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Preserving a historic street

May 28th, 2015 · No Comments

Madison Avenue to become a Heritage Conservation District

By Annemarie Brissenden

What may be one of Toronto’s most historic streets was almost demolished to make way for an urban expressway.

And now, after championing its survival over the Spadina Expressway, the Annex Residents’ Association (ARA) is leading an effort to ensure the preservation of Madison Avenue well into the future by seeking to designate it as a Heritage Conservation District (HCD).

Falling under the purview of the Ontario Heritage Act, HCDs allow a municipality to protect and enhance the special character of a property or group of properties.

There are currently 20 in the city, three of which are in the Gleaner’s coverage area: Harbord Village Residents’ Association (HVRA) I and II, and the East Annex. In addition to the proposed Madison Avenue HCD, two more studies are underway for HVRA III and the West Annex.

They “are an incredibly important tool under the heritage act,” said Joe Cressy (Trinity-Spadina, Ward 20), “to not just designate a property, but to preserve an entire area’s unique character.”

It’s something Madison Avenue has in spades.

In 1886, Simeon Janes, a late-nineteenth-century land speculator, purchased a large parcel of land to create a residential suburb for middle and upper class professionals. He prohibited the development of anything but single-family homes, and eliminated lanes for horses and carriage storage. That area — from Bedford to Spadina roads, and Dupont to Bloor streets — became the Annex, and its houses reflect one of the most prolific and creative periods of Toronto’s built history.

Of all the streets in Janes’s Annex, Madison Avenue remains the best example of that history, retaining much of the same character that marked the street when it was created.

“It is the relative completeness of the original fabric, the original streetscape, the concentration of the uniquely Annex style houses, as well as examples of a variety of other architectural expression that warrant protection,” writes architect Catherine Nasmith in a report for the ARA on the street’s heritage. “Almost all of the original structures survive, and it is this continuity of heritage fabric that it is important to protect and preserve.”

If established, the Madison Avenue HCD would apply to the exterior of the residential properties from Bloor to Dupont streets, except those that front on Bloor Street. Even those that do not contribute to the heritage character of the street would be included, and would be subject to district guidelines should any major alterations or construction be proposed. There would be no impact on selling the property, and changing the property use would fall under the city’s existing zoning regulations.

Nasmith’s report, available on the ARA website, describes the architectural elements that would be accounted for under the proposed HCD: windows, brick, stone masonry, roofs, and front yards. There’s no guidance about the back of the houses, except that any additions must not exceed the main roofline of the property as seen from the sidewalk.

The guidelines also encourage homeowners to eliminate front yard parking and paving if possible, adding, “depressed garages are disruptive to the streetscape”.

Madison Avenue homeowners attending a meeting on the proposed HCD in April seemed mostly in support of the plan, said Sandra Shaul, the ARA board member who has been working on the HCD since 2005. She added that those with concerns were worried about having to get approvals for repairs.

According to Heritage Preservation Service’s (HPS) website, routine maintenance and minor alterations that do not affect a property’s heritage character would likely be approved, while major changes that have an impact on the property’s heritage attributes or involve demolition, requiring a city permit anyway, would need additional approval by city council.

HCDs are not meant to “freeze a street in time, but help manage and guide growth,” noted Cressy. They are “intended to preserve the view of the heritage elements from the street.”

He added that HPS consults with property owners regularly, and pointed to the city’s grant program, which provides funds for the preservation of heritage properties, as well as a tax rebate for eligible heritage property owners.

“Madison Avenue has been identified by architectural historians in the past as a gem,” said Shaul. “We have the opportunity to preserve an intact streetscape. We have already lost St. George Street and Spadina Avenue.”

The city is seeking comments on the Madison Avenue HCD Study & Plan (available at until May 15, at which point the plan will be updated and finalized for review and approval by community council, followed by city council.

ROMwalks, a volunteer initiative of the Royal Ontario Museum, features a walking tour of the Annex that includes Madison Avenue and presents an extensive review of the area’s history. The next walk runs July 12 at 2 p.m. For further information, visit

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