residents will both have the chance to argue their case during a full court hearing on Wednesday, January 27.

Minister of municipal affairs and housing Steve Clark stated on Friday he would halt the demolition until the hearing. Advocates believe that if the province is allowed to continue the demolition process, it will set a precedent for the future of provincial intervention into municipal city planning and heritage protection.

Specifically, they worry that MZOs, which have already been used at an increasing rate by Ford’s government, will become an easy route for the province to take over future projects without needing to abide by the city’s protections and policies.

Here’s what you need to know about the Foundry site.

What is the Foundry site?

Chris Bateman, manager of the plaques program at Heritage Toronto, says the four buildings used to be part of a bigger complex built by the Dominion Foundries company. The surrounding area used to be heavily industrial up until the 1970s and 80s, he says.

“Dominion Wheel and Foundries was located right next to a lot of railway infrastructure – the Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway had various shops in the area, and that business was basically making constant metal parts for those companies,” Bateman says.

The Foundry site has value beyond the buildings themselves, he says. “It’s much more than the buildings; the area has a real industrial heritage, so this is a surviving piece of a really important part of Toronto’s history.”

Many of the buildings that were a part of the city’s industrial history are gone now, having been turned into residential neighbourhoods.

He says that heritage buildings don’t have to be seen as an “obstacle” when it comes to developing the city.

“Look at places like the Distillery, which is a great example of how heritage can be maintained and adapted,” he says. “But it can also remain functional and useful and in a vibrant part of the city’s economy.”

City councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, one of the politicians most outspoken about the demolition of the heritage site, shared a similar view on alternate ways to adapt the site for future use.

“Because of the volume and the nature of the buildings, there’s lots of room. You can do just about anything there. So the opportunity for adaptive reuse and heritage conservation is tremendous,” she says. “It’s perplexing why the province thinks that they need to tear down all four of these buildings to the ground, when we have other sites in the city.”

What will the Foundry site turn into?

In a statement over email, Adam Wilson, director of communications for the minister of municipal affairs and housing office, said the province intends to revitalize the property for the construction of new affordable housing, market housing and community space.

Wilson stated the site “requires demolition to allow for significant environmental remediation.”

But advocates and community members question that position.

Matt Cornett is a Toronto resident and lawyer who has been involved in the community effort to stop the demolition of the heritage site. He says the province has been pointing to a study showing the heritage buildings don’t have great significance in Toronto, and another showing that demolition is necessary due to contamination on the property.

“But they’ve never released either of those studies, so I think the community is just skeptical that the province has any justification for what they’re doing,” he says.

“The province has been lying, because we’ve now learned that they have offered us nothing in the MZO that stipulates in writing that affordable housing will be guaranteed on site, they offered us nothing in writing that they were going to preserve the heritage assets,” Wong-Tam says.

The details around the affordable housing the province has said it intends to build are vague, Wong-Tam says. She notes that only the shortest of the three buildings will include affordable housing, and within that building, only 30 per cent of units will be affordable, without any clarity around what kind of “affordable” they will be.

Wilson did not respond to a question about whether the affordable housing included in the project will be deeply affordable (equal to 30 per cent of pre-tax income).

What is an MZO and what protections do heritages site have?

Cornett says the MZO makes the situation more complicated because it allows the province to “circumvents all local processes for informing the community of the proposal and then receiving feedback.”

Under normal circumstances when a developer wants to build on a property or building, Cornett says the developer makes an application to the city of Toronto and then goes through the regular planning process.

‘This means the city planning division analyzes the project and provides some feedback,” he says. “Then on every project, there’s a public consultation, so the community would have a meeting and would have the opportunity to give feedback on the proposal.”

The Foundry property was listed under the Heritage Act in 2004, which Cornett says normally gives the building some protections.

“It can’t immediately be demolished, and if somebody wants to make a proposal for the site, they have to include information on what they intend to do with the heritage properties,” he says.

However, because the property has been rezoned by the MZO, and because it is provincial property, Cornett says these protections no longer apply.

“This provincial government has been using MZOs more and more, and in very different contexts than previous governments,” he says. “We’re seeing across Ontario that they are making decisions about how to rezone properties without going through the regular planning process.”

While Cornett says this is the first example he knows of where a proposal has threatened heritage properties, he worries about the precedent this case may set.

“Given the behaviour of the province and the fact that they feel they don’t have to consult with the community or release any information to justify their decisions, I think it’s a very bad precedent for anybody in Ontario that the province feels like it could just do what it wants with properties,” he says.

Will the demolition of the Foundry heritage buildings continue?

On January 21, the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood Association filed an application at the Ontario Superior Court seeking an injunction on further demolition work on the Foundry site. While the interim injunction was not granted on Friday, full legal arguments will be heard on Wednesday.

Clark announced in a statement on Friday that the province would pause demolition on the site until the hearing on January 27 as a “good faith measure.”

“If the residents are successful, then the province will have to pause demolition of the property and we’re hoping that the province will then just either consult the community or at least release information on why it made the decision to demolish the property,” Cornett says.

Stephanie Jenn Mah, vice president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario’s Toronto branch, says conserving these buildings would be the “responsible” thing for the province to do.

“It’s not just for the sake of the cultural and built heritage, it’s also for the sake of the environment,” she says. “We are in a climate crisis, and we need to acknowledge that demolition is not sustainable; retaining the significant embodied energy in our existing building fabric and taking advantage of the already manufactured building materials is.

“Demolition could stop, and there could be a total change in what’s happening at the site right now. It seems like the narrative is that heritage always impedes new development, and that’s completely misleading and dated,” she says. “This is a huge site with plenty of space to increase density and build new, while also conserving the heritage buildings.”

