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NEWS: The race to preserve Annex heritage (July 2021)

August 16th, 2021 · No Comments

ARA, city, seek to find ways to accommodate growth

(From left) Jessica Bisson (project administrator and survey technician), Kristina Martens (lead cultural heritage specialist), Meredith Stewart (researcher and survey coordinator) and Rebecca Sciarra (principal-in-charge, not pictured) of ASI Heritage consultants will be surveying the West Annex’s 1,007 properties from September to November as part of the West Annex Heritage Project. ARA project lead, Sandra Shaul (right), hopes the research will convince the city to declare the West Annex a Heritage Conservation District.
NICOLE STOFFMAN/GLEANER NEWS

By Nicole Stoffman

The Annex is facing intense pressure, with 25 major development projects currently underway. Can the neighbourhood grow without losing its unique character? Heritage consultants will be defining that character over the next seven months as they scour the neighbourhood to document 1,007 properties within the boundaries of Dupont, Bloor, Bedford and Bathurst streets.  The goal is for the city to declare the “West Annex”—defined as the area west of Bedford— a Heritage Conservation District (HCD) so that future development takes heritage into consideration. There are 21 HCDs in Toronto, and 11 more are being studied. It’s called the West Annex Heritage Project, and has taken 13 years to launch, due to changes in the Ontario Heritage Act. 

The Project is an unusual collaboration between the Annex Residents’ Association (ARA), ASI Heritage consultants, and city planning. To speed up the process at city hall, the ARA is paying for a survey and historical context statement from ASI, the largest heritage consultancy in Ontario.  When their final report is given to the city in August 2022, the hope is that an expedited Heritage Conservation Study will be launched, sent to council for approval, and an HCD plan completed within the following year and a half. 

Community input will be sought at a virtual meeting in late September, and at subsequent focus groups. 

“We want to make sure as many people in the community as possible have input, and can have their say, as to what heritage is in their mind,” said Sandra Shaul, ARA heritage director and project lead. 

Focus group participation will be crucial to understanding the living, contemporary Annex.

“Often that’s not the stuff you find in the historical record,” said ASI Partner Rebecca Sciarra. “Often at these sessions we spend time with people looking at maps, identifying the spaces where they gather that are so essential to their sense of place in the community.”

Shaul hired ASI Heritage with Section 37 funds from the building of the condo tower at 1 Bedford Rd. in 2005. The funds are named after Section 37 of the City of Toronto Planning Act, which obliges developers to fund community benefits in exchange for being permitted to build higher or with greater density than the city’s Official Plan allows. Realizing that 1 Bedford would be the first of many new developments, Shaul and others fought and won this funding for a heritage study for the West Annex, with the city’s approval.

In 1993, the area between Bedford and Avenue Road was declared the East Annex Heritage District, as was Madison Avenue in 2015 – a project also led by Shaul. 

“Ultimately, a Heritage Conservation District is a good planning tool,” she said.” It’s something that helps developers proactively understand what is considered of value and has restrictions on it, and what isn’t.” 

Gavin Schwartzman, CEO of Peerage Realty Group, would agree. The United Bldg., a 55-storey condo, was built over the historic MacLean-Hunter building in 2019 at University and Dundas. Restoring the original 9-storey printing house at its base and recessing the tower so as not to overwhelm the 1920s heritage building was an added expense, but turned out to be a gift for the marketing and sales team. 

“The incorporation of the MacLean-Hunter building was part of what made it special,” said Swartzman.” We turned it into an advantage. It’s really attractive…It was a good blend of heritage people and developers working together.” 

Swartzman says Toronto needs to add urban housing because land is scarce, and Canada is set to welcome 400,000 immigrants per year over the next 5 years, the majority of whom move to Toronto. He thinks this can be done while respecting the city’s history, and building more mid-rise and infill housing in established neighbourhoods. 

“We’re not a museum, I worked in museums for half of my career,” said Shaul, who supports the idea of more townhomes, laneway and infill housing in the area. “We’re a living, growing neighbourhood.” 

Property owners and residents should feel free to come out and say hello when they see any of the four heritage experts surveying and photographing their property from the sidewalk, but they will not be requesting interviews. Between August and October, the consultants will be collecting data using the City of Toronto’s ‘Built Form and Landscape Survey Form.’ They will be using a data collection software called ArcGIS, developed in Redlands, California, to build a database that will be handed over to city planning to guide the city’s own future study.  

The West Annex Heritage Project will not result in any heritage designations. However, residents and property owners are welcome to share information about their property directly with the ARA. The city will determine which properties are of heritage interest and contact individual property owners when the city conducts its own study. 

Should the city decide to approve the West Annex as an HCD, it will not be a blanket heritage designation: only those properties considered to have heritage value will require permits for any modifications that are visible from the street. Grants and tax rebates to help with the cost of conservation will also be available to owners of listed or designated heritage properties. All other properties will still have to negotiate with city planning (heritage) if a demolition permit is sought, to ensure their replacements fit in with the streetscape and use appropriate massing and materials. 

Heritage controls provided by an HCD could avoid explosive situations like the one currently playing out at 145 St. George, where tenants are consulting with MPP Bell and Councillor Layton on how to protect their rent-controlled apartments from being demolished for a 29-storey rental and condominium tower. 

If this mid-century modernist apartment were deemed to have heritage value—and an HCD will apply a broader definition of heritage that includes modern architecture— the developers would have to negotiate with city planning from the outset to demonstrate how the property would be preserved or integrated into a new development. 

The entire community is invited to participate in a virtual kick-off meeting on September 23. 

To hear more about the project, ask questions of the team, and learn how to participate in focus groups check www.theara.org, or email info@theara.org with the subjet line: West Annex Heritage Project. 

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Tags: Annex · News