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Neglected Shuter Townhouses Collapse

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They were built in 1856 in the Georgian style and were Toronto’s last standing townhouses from the 19th century, but now Walnut Hall is no more. The historically-designated property began collapsing yesterday at about 4 p.m. and is now almost entirely rubble [CityTV video]. Shuter Street was closed from Jarvis east to Pembroke Street until late this afternoon.
The property was notorious for its decrepit state. Once owned by the RCMP along with the adjacent former RCMP headquarters (now the Grand Hotel), the townhomes were sold to a developer who intended to demolish them and rebuild, but in May of 1997, they were designated as historical architecture under the Ontario Heritage Act and had to remain standing.
Currently under new ownership, the property was allowed to suffer a similar fate to some other historic buildings around the city, where a developer allows the structure to fall into such dereliction that it either collapses by itself or it is deemed unsafe and eventually has to be destroyed. Property owners aren’t mandated to maintain historical properties as they decay. Two beautiful Victorian brick homes on Wellesley east of Yonge were allowed to be torn down a couple of years ago to make way for a condominum despite being historically significant buildings. One of the homes was allegedly in enough disrepair that it was given the green light for demolition, while the other was deemed as historically “recognized,” but not notable enough to be preserved by law.
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Article continues with more photos under the fold. Top photo by Mr Kevino from the Torontoist Flickr Pool, who also created a drawing of Walnut Hall as part of a series on display at the Cameron House for the rest of the month. All other photos by Marc Lostracco.


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According to the Star, the building experienced the first significant signs of collapse in 1999 when bricks began falling from upper floors and engineers evaluating the townhomes recommended immediate demolition. Instead, a chain link fence was erected around the property. A few classic homes on nearby Sherbourne have also been lost in recent years due to neglect.
Walnut Hall was built by John Tully, who was one of Toronto’s preeminent architects at the time (his design was one of four considered for the construction of Old City Hall in 1844). The townhouses were originally named O’Donohoe Row, after alderman John O’Donohoe, who bought the land from baron William Jarvis. In the mid 1900s, the structure was renovated to add a storefront and renamed as Walnut Hall, and had served as a rooming house and a municipal hostel. It has stood shuttered and empty for two decades.
The question arising for the umpteenth time is why the City has no law in place to fine or convict property owners for a dereliction of responsibility in maintaining historically significant properties. The City’s alleged preservationists have been notorious over the last century for allowing swaths of incredible architecture to meet the wrecking ball for the sake of high-density downtown development. If a developer buys a designated property to patiently wait for “demolition by neglect,” the community can do nothing except watch it decay. Does the same fate await gorgeous but deteriorating buildings like the former TD and CIBC bank buildings across from the Eaton Centre? And do the buildings that replace them actually improve the architectural identity of the area?
As we lose great structures like the Riverdale Hospital and the Uptown Theatre, we should remember the Distillery District, Yorkville Fire Hall and The Courthouse as examples of what can and should be done with historically-significant structures. Torontonians would be up in arms if there were demolition plans for the Daniel Brooke Building (1833; King and Jarvis) or the John Daniels House (1867; Yorkville), yet we seem to be powerless to stop the last two centuries from disappearing at the hands of negligent owners.
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Photos by Marc Lostracco

Comments

  • miles

    Every single historic building matters, especially in a city with so few of them. It’s disgusting that nothing is done about developers letting them literally fall apart. Perhaps there needs to be an urgent review of classification of historic buildings in the city.
    Toronto will end up with the Distillery District and that’s it, a little hermetically sealed sample ‘old Toronto’.

  • GH

    “the townhomes were sold to a developer who intended to demolish them and rebuild, but in May of 1997, they were designated as historical architecture under the Ontario Heritage Act and had to remain standing”
    Sounds like the city (province?) rendered the property uneconomic to do anything to, so really, should that developer then bear the cost to rehabilitate a property to its historic state? If the city (province?) wants to diminish the value of a property (not historic value) it should bear the blame for the consequences if the owner cannot do what they bargained in good faith to do. If its our collective heritage, it is a collective responsibility not a private party’s.

