Planning Toronto’s Heritage

Originally published on Torontoist on June 9, 2011.

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An early example of structural re-use: portions of the building that served as Toronto’s city hall from 1845 to 1899 (pictured above in 1895) were incorporated into South St. Lawrence Market when it was opened in 1901. Left image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 98.

In a perfect world, heritage preservation policy would be clear and concise. No finding out well into a redevelopment project that you can’t place a parking spot in the upper right corner of a protected property, no wondering what your exact role as a member of a community heritage panel might be, no struggle to maintain something that clearly should be maintained because some developer found a technical loophole on the books.

But this is not a perfect world. Until paradise comes there will be many discussions, like the one held at City Hall on Monday, to address the issues with heritage preservation in Toronto.

Inspired by the Heritage Voices report issued by Heritage Toronto in February, Planning and Growth Management Committee chair Peter Milczyn (Ward 5, Etobicoke-Lakeshore) helmed a roundtable discussion that brought together heritage activists, architects, bureaucrats, and developers. The session felt like a starting point for a much longer and more complicated process of finding fixes to an array of bureaucratic obstacles, and addressing the perception that the public isn’t fully hearing the echoes of the city’s past that reverberate around us.

Worries about the effectiveness of local history education may stem from the public seeming to demonstrate their interest in historic sites only when they are in jeopardy—or already lost. (Think for a second: did you ever wonder about the history or state of the Empress Hotel building before the wall collapsed?) The tendency is to put the preservation machinery into motion when it’s almost too late for the affected site.

Once it’s known a heritage site is in trouble, our emotional knee-jerk responses kick in. Case in point: even the engaged audience at the roundtable was sedate until Mary Louise Ashbourne, chair of the Etobicoke York Community Heritage Preservation Panel, described the fight to preserve a gardener’s cottage on the former Fetherstonhaugh Estates in Mimico. When she finished noting the neighbourhood’s concerns about the site and condo developments that will change Mimico’s character, the audience applauded.

Discussions around public education included a few shots at the current City administration—when it was suggested that rookie councillors should attend introductory sessions on heritage issues, several speakers pointedly commented that longtime elected officials could do with a remedial course. Former city chief planner Paul Bedford noted that when he chaired a mayoral debate last year, Rob Ford was surprised to find out how little City funding was allocated to heritage matters. While Bedford saw a “golden opportunity” to raise the mayor’s awareness, calls from other panellists to increase heritage staff were dampened by Milczyn, who expected to see employee levels remain static or drop in the face of next year’s much-discussed budget shortfall. Given the penny-pinching at City Hall, we suspect it’s the dedicated volunteers who will be keeping heritage agencies afloat for some time to come.

Amongst those dedicated volunteers and other supporters of local history assembled on Monday there was a feeling in the room that preservation efforts suffer from too much of a stigma, thanks to the vague and heavy-handed legislation that encourages developers to find every loophole and to drag disputes to Ontario Municipal Board tribunals. Some suggested that tax incentives (which are offered in some American cities) would be a good way to encourage developers to work with old buildings (though we hope such incentives would not result in more orphaned façades facing sidewalks). Also on the list of suggestions: better coordination between City departments, property heritage audits, and asking community groups to devise lists of vital neighbourhood sites worthy of heritage designation.

As Michael McClelland of E.R.A. Architects emphasized—and this is a good summary of the day’s insights overall—the systems we set up around heritage preservation should be making developers go “Wow!”—considering the creative possibilities for revamping heritage sites—not “wow…” as in another obstacle to a quick-build office or condo.