Heritage plan for St. Lawrence nears final city approval

Heritage buildings in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood where the City of Toronto began 222 years ago—known then as the Town of York—are to be protected from demolition and alteration under a Heritage Conservation District (HCD) plan that Toronto community council adopted in November.

But some who spoke to council felt the plan was vague and restrictive regarding what owners of heritage buildings are allowed to do with their properties.

Suzanne Kavanagh, president of the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood Association, wasn’t one of them. For her the plan provides clarity so developers can’t override it at the Ontario Municipal Board.

“The plan is very clear and provides very clear directions and is very consistent as far as interpretation … so that in the event it goes to the OMB—unlike other OMB experiences—it is very clear as far as (there be) no interpretation,” said Kavanagh.

She said the HCD designation is not about stopping development but about being “respectful and mindful” of the area’s heritage and history.

Victoria Angel, senior heritage planner with ERA Architects, told council ERA and its clients “strongly support” the HCD designation.

However, she said, there are “serious concerns” regarding policies in the plan. She cited “a lack of clarity regarding what must be conserved and the extremely proscriptive nature of the mandatory policies.”

Saying the plan goes “far beyond” conserving the cultural heritage value and attributes of the district, Angel criticized the requirement to conserve “heritage fabric.”

Giving an example she said “any historic windows … whether or not they are an attribute can only be replaced in kind.” She said the same restrictions apply to wood and metal elements in heritage buildings.

“Overall, there’s a concern that the plan lacks the clarity and transparency of the standards and guidelines for the conservation of historic places,” said Angel. “It introduces a rigidity and inflexibility that will be very difficult for property owners to work with.”

Eve Lewis, president of Woodcliffe Landmark Properties, spoke along the lines of Angel saying Woodcliffe supports the HCD but with reservations. She said the restorative work her company did with Market Street buildings “would not have been able” under the obligations of the St. Lawrence HCD plan.

She said that restoring a heritage building involves being “creative and innovative and when you take a heritage building you are re-adapting it to use for today not for what it was 100 years ago.”

She said the plan asks for a 100% replacement of a heritage building. “I think there’s another way of imposing these obligations” which she said, as they stand, take away from creating “a magnificent heritage building.”

Lewis recognized some landowners and developers “are not respectful” and so other developers who do care about heritage preservation suffer with the strict policies. But, she added, “you need to have some flexibility.”

The HCD boundaries are roughly Adelaide East, Yonge/Victoria, Esplanade/Front and Parliament. The Esplanade boundary runs along the street’s centre line.

The St. Lawrence Market Neighbourhood BIA recommends the southern boundary be extended to the railway corridor, taking in both sides of The Esplanade.

“Governing 2 sets of rules for the north and south properties of The Esplanade makes less sense than using the natural boundary of the railway corridor,” BIA representative David Mair told council.

“Governing 2 sets of rules for the north and south properties of The Esplanade makes less sense than using the natural boundary of the railway corridor,” BIA representative David Mair told council.

Area councillor Pam McConnell said developing the HCD plan was a “long and arduous” process. She said it was unbelievable to her that when she began to represent the St. Lawrence neighbourhood—“the birthplace of our city”—it wasn’t already designated a heritage district.

“Since then I have seen the erosion of the heritage fabric,” said McConnell. She said the property owners who spoke to the community council “have really made a (positive) difference in this community up against some pretty awful developments.”

However, she said she was concerned about what speakers called the plan’s rigidity “and making sure that we can continue to preserve any of the little bits left of this district.”

McConnell said the city has to move quickly to protect the heritage that’s left. “It’s important to get what we have done and get it (the HCD) in place.”

Speaking about including the south side of The Esplanade in the HCD, McConnell reminded council that heritage is also about things that happened long ago in a particular area. “I’d be happy to spend hours with the consultant about what heritage is still there. It isn’t bricks and mortar, it’s stories.”

Downtown Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam said “I can’t think of an area in Toronto that is more important to tell the story of this city.”