Province starts demolition of heritage buildings in West Don Lands despite community backlash

The provincial government began demolishing heritage buildings on the West Don Lands downtown on Monday despite backlash from the community. 

Tearing buildings down 'outrageous,' councillor says

Demolition has begun on the Dominion Wheel and Foundries Company site, at 153 to 185 Eastern Ave., a provincially owned property subject to an Ontario ministerial zoning order issued in October. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

The provincial government started to tear down heritage buildings on the West Don Lands downtown on Monday after community members demanded the demolition plans be halted to preserve the structures.

The Dominion Wheel and Foundries Company site, at 153 to 185 Eastern Ave., is a provincially owned property now subject to a Ontario ministerial zoning order issued in October. 

The order, one of three for the West Don Lands, paves the way for housing construction and allows the province to bypass municipal planning processes, including public consultations.

Only one of the four buildings appears to have been partially demolished as of Monday evening.

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, who represents Ward 13, Toronto Centre, called it an "act of vandalism."

She has asked the province to halt all demolition and to work with the community but says those calls have been ignored.

"Today, we have seen bulldozing equipment and demolition crew onsite in front of the Foundry buildings. They have clearly taken down a portion of the wall," Wong Tam told reporters Monday at the site."This is now been in direct opposition to community voices which were very loud, very widespread.

"It is absolutely outrageous and we call on them to stop is demolition work immediately," she said.

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, who represents Ward 13, Toronto Centre, has asked the province to halt all demolition activity and to work with the community but says those calls have been ignored. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

When word spread last week that demolition was about to begin, prompting community leaders and politicians to speak out against the plan, the province told CBC Toronto it was within its authority to make the move. 

Stephanie Bellotto, spokesperson for Steve Clark, Ontario's minister of municipal affairs and housing, said the ministry has issued three ministerial zoning orders for the West Don Lands on properties owned by the province to "accelerate" the construction of nearly 1,000 affordable housing units and 17,000 square feet of new community space.

"The specific site in question has sat vacant in a state of bad repair since the 1980s at a cost to taxpayers, and the government is committed to leveraging this underutilized provincial property to build new affordable housing and community space," Bellotto said in a statement last Friday.

The ministry insists "heritage elements" will inform the design of any new buildings on the site.

A demolition crew first appeared on the site last Thursday and told residents that they were ordered to clear the site by March.

Tim Hurson, a resident of the area, said he ran down to the site at around 3:30 p.m. when he noticed demolition crews and machinery on Monday.

"It's a huge disappointment but it is right in keeping with what we've seen so far, already," Hurson told CBC Toronto.

"As far as we're aware, there was no permit for the demolition to take place. There isn't even an application to do anything with the property."

Hurson said he had been emailing the province about the site for two years and has not heard back.

"It seems like a totally gratuitous thing to start tearing it down right now at 3:30 in the afternoon on a Monday, it's almost like trying to sneak it by," he said.

He said it appears residents who live in the area do not have a say in what takes place in their own neighbourhoods especially when it comes to heritage buildings.

"As the province saw that we were accelerating, they started accelerating," Hurson said. "But there is no remedy here once these buildings are down, zero."

Friends of the Foundry, a newly formed group that advocates for local planning, is urging the government to work with the community to find an alternative to demolition and preserve the site.

According to the group, the Dominion Wheel and Foundries buildings were part of a complex that manufactured equipment for railways in the first half of the 20th century.

Wong-Tam said she has worked with the city's litigation team, chief planner and transportation services to review  provincial and federal statutes, as well as city bylaws and has determined that the province is in breach of its own heritage policies.

"They have not undertaken the prerequisite work before demolishing these buildings which should have been their last resort," she said.

Wong-Tam said that the province must provide documentation that it has conducted a heritage impact assessment and strategic conservation plan but this has been "willfully ignored."

"I think it's borderline criminal and corrupt and I want to know why is it that Doug Ford can't vaccinate people of Ontario to save their lives and he can't move fast enough to do that, but he can move fast enough to do this to our community."

With files from Muriel Draaisma and Ali Chiasson