Mayoral Candidates Debate Toronto Heritage Preservation

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.

Making Toronto’s Heritage Official

Originally published on Torontoist on June 19, 2012.

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Looking north on University Avenue from Queen Street, August 1950—the type of view that would be covered under proposed amendments to the Official Plan. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 121.

“A greater effort must be made to retain our remaining important heritage resources, and to balance Toronto’s growth while keeping important touchstones to our past. Heritage resources need to be viewed as contributing long-term value to our built fabric and individual developments, as well as our collective sense of ourselves.”

That viewpoint, developed from public consultation on heritage policy over the past two years, was one of the key messages in a staff report [PDF] presented by the City Planning Division to the Planning and Growth Management Committee, at City Hall yesterday. The findings reflected the importance of heritage conservation to Torontonians, whether they are active advocates or just people who occasionally line up for Doors Open.

Those same findings will be used as part of the City’s effort to overhaul Toronto’s Official Plan, a document that guides development practices. In other words, this consultation data will have significant ramifications for local heritage-preservation policy. The overhaul may turn out to be a boon for heritage boosters. Or, it may end up making no difference at all.

The proposed changes would triple the number of heritage policy points in the Official Plan, from 13 to 39. Many of the new points offer more details about protective measures and guidelines. For one thing, the City’s heritage inventory list would be converted to a register of designated and non-designated heritage districts and properties. There is stronger wording about enforcing bylaws to prevent “demolition by neglect,” and there are promises to create incentives to entice owners to maintain their heritage properties.

There is also slightly more detail about heritage impact assessments, previously known as “heritage impact statements.” (Is “assessment” friendlier to the ears of a developer or landowner?) The creation of more Heritage Conservation Districts to preserve neighbourhoods is encouraged.

Another recommendation is to lessen the impact of so-called “facadism” in new projects, by promoting the retention of enough of the original heritage building to reflect its original dimensions. If enacted, this would drive some developers crazy and provoke heated debate. It would also spur creative design approaches.

Also addressed is what to do if an Empress Hotel-style disaster occurs. The proposal would require the City to create an emergency management protocol to coordinate actions across all affected City agencies and external stakeholders. Such a protocol would also extend to protecting important archaeological artifacts found while excavating for building or infrastructure projects. This would reduce confusion after an incident.

Speaking of archaeology, the proposed policies promote stronger collaboration with First Nations and Métis representatives whenever traces of their cultures are discovered. The current policy simply refers to “indigenous persons” and says sites identified with those groups should be recorded and preserved or, if built over, commemorated in some manner. The proposal calls for an archaeological assessment report before any development can proceed. If something is found on public land, then the City would have the right to deem that property unsuitable for any further development.

Preserving clear views and vistas of historic landmarks and landscapes is identified, in the proposal, as a critical issue. As Toronto accumulates tall buildings, there is a danger that older structures designed to provide a striking view will lose their “visual integrity.” A map has been prepared of sites identified as having significant views. While many of the preliminary buildings listed aren’t surprising (Casa Loma, Old City Hall, Ontario Legislature, Osgoode Hall, the Summerhill LCBO clock tower, Upper Canada College), others are odd. When was the last time you heard anyone marvel about taking in a long view of the East York Civic Centre on Coxwell Avenue?

While the proposed policy addresses many of the concerns we’ve heard at public consultations over the past year and introduces interesting new directions in heritage policy, we’re left with a major question: if the new rules were implemented, who would be responsible for enacting them? As it is, the city’s heritage agencies are dealing with backlogs of properties awaiting the proper research for designation. In recent years, staffing has remained static, or has been cut. Instead of hiring or spreading work to other departments, would the city attempt to rely on the dedication of volunteers to see through the changes, a move that might arouse the wrath of City employee unions?

We may find out in the fall. Following further consultation and a public open house in September, the city’s Chief Planner will present final recommendations at the October 12 meeting of the Planning and Growth Management Committee.

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.