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The Maclean House Quandary

20111702maclean.JPG
The Maclean House’s entrance, as it currently appears. Photo by Steve Kupferman/Torontoist.


The Maclean House, at 7 Austin Terrace, isn’t looking so good these days. Its windows have been ripped out and replaced with sheets of plywood. The columns and arched pediment that used to frame the main entrance have been removed, seemingly with a sledgehammer. All that’s left is a gap in the house’s stucco cladding. A long wire juts out, connected to nothing.
Wednesday, the Toronto and East York Community Council approved a demolition permit for this ramshackle wreck. “Good,” you may be thinking.
Except the building won’t be demolished for a very long time, in all likelihood. And this is where things get interesting.


The Maclean House was originally built in 1910, and has been a fixture down the street from Casa Loma ever since. It gets its name from its original occupant: John B. Maclean, a Torontonian reporter, editor, and publisher, whose last name lives on as the title of a little news magazine you may have heard of. His company published it.
In 1952, a couple years after Maclean’s death, the house was divided into rental units. It stayed that way until shortly before August 2009, when the current owner applied to the City for permission to demolish the building, to replace it it with something else. The owner then made all the unsightly modifications described earlier, presumably in preparation for the knockdown.
The City, seeing that an old structure with a connection to local history was in imminent danger, did what it frequently does in these cases: it put Heritage Preservation Services on the case, and then hastily declared its intention to designate the building a heritage property, giving city council some authority to intercede in the demolition, against the owner’s wishes.
But by the time the City had decided the Maclean House was worth saving, the owner had already applied for and received a building permit for a three-storey house on the property—this despite the fact that the owner had also submitted plans to build eight townhouses and a six-unit apartment building on the very same land. Because of some legal technicalities, the building permit makes it impossible for city council to refuse the owner a demolition permit, even though they’re certain he wants to build the townhouses (the plans for which haven’t received necessary approval from the City), and not the three-storey house for which the permit was issued.
And so yesterday they approved the demolition permit, but only on several conditions, including that the owner get another demolition permit under Ontario Heritage Act, the legislation that governs heritage properties in this province.
This may sound fairly lenient, under the circumstances, but it’s not. As the local councillor, Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s) explained to a confused colleague during Wednesday’s committee meeting: “While there are conditions to allow demolition, the conditions are of such a strict nature that the demolition would be unlikely to happen.”
In fact, the very next thing the committee did was adopt a staff recommendation to refuse a demolition permit under the Ontario Heritage Act, meaning they imposed the condition and erected a nearly insurmountable obstacle to fulfilling it in virtually the same breath. They also refused a third demolition permit application, submitted by the owner under yet another piece of legislation.
The decisions of the committee still need to be approved by city council at its next regular meeting, where they’re overwhelmingly likely to be upheld.
Toronto has lost many architectural treasures, as we were reminded last week by the dedicated folks at Heritage Toronto. The sting from the alleged Empress Hotel arson, in particular, is still fresh.
But in this instance the law has been bent virtually to its breaking point by both sides, all to decide the future of what is now a fairly unsightly stucco heap of an ex–apartment building, destined for a long, slow “demolition by neglect,” to use the catchphrase.
And so the question is: at what point is it permissible to say “fuck it,” and let buildings like these go?

Comments

  • http://twitter.com/Hohummm Ho Hum

    I don't see anything remarkable about this house. Is that stucco on the outside? IMO the lack of symmetry in the design takes away from its appearance. The dormer to the left of the entrance should be centered over the window below. No big loss if this gets torn down. There must be hundreds of buildings for more worthy of our concern.

  • friend68

    The owner's tactics seem underhanded, but understandable when you consider that when it is said that “we need to preserve these buildings” the City is saying to the owner, “YOU need to preserve these buildings, with no help or support from us, and our designation of the building as a heritage property has just decimated your investment.”

  • Jeremy Wilson

    This building was lost in 1952. Might as well finish the job – and that's coming from a staunch preservationist.

  • Toronto_Dave

    The Maclean house fell victim both to an opportunistic developer and Toronto's inadequate heritage preservation laws. I recall when this story broke last year, the developer had taken steps to remove all historically significant characteristics from the house's exterior. The city took action too late and is now in the position of simply blocking its eventual demolition. A solid heritage regime would have preserved the property long before the developer had had the chance to desecrate it – or, ideally, given the developer some incentive to maintain the house as it was. Now, it's an empty shell of a house, no longer worth saving.

  • Functionalist

    Why would a heritage designation decimate the value of the investment? That's the case if you operate with the perverse mentality that only that which can be destroyed is valuable. The designation is a recognition of the superior value of the property as something irreplaceable, something which should be a status symbol. So rather than plan to destroy something with officially recognized value, how about making the most of it and polishing that certified gem?

