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Bridge Beat

Sep 21, 2020

The Heritage Preservation / Development Tug-of-War

Developers in Toronto continue to face tremendous challenges when dealing with demolition or conversion of any existing building that is older than 20 years.  The Toronto Preservation Board is doing its best to preserve buildings of historical value that remain after the widespread demolition of many worthy historical buildings in the 50's, 60's, and 70's, which did not benefit from the stringent protections that are now in place for "historical" sites. 

Sadly, because there are so few real and architecturally worthy historical buildings left in the city to preserve, the Toronto Preservation Board is stretching the public's imagination with many of its historical designations.

When designated, historical buildings are either required to retain the exterior intact or the facades are to be built in to the new developments.  Take for instance, the new office buildings being constructed on the south side of King Street West between Colborne and Church.  One entire wall of old brick was required to remain and be incorporated into the new structure.  The brick is relatively non-descript and even though it may be "old", looks quite ridiculous as it stands being held up by scaffolding whilst the new buildings are built around it to allow for the old wall to be incorporated into the new building.  These are the types of structures that are being maintained, and adding significant cost to a development.   A clear example of misguided historical designations and preservation. 


More recently, the facades of a 1942 loft and a 1927 office building were required to be preserved and grafted in to a proposed 37 storey development at Front and Sherbourne Streets.  These buildings comprise a Tim Hortons / gas station and what would appear to be a seriously ugly old office building.  Anyone passing by these buildings would welcome their teardown and replacement.  The Board chair Sandra Shaul called them "very modest little buildings".  The Board advised the Toronto City Council that the 2 structures were nothing special.  "These were second rate buildings within a larger framework" said member and architect Robert Allsopp.  "They're the last crumbs of heritage."  The city views them as part of larger conservation district and having cultural value, either in themselves or as part of the larger context as Alex Bozikovic suggested in an article in the Globe and Mail earlier this month.  The problem with this concept of conservation district is that it can sterilize a significant component of lands in areas that are ripe for development.  These buildings are near to or potentially part of the St. Lawrence Heritage Conservation District and suffered by inclusion, even though the buildings themselves represent nothing of value whatsoever from an architectural or historical perspective and would benefit the look of the area by their removal. 


A more recent victory for the development industry over the ever expanding arm of heritage designation was the LPAT decision on July 27, 2020 following a 14 day hearing regarding both the specific boundaries of the actual St. Lawrence Heritage Conservation District Plan and also the severe restrictions that the proposed plan contained.  The plan, in addition to the existing plan such as the Official Plan, the Downtown Plan, the King-Parliament Secondary Plan and the City Zoning By-law, proposed to include specific stringent regulations around step backs, street wall heights and angular plains.  It was noted that the Ontario Heritage Act states that in the event of a conflict between existing municipal planning documents and Heritage Conservation District ("HCD"), the HCD would prevail and because there would be no opportunity to amend the HCD, these regulations will become seriously rigid, limiting any opportunity for the city to extend leeway to certain development proposals that could meet the objectives of a HCD plan but with an alternative build form.  As a result, the Tribunal was concerned that the proposed HCD plan had advanced Council approval without sufficient analysis on potential conflicts, even with existing municipal policies.  The Tribunal also noted that the restrictive guidelines were at odds with fundamental basis of heritage conservation as set out in the Parks Canada Standards and Guidelines for Conversation of Historical Places in Canada.  The HCD attempted to extend its boundaries beyond the 10 blocks of the pre-1837 Town of York to include the 13-storey glass tower at 33 Yonge Street as the west boundary, and the former Consumer's Gas Building, now 51 Division on the east side.  The Tribunal saw no historical houses for extending the boundaries as requested.

As a result of the hearing, the boundaries of the new HCD were limited to the original pre-1837 Town of York and the prescriptive requirements of the HCD plan excised from the HCD.

It is interesting to compare Toronto to Melbourne when it comes to true historical preservation vs. progress and development.  Both cities are about the same age and size, are waterfront cities, and went through similar development over time.  Melbourne has been able to preserve substantially of its real historical building.  When one walks through Melbourne, you can see much of the naval and port history of the city, starting from the waterfront up to the downtown.  The buildings that they have preserved are true historical buildings without unduly hindering development of newer office, retail and residential buildings.  It is truly a beautiful city with a mix of the old and the new.  Sadly, here in Toronto, because of the lack of controls during the development of the unrestricted development craze of the 50's, 60's and 70's, many of the real historical buildings are gone, leaving the city to try and preserve the meager remains of its history. 

Hopefully, reason will prevail as we move forward when designating areas and buildings for historical value .  At the end of the day, we are adding significant cost to developments with very little benefit to the true preservation of our history.  Let us preserve the truly historical and architecturally worthwhile buildings in their totality, and stop the almost obsessive desire to preserve anything that is "old".


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