@juliajmastro

Comments (2)

  • Davis & Rhonda Costas-Mirza January 26, 2021 07:52 PM

    Dear Premier Doug Ford and Members of the Ontario Legislature,

    Re. Save the Dominion Foundry Buildings.
    We want to applaud the Ontario Government for putting a temporary hold on the demolition of the Dominion Foundry Buildings – the largest concentration of heritage buildings to be preserved within the 80 acre West Don Lands precinct in Toronto. The Foundry buildings are a beautiful example of early twentieth century industrial architecture. Constructed between 1917 and 1929, the buildings were owned by the Canadian Northern Railway (later, the Canadian National Railways), and was later used by the Dominion Wheel and Foundries Company to produce railway equipment. Beyond its historical link to Canadian nation-building, the Dominion Wheel and Foundries Company’s work has been recognized by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., which has a catalogue from the foundry in its collection, according to the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario.

    The importance of saving these Foundry buildings cannot be overstated. Beyond their neuro-aesthetic beauty which gives us joy to look at, the Foundry buildings provide a glimpse into our Canadian history and of our ancestors who helped build Canada. By seeking to demolish these heritage buildings, we are erasing the stories of our past, as if the people who came before us never existed. As both teacher and cultural worker, who live blocks away from the Foundry site, we hold to what urban planner Jane Jacobs believed: that old buildings hold new ideas. So we waited in anticipation for the re-purposing of these old buildings, similar to what was successfully achieved with the re-imagining of the Wychwood Barns, the 401 Richmond Street building, the Distillery District (just a block away), the Round-House at the foot of Yonge Street and the old Brickworks Factory in the Don Valley. Once the community realized how important and vital old-buildings were toward developing innovation, entrepreneurship and experimentation within Toronto neighbourhoods, support for preserving old buildings became a lightning rod for revitalization and ingenuity. That, and the fact it made good environmental sense to save old buildings which reduces the use of building materials, reduces waste heading to landfills and lowers the demand for aggregate that gouges deep holes into valuable farmland and forests in Northern Ontario.

    It is no surprise then that over 20,000 people have signed a petition to save the beloved Dominion Foundry Buildings. change.org/savethefoundry
    We were also impressed with the re-development proposal put forth by the International Resource Centre for Performing Artists ( ircpa.net ) who submitted a site plan to the Ontario Government that sought to reinvent the Foundry site buildings with affordable housing and office space including a box office for two performing arts venues, a reference music library and record shop (on consignment), and a retail gift shop welcoming visitors, tourists and community members. In the re-purposed Dominion Foundry Machine Shop space, an exhibit honouring Canadian musicians, past and present was configured. But even more exciting, small and large chamber spaces were planned for live performances, auditions, and for rehearsal venues as well as a recording studio that would be rented out to Canadian and international musicians. As local artists, we were thrilled at the opportunity that a historical Arts hub would be built blocks from where we lived. Read: https://ircpa.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Foundry-Background-Study.pdf

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    By ceasing demolition proceedings, you allow further input into how we, as voting Ontarians, our community shall proceed in preserving 100+ year old foundry buildings that define Toronto’s east end, specifically around the world famous Distillery District. And just as important, allowing for a big rethink around the use of Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZO’s) that cut out any community consultation around heritage redevelopment and environmental protection. An MZO is meant for situations of extraordinary urgency as it overrides local planning authority to approve development without expert analysis, public input, or any chance of appeal. Since taking office, the Ford government has been issuing MZOs at an extraordinary rate to impose low-density sprawl and other risky development on wetlands and other protected lands. For example. ten (10) MZO’s overrode agricultural designations with significant impacts on or near Ontario wetlands, specifically, Lower Duffins Creek, East Humber River, Terra Cotta and Heart Lake Conservation area, the Oak Ridges moraine (in Aurora) and on the Niagara Escarpment in Hamilton. While MZO’s are being issued under the cover of the present pandemic, and often hint at some thematic connection, almost none of the development authorized by these MZOs makes any plausible contribution to the fight against COVID-19, especially when it comes to the destruction of a heritage site in the West Donlands. The present Conservative government has already approved more Minister’s Zoning Orders since the pandemic began than the previous government did in 15 years! This has got to STOP as it is very difficult to find information about MZOs on the Ontario government’s website or to even get a meeting with Ministry officials to rescind or halt such orders. We found out about the demolition of the Foundry Buildings on Facebook.

    Without community input and proper study, the Ford government is plowing under Ontario’s heritage buildings, productive farmland and ecologically sensitive Great Lakes wetlands to build Smart Centres, warehouse facilities and an automotive test track in Oro Medonte. The Premier is letting developers destroy what many Ontarians hold sacred so that political donations will stabilize Ford’s hackneyed pursuit of another Conservative government in 2022. For shame that such shortsightedness — political expediency, greed and a lack of accountability — are ripping apart entire neighbourhoods and communities from Stratford to Pickering; from the West Donlands to the Oak Ridges Moraine. We demand that you immediately rescind the MZO to demolish the Dominion Foundry Buildings and commit to forthright community consultations with area residents, Toronto City Council and the Mayor’s Office, the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, Heritage Toronto and IRCPA planners, who all have a stake in preserving these historical buildings for repurpose and historical preservation. Anything less, smacks of political opportunism at its most egregious and impolitic. Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter and we await your response.

    Sincerely,
    Davis & Rhonda Costas-Mirza
    29 Hamilton Street Toronto, ON
    M4M 2L4
    Dated: 26-01-2021
    davismirza@gmail.com

  • Kate O'Millar February 3, 2021 02:16 AM

    After a chat with a TO archaeologist/heritage friend, I was interested to learn the Foundry site was the early location of a building of parliament, destroyed by an iteration of the States in retaliation for the British et al. burning of the White House.

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