Torontonians sick and tired of 'McMansions' look to protect historic cottages from redevelopment

A Toronto resident has started a petition seeking heritage designation for the city's historic "workers' cottages" after a controversial redevelopment was approved on Palmerston Avenue.

Petition gathers support for century-old 'workers' cottages' after Palmerston Avenue construction approved

The Palmerston Avenue workers' cottages in 1940. Built in 1871, two of the cottages are now being rebuilt. (Toronto Archives)

Renee Degen admits the Palmerston Avenue homes aren't much to look at, and that's kind of the point.

"They're not big. They're not the most beautiful homes. But they've been a staple for 150 years," she said in an interview.

Degen owns one of the four single-storey "workers' cottages" on Palmerston, near Queen Street West. 

Built in 1871, the cottages are typical examples of working class housing that proliferated as 19th-century Toronto grew as a city and industrial centre. The cottages were often built near industrial sites, the railway in particular, as a form of cheap housing for workers.

Few of the cottages remain today, and there will soon be fewer on Palmerston.

Construction has begun on one of the cottages and there are plans in place for the neighbouring home that will see them converted into modern, three-storey buildings. 

A more recent view of the Palmerston Avenue workers' cottages (Renee Degen)

Degen and other neighbours opposed the redevelopment, but according to city of Toronto staff, it met zoning provisions.

"People who walk through this neighborhood always comment on how cute they are. Everybody loves these houses," Degen said.

'I'm not sure why people need 3,000 square feet'

The cottages are modest in scale, and Degen thinks they should stay that way. She's not opposed to some renovation, such as adding a set-back second floor, but says if people need drastically more space, they have other options.

"I'm not sure why people need 3,000 square feet," she said. "I don't feel that a house should be destroyed when there are lots of large homes in Toronto. Quite frankly, you could move. I'm sorry."

Renee Degen is trying to protect Toronto's historic workers' cottages by having them designated as heritage properties. ( Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Unlike other neighbourhood development spats in Toronto, this construction won't result in more units of housing. The properties will remain single-family dwellings.

Dora Sesler has lived on the street for 18 years, though not in one of the cottages, and worries the rebuilds will take away from the street's original character.

"I am sick and tired of seeing these McMansions being built on these properties that don't belong here," Selser said.

"Yes, my house is bigger, but it's been here since 1876. And you know what? That's okay."

The backyard of a Palmerston Avenue cottage from 1939. (Toronto Archives)

Heritage protection sought

Although some individual workers' cottages are designated heritage properties, there is no blanket protection for the design, something Degen is hoping to change. She's started a petition asking for all remaining worker's cottages to be added to the Toronto's heritage register.

Degen says that similar protection was granted to Montreal's "shoebox homes."

Workers' cottages that have been granted heritage protections were all assessed individually, according to Mary MacDonald, a senior manager of heritage planning with the City of Toronto.

"In each case, the heritage values and attributes of each of these buildings had to be considered," MacDonald wrote in an email.

Compared with grander heritage buildings in Toronto, the unassuming workers' cottages could seem unworthy of protection. But architect Michael McClelland says this way of thinking is changing.

"It used to be the tradition that you'd only save rich people's houses. You wouldn't be saving working class housing," said McClelland, who is the founding principal of ERA Architects, a firm that specializes in heritage buildings.

"We're evolving now. We're becoming much more fine tuned and sophisticated to ideas about what matters in heritage."

McClelland says the heritage value of a building isn't always intrinsic to its built form, and can be based more on what it represents to the community.

"So, when you talk about preserving a working class house, you're talking about recognizing that history," McClelland said.

Also evolving is the way Toronto designates heritage properties, which currently relies heavily on applications from the public.

The 2019 Feasibility Study for the Toronto Heritage Survey, adopted by council, notes that "a proactive and strategic approach for identifying heritage properties will shift us from reactive and time consuming designation reports that are often too late to prevent demolition."


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