Originally published on Torontoist on August 25, 2014.
Just three candidates participated in last Thursday’s mayoral debate on heritage preservation issues, and in a refreshing change of pace, the participants managed to find some common ground.
Originally, five candidates were scheduled to attend the debate, hosted by Heritage Toronto. But Mayor Rob Ford went to a campaign fundraiser at his mother’s house instead, and Karen Stintz dropped out of the mayoral race altogether. That left John Tory, Olivia Chow, and David Soknacki, which made for a more reasoned—and less noisy—debate. And apart from a pair of snipes delivered by Tory and Chow, the candidates made no references to the absent mayor.
All candidates recognized emerging aspects of heritage preservation, such as marking the architectural and cultural significance of suburban landmarks and neighbourhoods, and sharing stories about our aboriginal past and immigrant communities. Regarding natural heritage, Chow and Tory proposed rebuilding the city’s tree canopy, while Soknacki suggested looking into creating parks that integrated nature and our industrial heritage.
The candidates felt more could be done proactively to beef up heritage protections. Setting up heritage impact assessments in the permit process was discussed—currently, they are used to evaluate sites listed on the City’s inventory of heritage properties when alterations are proposed. Tory felt such an assessment process required efficient handling to avoid years of delays for preservationists and property owners. Soknacki believed existing channels such as community councils—where residents and councillors would work to determine heritage sites before development battles erupted—could be effective. Chow proposed an increase in heritage conservation districts and developer incentives.
Opinions diverged most over the future of the Ontario Municipal Board. Chow said she’d like to scrap the OMB, but promised reforms—such as incorporating heritage impact assessments into developer applications—as long as the City remains stuck with it. She also proposed creating a local appeal body operated by the City to handle low-level disputes, which would lessen the OMB’s overall workload. Soknacki took issue with the question, noting that all three main provincial parties support the OMB’s continued existence—any talk of dismantling it, he argued, is a waste of time. He also said the establishment of a local appeal body would be a “perverse example” of downloading a provincial responsibility and passing on costs to taxpayers. Tory supported strengthening the development permit system, but feared that placing all appeals in the hands of politicians would create an equally unsatisfactory situation. He believed a local appeals body working with the committee for adjustment might convince Queen’s Park that the City is responsible enough to make sensible decisions.
Both Chow and Tory supported the concept of a Toronto museum. Chow believed it was important to teach visitors about the city’s diversity, and that such a project could be launched initially as an interactive virtual museum. She felt that stories should be gathered now before our elders pass away. Chow stated that such a project would need a “can-do” spirit—Tory indicated he had the will long lacking in past leaders to make a museum a reality: he wants to “get on with it.” He feels that residents have an inadequate grasp of the city’s past, and noted that past proposals have generated lots of talk but no action (here is a current proposal). He suggested that partnerships with the private sector were required, bringing up the construction of the TIFF Bell Lightbox as an example. Chow later elaborated on that point, noting that, depending on the site, a combination of Section 37 funds [PDF] and agreements with developers could be effective. Soknacki was unwilling to spend money on a museum unless it was deemed a priority—it was clear that in this regard, he supported the grand Toronto tradition of saving the museum for another day. Later on, he noted that resources such as bookmobile-style vehicles could be used in place of a physical museum.
Soknacki also questioned funding for an archaeological repository proposed under amendments to the City’s official plan. Currently, archaeological artifacts and records are held in trust by individual archaeologists—a repository would allow the City to take possession of the finds and provide safe storage for future exhibition and research. He suggested that the Royal Ontario Museum or local universities could hold onto items until a public space had been established. Tory wasn’t opposed to the proposal but didn’t view it as a priority, while Chow believed a repository would ensure a consistent approach to the collection of artifacts.