The developer who’s spearheading a project to demolish two thirds of the old James Street Baptist Church says he still can’t give specific details on the renewal plan for downtown relic, but insists the site won’t become a “parking lot” under his watch.

Louie Santaguida, president and CEO of Toronto company Stanton Renaissance, gave a short presentation at the city’s municipal heritage committee on Thursday.

During the meeting, he took questions from committee members and others who expressed concerns that no construction timeline for the planned $80-million residential-commercial complex has been put forward — even though the partial demolition is already underway.

The public outcry over the project has led the committee to start a review on the bylaws that govern how the city deals with developers who want to make changes to designated heritage properties.

“The intent is not to have a hole,” Santaguida said at the meeting. “The intent is not to have a parking lot.”

Developer

Louie Santaguida, left, is president of Stanton Renaissance, the Toronto-based development company that bought James Street Baptist Church. (Adam Carter/CBC)

But he said a formal plan for the redevelopment is still months away because designers are still assessing problems with the “structural integrity” of the building to determine how much of the 146-year-old church they can preserve. He has said the building is in such poor condition that much of it has to come down. 

A team of 12 architects, engineers and contractors, Santaguida said, are working on the initials stages of the partial demolition, which the city approved in March. The outlook on what they can salvage is “changing as we meet every day.”

Though he said he couldn’t give a construction timeline, he said he hopes the mixed use development will open in two to three years.

The uncertainty over the building’s future has sparked calls for the city to change how it deals with applications to make modifications to heritage properties. Because the renovation of James Street Baptist — a designated heritage building — qualifies under city bylaws as an “alteration” and not a demolition, developers have to go through fewer hurdles to make potentially drastic changes to the building.

“Not to put too fine a point on it, but a small section of the building foundation or footing could be left in place underground and it would still be an alteration rather than demolition,” said Janice Brown, president of the Durand Neighbourhood Association, who called on the city to draft tougher rules on changing heritage properties.

“City council has … left the door open so any designated building in the city can be systematically demolished to save a small portion” without any input from the community, she said. 

James Baptist

This conceptual drawing, still in draft form, shows future plans for James Street Baptist Church. (Stanton Renaissance)

Coun. Jason Farr, whose ward includes the church and hundreds of other century-plus old buildings, said that he agrees that the city should adopt rules that would give community members more say in planned alterations on heritage properties. The heritage committee, he said, is already conducting a review into the regulations.

As for the James Street Baptist project, he said it has always been his "preference" that the developers hold community consultations on any changes they are planning to make. 

Farr said he hopes the review process will “prevent the kid of questions and concerns that we raised people who were [at the heritage committee] today.”

During the meeting, Santaguida defended how his project has proceeded and said his team is committed to redeveloping the church as quickly as possible, preserving 16,000 square feet of the existing structure in the process.

“We are not looking at it as a knockdown-driveway-foundation. This is a project,” he later told reporters. “Our vision has always been to redevelop property immediately.”

When asked why, despite his stated enthusiasm for revitalizing the property, he’s encountered so much resistance, Santaguida said: “I can’t comment on someone else’s actions.”