  • Marc Lostracco

    I believe the by-law on Walnut Hall was rushed to designation in 1997 because of the plans to demolish it (it was purchased by developer Joe Jonatan in 1996, who is now deceased). Developers are very aware of what challenges they face when it comes to by-laws, including potential historical designations (he bought a building constructed in 1858, after all). If the developer felt it was too much to wait it out, he could sell it, but it’s the land, not the building, that’s hyper-valuable to the developer, and its value vastly increased since 1996.
    Jonatan bought the land from the RCMP but still has to abide by Toronto’s bylaws, so it’s not up to the City or the province to reimburse a purchase or buy back a building if it gets designated, though it is the responsibility (as in any building) for the owner to maintain it, which is something one assumes upon purchase. Assuming that you’re gonna be able to tear it down isn’t relevant—it’s kinda like a builder buying a building for a residential conversion and planning balconies, but not being allowed to add them when s/he can’t get the zoning regulations changed. Again, it’s assumed risk.
    Also note that the City can grant tens of thousands of dollars to owners to help them spruce-up a Heritage property, and that Walnut Hall was included in a larger plot of buildings on George Street bought simultaneously by Joe Jonatan.
    The discrepancy is that when a building is vacant, the owner strangely doesn’t have to maintain it under law. The RCMP holds part of the blame for the building’s condition, because they allowed it to sit untouched and unmaintained for years too.
    Sadly, a large part of Toronto’s architectural legacy is that we don’t know what we had until decades after it’s gone, and what’s gone up in place of our lost treasures has dulled our city dynamic. Why, in 2007, we haven’t learned much after half a century of demolition and DOA architecture is simply mind-boggling.

  • GH

    If they changed the law specifically for him, then they shoulder even more blame. Governments also take risks (like a developer faces risks, as you point out) when they change the law that the result will be a completely legal response in which the outcome ultimately fails to achieve what the government set out to do. The collapse of this building would be irony – by their actions they doomed the building they set out to save.

  • Marc Lostracco

    They didn’t change the law; they just applied the existing law to that particular building, which should have undoubtedly been classified as a heritage property anyway.

  • GH

    same difference if it restricts use.

  • rek

    What is the point of a heritage designation if the building is allowed to fall apart? As shadey as it is for a developer to allow something to crumble so he can put condos up, if there was nothing forcing him to repair it, or nothing to take it out of his hands, the blame isn’t his alone.

  • Marc Lostracco

    Designating a building as a perserved heritage property is a whole process (I believe Toronto has about 7,500 designated properties), and I don’t feel too bad if a developer who buys an 1856 building isn’t allowed to tear it down. And remember that developers have taken advantage of loopholes in the designation process—most recently and obnoxiously when developers tore down a church and the Inn on the Park while the buildings were under review by the Toronto Preservation Board (in the case of the church, it was destroyed overnight mere hours before a 7 a.m. stop-work order would go into effect).
    By the way, the demolition permits were granted by the City in the first place, which seems to hand them out like candy without appropriate communication with the Preservation Board.
    Old City Hall and the Church of the Holy Trinity (behind the Eaton Centre) were also slated for demolition and redevelopment, but nobody is complaining that the developers were denied permission to do so.

  • hey

    Until the city formaly desgnates the building as heritage, it has a much different and greater economic value as a possible development site. There’s no “in process” designation, it’s either designated or not. If one is very oncerned, you could try to get an injunction – or write that into the law – but that’s not how th process works.
    If people truly value heritage, the government should be paying for the seizure of development rights. Otherwise we’re imposing our aesthetic preferences on others at their cost. That is evil and a bad thing to encourage governments to do.
    This situation is no different than what is seen with unfunded species protection actions or environmental restrictions. Farmland can be designated as “wetlands” and taken out of production, based on a very technical and specious definition of wetlands. A forested area that could be logged or developed, but where the owner prefers to keep it as trees, can be rendered of no value with a designation.
    So what hapens in these cases? People do things they’d rather not to ensure that their land can’t be seized. Any intermittent stream or drainage channel is culverted and buried, any sign of a protected species gets the area logged, etc. Or you get midnight demolitions or demolition by neglect with heritage buildings.
    All these programs cost HUGE amounts of money, but politicians and leftist activists like Torontoist offload the costs to individuals (hopefully rich and/or rural) they dislike and make it look like they’re free. They aren’t free and these unintended consequences are the blowback of “free”.

