Why are beloved Toronto buildings torn down — even when people fight to save them?

The answer lies in the time-consuming, backlogged heritage designation process, and the "friction" that develops between developers, the city, and the public.

Answer lies in backlogged heritage designation process and 'friction' between developers, city, and public

A time-consuming, backlogged heritage designation process contributes to the loss of historic Toronto buildings, like the Stollerys building at Yonge and Bloor Streets. (CBC)

Earlier this month, the unexpected teardown of a midtown Bank of Montreal building — a 110-year-old, beaux arts-style neighbourhood fixture — was met with outcry from heritage preservation supporters.

It's the most recent example of a piece of Toronto's architectural history being demolished, even in the face of opposition from city councillors, heritage supporters and members of the public.

There was also the Victorian mansion on Wellesley Street — knocked down to make room for a condo in 2012, just a month after a city councillor pushed for a heritage designation.

The Stollerys building, a century-old landmark at Yonge and Bloor Streets with stone carvings on its facade — was suddenly torn down two years ago this month.

And the historic Mimico factory built back in 1917, just weeks away from potentially getting a heritage designation — was demolished last September.

Why, in the face of public outcry, do these demolitions keep happening?

A group of residents awoke earlier this month to learn that 2444 Yonge St., a 110-year-old Bank of Montreal building, had been demolished. (CBC)

What it takes to gain heritage 'designation'

According to heritage preservation experts who spoke to CBC Toronto this week, the answer lies in the time-consuming, backlogged heritage designation process, and the "friction" that develops between developers, the city, and the public.

"We have hundreds of thousands of buildings in this city, and we can do the best we can to address the community concerns," says Mary MacDonald, the senior manager of Heritage Preservation Services for City Planning, which operates the Heritage Register.

Around 9,000 properties in Toronto are on the list, which means the building is subject to a review period if someone wants to demolish it, says MacDonald. It also means the owner has to give the city 60 days notice about tearing it down.

You have to have this long, complicated argument over whether it has cultural value.- Toronto architect Catherine Nasmith

Around half of those on the list are officially designated under the Ontario Heritage Act — which gives city council the authority to protect the building.

"It takes a long time to get a building protected under the Heritage Act, and you have to have this long, complicated argument over whether it has cultural value," says Toronto architect Catherine Nasmith, who's also president of the city's branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario.

​MacDonald says around 600 properties are on a wait-list to be evaluated for a potential heritage listing or designation. Ninety of those are ones to watch, she adds, because planning applications or other types of development are already in motion.

That means her small team is constantly juggling priorities — all based on which properties could be most at-risk of being torn down by developers.

Last year, city council protected more than 300 buildings in the King and Spadina area for one year under a motion supported by Coun. Joe Cressy. (Kate McGillivray/CBC)

Racing against the clock

In the recent case of the midtown Bank of Montreal building being demolished, a community group was almost finished the heritage application when the building's new owners submitted an application to demolish it. The city received it in mid-December and granted the permit this month.

"It's really shocking and saddening and depressing that someone would so flagrantly disrespect the city's heritage and the community's interest in this way," says MacDonald.

"But at the same time," she adds, "we have to say — it was legal."

According to the city, under the Building Code Act, a building permit is required for the demolition of a new building, an addition, or material alteration of any building or structure.

Nasmith believes changes need to be made to the permit process to make it more difficult for developers to put "perfectly good buildings in the garbage."

The huge neon 'Sam the Record Man' sign was a Toronto landmark. (Canadian Press )

"The rate of development and the rate of demolition has been accelerating over the last decade," echoes Jeffrey Balmer, who teaches at the University of North Carolina Charlotte's school of architecture but is originally from Toronto.

Balmer was once part of the campaign to save downtown Toronto's iconic Sam the Record Man sign during redevelopment by Ryerson University. 

Now, he's behind a petition to prevent the demolition of the University of Toronto's McLaughlin Planetarium building, which vice-president of university operations Scott Mabury says is "not reusable" despite the university's efforts to find a purpose for it.

That kind of push-and-pull is typical in Toronto, and it's part of the reason Balmer says these conversations are increasingly important — and shouldn't come only "after a building's been torn down."

Older buildings a challenge for developers

There are, of course, many notable cases where Toronto's oldest and most iconic buildings are saved, not destroyed. 

The 5 St. Joseph Street project from ERA Architects, for instance, integrated 10 buildings — two listed by the city, and three formally designated as heritage buildings — into a new condo and retail development.

And in the east end, the well-known former site of Jilly's strip club is being transformed into a new incarnation of the historic Broadview Hotel by Streetcar Developments that's set to open this spring.

The project has revealed the challenges facing developers working with historic buildings, which can be technologically archaic or totally dilapidated.

Les Mallins, president of Streetcar, says the Queen Street East building showed "catastrophic structural failure" and had physically dropped two-and-a-half inches.

"The fact it didn't collapse was a miracle," he recalls.

And the political and community side is often just as challenging, Mallins adds.

"Everybody at a high level understands and appreciates the importance of preserving heritage buildings," he says.

"But your perspective, whether you're a member of community, council, a developer, or heritage preservation at the city… really creates the friction."

What comes next?

Heritage buildings seem to be top-of-mind for many, and late last year, city council protected more than 300 buildings in the King and Spadina area for one year under a motion supported by Coun. Joe Cressy — buying time for a new heritage plan to be implemented.

Meanwhile, Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam has publicly stated the Ontario Building Code Act doesn't allow enough time to designate a property a heritage site if it's already slated to be demolished.

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam has been fighting back against the sudden demolition of historic buildings. (CBC)

MacDonald agrees there should be some kind of stop-order provision in place. While it exists on a provincial level, the city would have to prove a building is provincially important, she notes.

But regardless of what changes come down the pipe, Toronto still risks losing more historic properties in the years ahead.

"There's so much rich history and heritage in this city, and so much development, that it just naturally creates a very pressurized environment," says MacDonald.

"And the stakes are very high."


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