Distillery owners believe existing heritage protection is sufficient

Dennis Hanagan –

Owners of the Distillery District don’t agree, but Toronto and East York Community Council decided the neighbourhood will be studied to determine if it should be designated a Heritage Conservation District (HCD).

The designation would give the National Historic Site—once occupied by the Gooderham & Worts Distillery—and its buildings increased protection for its heritage value, requiring city approval for proposed alterations, additions or demolition.

But owners say it’s unclear what the designation would achieve and the idea should go back to the drawing table. In 2001 Cityscape Holdings Inc. bought the Distillery, later partnering with Dundee Realty Corp.

“The site is already designated under the Ontario Heritage Act and is subject to eight different heritage easement agreements,” lawyer Michael Stewart, representing the owners, told council at its May meeting.

(An easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a heritage property owner and Ontario Heritage Trust. It sets mutually accepted conditions to ensure the preservation of heritage property in perpetuity.)

“Everything that happens within the Distillery District already goes through Heritage Preservation Services, even where a building permit is not required,” Stewart said.

He said policies and agreements “that fill several binders” already say how heritage resources on the site are to be maintained “and to date they’ve worked very well.”

Council was considering a recommendation from planning staff for an HCD study. For the most part, re-use of Distillery heritage properties has been “in accordance with the original master plan and existing planning framework,” a staff report said.

“In recent years, however, there has been considerable pressure for development of a nature and scale that was not previously contemplated for certain parcels,” the report continued.

Lester Brown of the Gooderham & Worts Neighbourhood Association praised Distillery owners for their revitalization of the site.

“The buildings have been adapted for re-use in a fashion that is sensitive to the character of the Distillery … The revitalization of these buildings can only be described as superb,” said Brown.

But ownership can change, he said. “Maybe the next owner will not be so benevolent or community-minded … We believe this area should be prioritized for study as a potential conservation district.”

Brown said there are questions about future development on lands adjoining the Distillery. “If redevelopment to the south or to the north of the Distillery is not sensitive to the heritage character of the site it will destroy what is essentially one of the jewels of Canada.”

Toronto Centre councillor Pam McConnell supported the call for an HCD study and dismissed fears it would create red tape for future development.

“I wanted to make sure before we started the study that the kind of co-operative work that had gone on between city staff, the community and the owners Cityscape would continue to happen and that this wasn’t a roadblock but rather a road map,” she said in an interview.

“I feel it won’t get bogged down in red tape. I’m concerned about making sure we get good development in the area and that we build out an appropriate place for these amazing heritage iconic buildings,” McConnell said.