  • David E

    There is a book in the library system called “Lost Toronto”. Have a look and have a weep for some of the very magnificent buildings we have lost.
    I’m in my early 60s and I have seen so many go down particularly during the ’60s when everything had to be all shiny and new. Then there was the threat of levelling Union Station in the early ’70s but that’s another story. Don’t get me started.

  • rek

    hey – So only the rich and rural pay taxes? I had no idea, I’ll have to update my tax status when I return to Toronto.

  • Marc Lostracco

    “hey”: Assigning a historical designation to a building is a process, as it first has to be a historically recognized property, which doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be protected, and then it has to be evaluated by a board on its architectural, cultural or “natural” merit and then assigned a pending status, which is then approved by Council. There are additionally provincial and federal heritage bodies that may be involved in a designation. It’s not a matter of the City simply saying so.
    The only difference between a Heritage property and a regular one is that the owners can’t alter the facade or structure of a designated building. As for “imposing aesthetic preferences on others at their cost” (a false argument), if we didn’t protect Heritage buildings, Cabbagetown would have been razed long ago and would now be a maze of apartment towers and ugly lowrise office buildings.
    A historical designation only means you can’t tear it down because it has a historic value to the greater community…you can still own, live, work and decorate it as before. Developers buy properties all the time that they aren’t able to do whatever they wish with, whether it be because of a Heritage designation or because they can’t sell enough units or because the land is found to be contaminated or because they aren’t allowed to build more than 12 floors or because the architects can’t agree or because they don’t have enough money for completion…etc., etc. It’s part of being a developer. Don’t cry too hard for them.

  • GH

    Why is it a false argument? It is true as far as I can see. Its not the city that bears the cost, so someone must. The project has reduced cash flows, so a reduced value. This loss in value is the developer’s and it is the result of the heritage designation.
    Yes, developers face risks. In capital budgeting, there are what are called “real options” that are taken into account in decisions to proceed with a project. If certain risks become reality, there is an option to abandon and put the funds to better use somewhere else. If the government brings the risk to fruition, which reduces the value of the project (the live, own, work, decorate path may all have some value, but for a person planning to build something new, likely much less and in any case, it is value to the developer, not in some objective sense, so absent a willing buyer, it is their assessment that matters), then the person who voluntarily decided to commit their funds to the project can decide not to.
    If people feel strongly about heritage buildings, they should elect people who will purchase the buildings with public money and not impose the cost of this “public good” on certain property owners only. Or they can do it themselves.

  • rek

    Or developers could stop buying heritage, heritage-pending, and heritage designation-likely properties with the goal of tearing them down…

  • Marc Lostracco

    You have to be a pretty shitty businessperson if you buy the last remaining townhouse from the 1800s for the purpose of demolishing it and not expect that you could be stopped. Developers know they run that risk, and they take the risk because if they can get permission to destroy it or if they wait it out until if falls down on its own, they end up with the windfall they wanted on vastly more valuable land.
    Toronto can’t afford to buy the 8,000 buildings that are currently historically recognized—that’s ridiculous. And do what with them once they own them? What about the people who live in them? And like I said before, the City gives out millions of dollars to owners of Heritage properties to help them maintain or restore them.

  • Jonathan

    A building shouldn’t be designated in a last second scramble when someone gets around to submitting a development proposal, that should be done before a property goes up for sale. That’s good for developers and the community as it avoids ridiculous situations like this or mystery fires that raze a historical building.
    At the same time, city staff have to stop abusing the heritage designations as a means to get thier way. It weakens the process and leaves us more vulnerable to that other 1800′s relic, the OMB.
    What’s up with the similar looking (though I think newer) townhouses on King just east of Parliament? Hoarding went up around them a week ago.

