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Historic Toronto

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.

Mirvish, though initially disappointed, now embraces the new project because it “relates to this location and community. The materials we hope to use will create metaphor through the use of glass that will reflect the relationship between buildings and the lake.”

He adds: “I’m very happy now with the plan, and believe the process is ultimately fruitful but it’s also fraught with tension and probably unnecessarily so.”

For Mirvish, the discussion should revolve around a city’s self-determination and whether heritage stands in the way. “If our goal is to create something that’s great to live in and competes with the rest of the world then I’d say our approach to heritage in Toronto is somewhat provincial. I want to compete at the highest level and I think we are as good and capable as any other city.”

But MacDonald, who was involved in the project’s heritage discussions, believes the new design allows “the preserved buildings to provide an important context for the towers. I still think it’s a wow, but also consistent with what we’re trying to do across the city.”

FIVE CONDOS at 5 St. Joseph St. was a breakthrough project for preservation. Restoring Victorian storefronts along Yonge St. retained the street’s character. And an early 20th-century warehouse around the corner forms the podium of the condo being built by Graywood Developments in partnership with MOD Developments.

Farther up Yonge St., Bazis Inc., in partnership with Plaza Corp. included several heritage properties in their 1 Yorkville project. While deep setbacks aren’t required by the city, the condo tower has a 10-metre setback to give the heritage buildings greater play.“In this case we felt this was a minimal acceptable depth to maintain the full integrity of the heritage buildings,” MacDonald says. “That reflects some of the current changes in thinking — to heritage districts with a broader planning scope.”

Toronto has long been about its neighbourhoods — each with a distinct character, with different types of buildings. “People like living in a neighbourhood with an identity,” says heritage architect Michael McClelland. “And planners, architects, landscape architects are finding what strengthens that is often older buildings or landmarks.”

At one time, heritage consisted of “preserving a monument,” McClelland says. “Now we consider neighbourhoods have heritage qualities, and that buildings contribute to the whole streetscape. The Imperial Plaza on St Clair Ave. W. is not just a classic piece of architecture, but a fixture in people’s memories, our own Mad Men moment.”

Without development, though, none of this would be possible, McClelland says. “The U.S. allocates public funds to heritage restoration, while everything else develops around. In Canada, we don’t have the same financial incentives, so we’ve tended to adapt heritage buildings for new uses, with preservation being paid for through the development process.”

In some cases, development has even rescued buildings. MOD Developments, with the Massey Tower project at 197 Yonge St., will return a derelict bank building to its former glory with a 60-storey Hariri-Pontarini-designed condo backing it. As well, Massey Hall around the corner will also be restored as part of the project.

In the West Don Lands, two heritage buildings — the old Canary Restaurant and the CNR building — drove the theme of architectsAlliance’s successful bid in the design competition for the Pan Am Games Athletes’ Village project, says project team leader Adam Feldmann.

The two heritage buildings became “gateposts” to the site with all else — the new YMCA, George Brown student residence and condos — stepped back to offer better views of them. “The precinct plan of the waterfront allowed for the new buildings sitting on top or around the heritage,” Feldmann says. “But we wanted to keep the structures whole and in the round. My feeling is that heritage should also do something for the streets they are on.”

Because Waterfront Toronto had already worked on plans for the area for years, “the base skeleton was already in place,” Feldmann says. “That made it possible to complete the plan in six months, but it also meant working closely with the city, and the province.”

This kind of dialogue is necessary for successful heritage preservation, MacDonald insists. A full conversation between all the players — developers, the city, the community, architects — means a better product.

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