Historic Toronto

October 18, 2018

Building an inheritance into a legacy

‘People want to hang on to things that ground them,’ says Toronto’s heritage manager



 Published on Fri Jan 02 2015


On a quest for downtown land, condo developers usually find themselves tripping over heritage buildings, says Andrew DeGasperis, CEO of Aspen Ridge Development.


Almost every developer has had to deal with heritage at one time or another. One of the challenges, DeGasperis explains, is determining fixed costs — and timelines. When Aspen Ridge developed the Hunt Club on Avenue Rd. a decade ago, the heritage clubhouse took a lot of time, money and effort to restore — it was a bit of a nightmare, he adds.


When developers Rudi Spallaci and Ted Valeri recently took on Hamilton’s formerly luxurious Edwardian hotel for conversion to condos as The Residences of the Royal Connaught, the lobby restoration alone took twice as long as anticipated. Razing and starting new was not an option for the native Hamiltonians — they wanted to restore the landmark for the city.


Heritage can be a pain, admits Mary MacDonald, acting manager of Toronto’s heritage preservation services, but there are rewards: “Heritage helps distinguish one project from another in a sea of competition.”


Plus, the buying public loves it — MacDonald figures that’s because the “pace of change in the city is so dramatic people want to hang on to things that ground them.”


That pace has resulted in some confusion, especially about what constitutes heritage. “We’re digging at the early layers of city, at the same time as we’re adding new layers, and that’s bound to cause some challenges,” says MacDonald.


Heritage definitions are based on provincial guidelines, but given latitude at the municipal level, with planners looking for architectural and historical significance, but also contextual value — and how the building contributes to its surrounding area.


And that’s led to a new approach. “It used to be all about façade retention, but now it’s about 3-D integrity … to maintain the presence of a building because it has contributed to the shape of the street in the public memory,” MacDonald says.


When David Mirvish proposed redeveloping his strip of King St. W. in the Theatre District, with a design by celebrity architect Frank Gehry — who was born and raised in Toronto — it meant demolishing four, early 20th-century heritage warehouses. One of them, the Eclipse White Wear Company building at King and John Sts., produced women’s and kids’ underwear for more than 50 years. Its Edwardian Classical details, including the arch above its south door and windows, are considered part of the historical character of the area that became a new manufacturing sector after the Great Fire of 1904 razed 104 downtown buildings.


Tense negotiations over the warehouses ensued. Mirvish felt so strongly about the significance of Gehry’s design for Toronto’s architectural reputation, he was prepared to lose the Princess of Wales theatre for it.


Though density and infrastructure were major factors, Mirvish says “heritage was the underlying issue. Only one warehouse from that group of four existed before 1904. If I were to preserve it, then I wanted also to preserve the (Wales) theatre I built, and after that I didn’t want to fight with anyone.


“But I would only preserve and build if Frank could find a way to make it all function.”



The new design, comprised of 82- and 92-storey towers, includes the Princess of Wales, the Royal Alex, one historic building adapted for new uses including gallery space, and one warehouse façade.