  • Mark Dowling

    If there are buildings of this vintage that developers let lie vacant for one year, the City should simply expropriate them.
    In Dublin a significant structure, Archer’s Garage was demolished and the developer was forced to faithfully rebuild it.

  • Alden

    It’s sad to see something as such with great historical value to our city go, but the longer we neglect these things the harder it is to keep it alive. No matter who owns it or who the developers are and what their plans and costs are, we knew from day one that these apartments were one of Toronto’s firsts why did we wait until the bricks started falling to make a push to change the way we deal with buildings that are given these heritage tags? To me these heritage tags on buildings don’t mean squat if the buildings are allowed to grow rotten without any maintenance.

  • Tony

    Why all of the complaining and hand wringing about Walnut Hall now? Why did no one do anything sooner? The local city councillor Kyle Rae is suddenly hand waving, but in reality did little in spite of local residents pressing him.
    Having lived adjacent to the place for almost 10 years I, for one, am glad to see it go. It may have been “historically important” (though I fail to see it myself) but what would have happened to it would have been similar to other buildings of heritage. Namely – 90% of it would have been torn down and a facade kept to be integrated with a modern concrete monolith. That is not preserving heritage – it’s paying lip service to the idea.

  • Marc Lostracco

    Yeah, I agree that leaving one façade wall up and then building a crap building behind it kinda defeats the whole purpose of preserving Heritage buildings. The Maritime Life building at the corner of Queen and Yonge is an example of this—they did a great job restoring the old Bank of Montreal façade, but then they built this hideously ugly and archictecturally unsimilar monstrosity above it.

  • hey

    “Toronto can’t afford to buy them all” exactly the bloody point: you’re advocating an unaffordable policy and stealing from specific people to avoid reconciling with that fact. The city wouldn’t have to actually buy the property, they’d just have to pay for the damage done to the value of the property – conservation easements are frequently done in this way, the owner gets money or a tax credit for the value of the development rights, as are air rights sales.
    The real reason why the city can’t mandate maintenance is because restoring these buildings is an exceptionally expensive proposition. You’d need to be talking about 500k+/unit fines as a minimum before it would make sense to renovate under compulsion. The city shouldn’t be able to mandate expenditures of this magnitude, and if it does you’ll see extreme effects in the property market.
    To the don’t buy heritage designation likely buildings: Inn on the Park was 40-50 years old and a huge ruckus came about when it was demolished, with people trying to get it designated heritage. So now ANY building can be designated heritage, so no one should buy any building anywhere in Toronto. Good way to run an economy, but it does sound remarkably like most Toronto Councillors, rek are you Adam Vaughn?
    Toronto’s planning is a mess, thanks to councillors who reward political immaturity and rely on OMB/ the Province/ the Feds to save the day on every initiative. I love old buildings, hate the 60s apartments in the Annex, Rosedale, Forest Hill that destroyed beautiful old buildings, and think that Wanut Hall was a tragedy. But the Feds left it unheated for 20 years and then council does nothing after forcing through a designation – $20k is baseboards on a heritage building, maybe.
    Realise that council is constantly playing you for saps by sympathising, blaming the evil OMB, but not doing anything effective on any of the files that they care “deeply” about. Emoting isn’t an effective strategy in the real world, but it does wonders in Toronto municipal politics (heck all Toronto politics). Doesn’t say much about the intelligence of “progressives” in Toronto if you can always be bought off like that, but then you wouldn’t be “progressive” if you were intelligent to begin with.

