Property owners, councillors square off over Yonge heritage

Dennis Hanagan — 

Downtown councillors told developers and property owners they’ll have a fight if they go the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) to oppose the city’s plan to preserve heritage buildings along a half kilometre stretch of Downtown Yonge.

Toronto and East York community council voted unanimously Feb. 23 to designate Yonge between College and Carlton and Hayden St. as a Heritage Conservation District or HCD. St. Nicholas Village on Yonge’s west side would be included.

An HCD differentiates between buildings that contribute to Yonge’s heritage character and those that do not. The intention is to preserve those that contribute, but also manage the appearance of new structures that replace non-contributing buildings that are demolished.

Property owners, and lawyers representing them, told community council the heritage designation would place unfair and restrictive measures on what owners can do with their properties. They worried about lost property value.

Councillors heard that some owners unloaded their properties ahead of the designation while others said they purchased properties with no warning their lands would come under an HCD.

Others said it’s “discriminatory” that properties abutting the designated area don’t have to abide by the HCD’s restrictions. Speaking on behalf of clients, lawyers told council the plan would impede new development.

“The restrictive nature of the plan renders it a tool for development control as opposed to heritage protection,” Susan Rosenthal with Davies, Howe and Partners LLP wrote in a letter to council.

“It will likely impact the ongoing preservation of investment in heritage properties … and will stifle new development along Yonge St.,” said Rosenthal.

Some owners submitted form letters saying the HCD: is “over-reaching” in its scope, restricts the ability to lease to tenants, doesn’t contemplate a market reassessment for reduced marketability of property and no study has determined the lifespan of “contributing” buildings.

The Church Wellesley Neighbourhood Association (CWNA) supports the HCD. Nevertheless it raised the issue that the HCD’s policies don’t align with the official plan and the North Downtown Yonge urban design guidelines.

“If these policies are not fully congruent we are concerned that those who opposed any of these policies will make use of the discrepancies to weaken and/or over turn any or all of the policies,” CWNA president Andrew Horberry said in a letter.

The Bay Cloverhill Community Association (BCCA) supports the HCD, but president Rick Whitten-Stovall wanted it to do more to offer larger sidewalk setbacks when “non-contributing” buildings are replaced.

“We want to make use of opportunities to have the street wall vary to allow for the introduction of areas that would become public meeting places,” he said in a letter to council.

CWNA member Connie Langille said the Yonge HCD designation “will not only shine and magnify the importance of heritage in Toronto it’s also value-packed the properties that are there.”

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam said that with 42 million pedestrians walking Yonge St. annually and with a busy Yonge subway Yonge is “a neighbourhood that is primed for success.”

“It is not about sterilizing the site. Development, as we know it, will continue along Yonge St.,” she said, adding that it has to respect the heritage aspect.

She expects the city will battle developers and property owners at the OMB over the Yonge HCD designation.

“I’m very mindful that we are probably going to see a number of property owners, including lawyers … that are going to appeal this plan and take us to the OMB, and maybe tie us up for another two and a half or three years,” Wong-Tam said.

“If you take this plan to the board we will fight you, tooth and nail, every step of the way until we win,” said Wong-Tam.
Echoing that feeling Deputy Mayor Pam McConnell said “this document will stand up to anybody in the OMB.”