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.”