  • Adam Sobolak

    “Hey”, if *you* were, er, intelligent to begin with, you’d realize that the argument on behalf of Inn On The Park *was* on grounds of architectural merit–it wasn’t just “any” building. (And if the “merit” is lost on you even on the same posthumous credit-due grounds you’re granting Walnut Hall, well, maybe you shouldn’t be working in this town. Vamoose.)
    Besides, if you’re trying to pick on IOTP for being only 40-50 years old, remember: that was the age of Union Station when the crusade to save *it* came about, back around 1970…

  • Marc Lostracco

    Where “hey” is correct is that it costs a shit-tonne of money to renovate and maintain a Heritage property, but the city should be appropriating them and can’t afford to anyway. Owners of any building are required by law to keep them in a state of good repair if people are in them, and unfortunate things happen all the time that are unforseen and often catastrophically expensive—new roof, collapsed basement, special assessments in a condo…but it’s something the owner still is responsible for, and if you own a property that is historically designated or older than dirt, you have to expect that. Caveat emptor.
    The City must not allow preservation or restoration to be the choice of the owners; otherwise, we’d have nothing left. Old buildings have cultural, architectural and historical merit and need to be preserved for current and future generations.
    The problem is allowing these properties to fall into a state of disrepair in the first place, which doesn’t happen overnight. The loophole where an owner isn’t required to keep the building’s structural integrity intact if it’s empty is the biggest problem, and hence, demolition by neglect. If a brand new building was starting to fall down, everyone would be seething. We should be equally outraged at this.

  • GH

    In 100 years new buildings will be 100 years old. Should we ensure that we have some from this era by imposing rules about maintenance, repair, demolition etc? Or can we be sure that no one will care? How do we know? Lots of people think the Inn on the Park is significant, lots don’t. Who is right? Dismiss this as ridiculous, but those who come after us may fight these same battles about our new buildings. (And then what of the not new but not old buildings?)
    If everyone faced the possibility of heritage designation for their properties, then maybe the issue would be understood for what it is – a restriction on freedom with little compensation for the sake of subjective notions such as historical or architectural importance.

  • rek

    Why is it that stepping on the toes of developers is seen as a rights issue here? Nobody forces developers to buy heritage properties, and nothing prevents them from selling properties that have since been designated as such.

  • sodapop

    Toronto has no respect for its heritage. This is sad, as we have so little of it left. Letting developers wait out the decay of a building is a criminal loop hole. I don’t think time stands still, but history is important. The ballet school beautifully and purposefully retrofitted the old Havergal/CBC space, as did Mars at University and College. The corner of King and Jarvis was very nicely integrated into the old neighbourhood. BCE incorporated a historic structure into the atrium. Walnut Hall was neglected in the hopes that it would fall down, and it did (with a whole lot of help). The street was closed off and the building was pulled down within 12 hours…very fast for demolition. I have friends who live on the street and they never saw the building as an eye sore. They morn it’s lose more than most. Go to Europe, or even yet closer to home…go to Chicago, go to New York and you will see cities that care about their history. And by caring about their history they guarantee their future as world class cities. Toronto is selling it’s history and future as a world class city for second rate condos that are forgettable from the moment they appear. Remember, we are pulling down these building not to build new ‘pieces of art’, but random boxes of utility. This will continue to happen as long as people refuse to speak up, or show that they care.

  • Marc Lostracco

    To update the situation, Councillor Kyle Rae (himself a controversial proponent of high-density redevelopment and one of the forces behind Dundas Square) is tabling a bylaw proposal where owners of heritage properties would be fined for failing to keep a minimum standard of good repair.
    The fines would only be up to $5,000 (the maximum), but if the owner continually ignored necessary maintenance, the City would conduct the repairs itself and add the cost to the owner’s tax bill.

  • Tony

    Kyle Rae? What a piece of work! When the local residents pressed him to do something to force the then owner to do some work to maintain the building, he claimed there was nothing he could do. Then, in order to get planning permission granted, Rae supported a plan that would have meant doubling the density normally permitted on a plot of that size.
    Rae is covering his behind, typical multi-faced politician, by pretending to care now that there is so much out-cry. What he is doing now could have been done long ago.
    Even today, Rae is quoted in the The star today as follows: “They were going to keep the heritage building and build in behind,” the councillor said. “There was an approval back around 2002 (for a seven-storey condo tower) behind the building.
    “They were actually saying they were going to go even higher. That made me a little uncomfortable… but they were going to keep the building.”
    That the new owners want to build even higher than 7 stories makes him uncomfortable is very questionable, given his stand on high density properties and his support for the monstrosity to be built at Yonge and Bloor.