Protecting heritage doesn’t mean freezing areas in time
By Joe Cressy
As is often said, Rome wasn’t built in a day. In comparison, Toronto may be a relatively young city, but that doesn’t mean we have no history to speak of — far from it. Preserving our city’s heritage is critical. It tells us something about who we are, who we were, and how we got here.
I’ve said before that our community is home to some of our city’s most vibrant neighbourhoods, neighbourhoods that have built and defined the character of our city for over a hundred years. It is this heritage — bricks and mortar, arts and culture, and so much more — that while it does, and should, continue to grow and change, is worthy of respect and protection.
Together we are finding new and creative ways to protect the buildings that contribute to the fabric of our city, and to conserve and enhance the very uses that make Toronto great.
There is a reciprocal relationship between people and the places we inhabit. The first step in acknowledging the value of heritage buildings, districts, and landscapes is to recognize that the built environment moves, evolves, and reacts. The city itself is a testament to our collective legacy not just through buildings, beams, and floor boards, but in stories and memory, in habits and patterns of use. How we respond to the complex questions of preserving our shared legacy is as nuanced and layered as it is critical to the development of a livable and sustainable city.
Together we are finding new and creative ways to protect the buildings that contribute to the fabric of our city, and to conserve and enhance the very uses that make Toronto great. We’re working hard to identify buildings for heritage review. But our resources don’t allow us to do this fast enough. One technique is to review entire areas, and a critical tool for protecting and preserving the heritage of our communities is Heritage Conservation Districts (HCD). In King-Spadina, work on finalizing the HCD is almost complete. In Kensington Market, the HCD study, reviewing not only the physical structures but also the intangible cultural value that makes Kensington Kensington, is also underway. And, on Madison Avenue — a critical example of 19th-century architectural style that characterized so much of our city’s past — the HCD was approved in 2015.
Some circumstances require stronger tools to prevent the loss of critical pieces of our past.
One such circumstance is the unprecedented growth and change in King-Spadina over the last 10 years. In December 2016, after over two years of work to build a livable neighbourhood through securing new parkland, building community facilities at 505 Richmond St. W. and CityPlace, new childcare facilities and more, I introduced a motion to freeze all heritage demolitions in the neighbourhood for one year. It’s a significant step in our work to protect our community’s heritage, ensure appropriate development, and build a more livable downtown.
The now-approved Heritage Study Area Bylaw puts a one year freeze on demolition of 303 heritage buildings in King-Spadina. Since work on the HCD plan began, we have lost four contributing buildings in the neighbourhood and we were aware of at least 17 more buildings at risk. Implementing the one year freeze allows for appropriate development while stopping the wild-west demolition practices that we’ve seen recently across our communities.
At the same time, protecting our heritage doesn’t mean freezing an area in time, but must help guide and manage growth. Many heritage buildings are not cherished purely because of what they were, but because of what they have been allowed to become. A cherished example of this is 401 Richmond St. W., a vital part of Toronto, at the heart of the local community, and a hub for artists, creators, educators and entrepreneurs from across the city. Long after the industrial age that saw the growth of such buildings, originally factories, 401 Richmond St. W. has taken on new life as a pillar of the creative industry, home to producers in this age of creativity rather than the tapestries and products of the past. The building’s unique operating model and protection as a heritage resource have allowed a vibrant arts and culture centre to develop in a very building that may not have lasted this long if not for its protection. The recent MPAC re-assessment of the building is a serious and urgent new challenge. We’re working hard at the city to protect 401 Richmond St. W. to ensure we do not lose the vital resources now housed within it. The City of Toronto is advocating to the provincial government for a new way of assessing heritage buildings, to further protect these resources in the future.
Toronto is a young city at a pivotal moment. We can choose to build on our past, to learn and change in a way that respects and protects our city’s character. The golden age of our city’s heritage may be yet to come. As we work together to build livable neighbourhoods that cherish what has come before, this could, in fact, become part of our city’s identity that we continue to work to protect.
Joe Cressy is the councillor for Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina.
READ MORE ABOUT HCDs:
NEWS: Kensington Market to become heritage district (May 2016)
NEWS: Community council approves Madison Avenue HCD (October 2015)
NEWS: Preserving a historic street (May 2015)
READ MORE BY JOE CRESSY:
FORUM: Our dynamic Kensington Market (November 2016)
FORUM: A new central park for Toronto (September 2016)
FORUM: Building a livable city (July 2016)
FORUM: Bike lanes on Bloor Street (May 2016)