The Race to Save Heritage Buildings

By Dharshini Mahesh Babu

Heritage buildings are not just banal built spaces that hold architectural value—often, they hold significance to individuals, groups, and communities. Recently, many buildings, especially those of heritage significance, have been torn down despite significant public disapproval. A couple months ago, as the demolition of Corktown’s Foundry buildings commenced, numerous strong voices from the public opposed the proposed destruction.

This is one of many recent examples of a part of Toronto’s rich architectural history being demolished despite opposition from heritage supporters, architects and city councillors. Even today, decisions are made to demolish more and more heritage buildings that are vital to Toronto’s architectural narrative. Just recently, the Inglewood Arms, a rooming house located at 295 Jarvis Street was deemed at risk of demolition. Developers hope to replace it with a 351-unit condo.

The Inglewood Hotel (known as the Inglewood Arms Hotel since 1944) appears to have incorporated 3-storey Victorian rowhouse residences – constructed in 1856 and containing shared firewalls – into the hotel structure upon opening in 1915. Photo: Toronto Architectural Conservancy

The question, however, is, why do such demolitions keep happening despite community resistance?

Ultimately, the root of the problem lies in the inadequate designation of heritage properties that are subject to demolition. This results in a lack of legal protection needed to prevent the erasure of buildings and their history. One might then wonder why so many historically significant buildings are not designated.

The answer is found in the time-consuming nature of the heritage designation process and the subsequent “friction” that arises between the public and the city. Catherine Nasmith, a Toronto architect and the president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario’s Toronto branch, says that, “It takes a long time to get a building protected” due to the logistics behind designating a site. More specifically, a debate occurs on the cultural, historical, and contextual value of the site. This conversation can escalate to a complicated argument at times.

This map shows the status of all buildings in the City of Toronto’s Heritage Registrar. Many of the buildings at risk of demolitions are on a waitlist to be considered for the Heritage Registrar. Photo: City of Toronto

Due to the time-consuming nature of the heritage designation process, there are a lot of buildings that are still on the wait list to simply be evaluated for a potential designation. In fact, according to Mary MacDonald, senior manager of Heritage Preservation Services for City Planning, there are around 600 properties on the waitlist, with 90 of these at immediate risk for demolition or redevelopment. This means that the city’s planning team must indefinitely prioritize some buildings over others. As a result, some buildings end up getting the green light for demolition.

Take the example of the Foundry buildings. According to the Friends of the Foundry, the public associates a greater sentiment with the buildings because they’re a space where diverse backgrounds can meet. That is why the attempted demolition of the Foundry resulted in so much shock and protest from the Corktown community.

According to Toronto’s Building Code Act, a building permit is required to: demolish a building, make an addition to the building, and perform material alteration of any building or structure. Nasmith suggests that changes are necessary to the process of attaining a building permit, essentially making it harder for developers to place “perfectly good buildings in the garbage.” This idea is echoed by Jeffrey Balmer, a professor at University of North Carolina Charlotte’s school of architecture, who states that the dilemma of whether buildings should be demolished should not only be considered once a building has been demolished but instead, greater measures need to be in places for demolition proposals to be accepted.

The Dominion Wheel and Foundries Ltd. originally manufactured railway parts in Toronto. The remaining site consists of the foundry, a machine shop, warehouse and office building.

Ultimately, it can be said that with enough information and persuasion, one can see the importance of preserving heritage buildings, but contrasting perspectives come into play when legal measures need to be accounted for. Furthermore, Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam publicly criticized the Ontario Building Code Act for not providing enough time to designate a heritage property once it has already been slated to be demolished. MacDonald voices this sentiment by stating that there must be some form of stop-order provision set in place which would allow for one to continue with the designation process.

Regardless of such preventative measures which might buy a building more time and perhaps change the future of a structure, the demolition of a heritage building will always be a race against time. Especially in Toronto, where there is a myriad of rich heritage but also an increasing need for more development to accommodate the growing urban population. Thus, there will always be an invisible pressurized atmosphere where one must analyze the opportunity cost of destroying a heritage site, whether that be the economic gains or the community gains.