Heritage, development at odds as cities come under pressure from growth

A move to add nearly 100 Toronto buildings to the city’s heritage registry list amid letters of objection — including from one owner who says his building is a “box” with “no redeeming qualities” — is the latest example of growing tension between community groups, property owners and developers as municipalities come under pressure to accommodate growth.

City councillors voted unanimously on Tuesday to add a swath of 94 properties in Toronto’s west end to the municipal heritage register, a move which means that city will need to be involved in applications for municipal permits, such as demolition, involving these structures.

Councillor Joe Cressy, in whose ward several of these buildings are located, says the area is home to some of Toronto’s earliest buildings. The formal addition of these properties on the registry list, in connection with last month’s city approval of the King-Spadina heritage conservation district, does not freeze development but prevents “fly-by-night” demolitions.

“The city began here, and the future of our city will be derived by the economy here,” he said.

But the owner of a two-storey office building near Spadina Avenue and Queen Street West questioned its heritage value, calling its inclusion on the list “ridiculous.”

“You look at things like the Horsehoe Tavern… I can understand that,” said Mark Cowan, the director of Bercow Inc. “But buildings that never did anything, never meant anything? They absolutely put that stamp on every single building in our area that is still standing.”

Toronto Heritage Register
Described by the owner as “unremakrable,” the historic building at 38 Camden has been added to the register. Image via Google Maps.

Cities are coming under pressure to change the cityscape in substantial ways to accommodate growth, and heritage is one tool being used to rein in the urban shift, says David Roberts, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Urban Studies Program.

“What I think is underlying some of these claims of heritage designations or desires to have building heritage designations, is an attempt to slow or alter the direction of this push for density,” he said.

Similar battles are playing out in other parts of the city and other municipalities as well.

Toronto Heritage Register
The downtown Toronto property at 340 Richmond West is among the 94 buidlings added to the heritage register. Image via Google Maps.

In August, the Town of Oakville, Ont., voted in favour of proceeding with a notice of intention to designate the Glen Abbey Golf Course as a significant cultural heritage landscape under the Ontario Heritage Act as its owner, ClubLink, seeks to redevelop the site with a mix of residential housing, retail and office space.

Oakville has since voted against ClubLink’s development application, and last month initiated a court application to determine the town’s rights and jurisdiction under the Ontario Heritage Act in connection with the golf course. On Tuesday, Oakville held a town hall to solicit input on its proposed amendment to a zoning by-law which would allow the municipality recognize the cultural heritage of Glen Abbey Golf Course.

Meanwhile, when Ottawa unveiled the names it planned to add to its heritage register this summer, it selected three buildings on Carleton University’s campus.

The addition of the 22-storey Dunton Tower came as a surprise to Darryl Boyce, the school’s assistant vice-president of facilities management and planning, as the building was built in the 1970s and the exterior has been redone after the original facade failed.

“It’s not heritage by any means… It’s a pretty bogus methodology,” Boyce says.

The challenge is there is no set definition for heritage, says Roberts. And while it is often associated with aesthetic value, the term can also refer to historic uses, he adds.

Toronto Heritage Register
Joe Cressy in 2014. Photo by Tim Ehlich via Wikimedia Commons.

Cressy notes that the King and Spadina area’s historic character goes beyond Victorian bay-and-gable style houses and also includes warehouses and manufacturing buildings such as Cowan’s, which is the last remaining warehouse of the 1950s post-modern time and age.

“As high property values rise, as Toronto continues to thrive economically, there is increased value to redevelopment… What’s changed is that Toronto is booming, and as a result every piece of land is worth a lot,” says Cressy. “Which speaks to the pressing need for us to be proactive, considering our heritage now, before it’s lost.”

Sue Dexter, board member of the Harbord Village Residents’ Association which had advocated for the listing of a group of buildings on College Street, says much has already been lost and Toronto is now “triaging the heritage we have left.”

“The balance has been skewed for a number of years in favour of development,” she said. “And the people who are concerned about the level of development and the quality of development have been given a really convenient, but distorted, label of NIMBY.”