    A heritage property remains functional and desirable after it has been designated. Why should people be bribed to maintain functional and desirable buildings? Government support should be truly a last resort if a building needs very significant attention to restore. One last note: the city has an extensive collection of heritage buildings that it maintains. It's no big deal as they're functional buildings that do what is needed in style.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_THZ22N3CPWUZG3JK56N34EW6VA JEREMY

    There should really be a law in place to the effect of “If you deliberately undermine the heritage protection the property reverts to city ownership.” and the city can flip it to a responsible developer. Obviously it would have to be fine tuned to prevent abuse, but its getting to the point of being ridiculous how easy it is to get away with it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bryan-Cook/507835870 Bryan Cook

    I remember the story from last year. At this point city council should stop development just to show this prick that if you try to mess with the heritage act you get burned. Force him to sell it and then the next person can either fix it or develop it.
    The most annoying part is that this dink can get the papers to demolish a 100 year old historic site and build a condo and I can't demolish my garage to build a new one

  • nevilleross

    I guess that those who think this building means nothing forget that if for nothing else, this was where the founder of Maclean-Hunter lived? It should be preserved as a museum to that company and what it meant for Canada and Canadians.

  • wanderoo

    This story is incoherent in its description of the interactions between the city's heritage designation and issuance of building or demolition permits.

    Section 30. (1) of the Ontario Heritage Act states:

    “If a notice of intention to designate a property as property of cultural heritage value or interest is given under section 29, any permit that allowed for the alteration or demolition of the property and that was issued by the municipality under any Act, including a building permit, before the day the notice was served on the owner of the property and on the Trust and published in a newspaper is void as of the day the notice of intention is given in accordance with subsection 29 (3). 2005, c. 6, s. 18.”

    http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/ht

    Any permit. Is void.

    The building permit does not make it “impossible for city council to refuse the owner a demolition permit” as Steve Kupferman writes. Under the Ontario Heritage Act, city council is able to refuse the owner any and all permits. The owner's recourse is to apply for permission to demolish, and, upon the city's refusal to allow demolition, to appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board.

    Additionaly, the Toronto and East York Community Council doesn't have the power to approve anything in this case; all it can do is make a recommendation. Only full city council can approve or refuse approval for demolition or alterations to the property once notice of intention to designate under the Ontario Heritage Act has been served.

    As to whether the house is still worthy of heritage protection, under the criteria for cultural heritage value established by the province in 2006, the property meets the test based just on its historical association with John B. Maclean, let alone any other associations (e.g. the architect was apparently John Lyle). Aesthetics need not enter into it. Lack of symmetry? “Is that stucco?” Heaven forfend!

    Short answer: if council has the political will, the Maclean House stays put. Period.

  • SteveKupferman

    City staff wrote, in their report to the TEYCC, that the demolition permit needed to be issued, specifically because of the building permit. Here's the exact text of the relevant section, or you can read the whole report [PDF]:

    Under Section 33 of the Planning Act and Municipal Code Chapter 363, Council has the authority to refuse or approve demolition permits for residential properties. However, where a building permit has been issued to construct a new building on a property, the Courts have held that City Council cannot refuse the demolition permit. As previously indicated, the applicant was granted a building permit for an “as of right” single detached 3-storey house in fall 2009.

    City Council does have the authority to apply certain conditions on a demolition permit where a building permit has been issued. Section 33 of the Planning Act allows the imposition of conditions of approval to require that a new building be constructed within a specified period of time (not less than two years after demolition has commenced), and that a maximum charge of $20,000 may be added to the tax bill for each approved residential unit not completed within the specified period of time.

    And as to your other objection, that TEYCC decisions are subject to approval by city council–I say that.

  • wanderoo

    This story is incoherent in its description of the interactions between the city's heritage designation and issuance of building or demolition permits.

    Section 30. (1) of the Ontario Heritage Act states:

    “If a notice of intention to designate a property as property of cultural heritage value or interest is given under section 29, any permit that allowed for the alteration or demolition of the property and that was issued by the municipality under any Act, including a building permit, before the day the notice was served on the owner of the property and on the Trust and published in a newspaper is void as of the day the notice of intention is given in accordance with subsection 29 (3). 2005, c. 6, s. 18.”

    http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/ht

    Any permit. Is void.

    The building permit does not make it “impossible for city council to refuse the owner a demolition permit” as Steve Kupferman writes. Under the Ontario Heritage Act, city council is able to refuse the owner any and all permits. The owner's recourse is to apply for permission to demolish, and, upon the city's refusal to allow demolition, to appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board.

    Additionaly, the Toronto and East York Community Council doesn't have the power to approve anything in this case; all it can do is make a recommendation. Only full city council can approve or refuse approval for demolition or alterations to the property once notice of intention to designate under the Ontario Heritage Act has been served.

    As to whether the house is still worthy of heritage protection, under the criteria for cultural heritage value established by the province in 2006, the property meets the test based just on its historical association with John B. Maclean, let alone any other associations (e.g. the architect was apparently John Lyle). Aesthetics need not enter into it. Lack of symmetry? “Is that stucco?” Heaven forfend!

    Short answer: if council has the political will, the Maclean House stays put. Period.

  • SteveKupferman

    City staff wrote, in their report to the TEYCC, that the demolition permit needed to be issued, specifically because of the building permit. Here's the exact text of the relevant section, or you can read the whole report [PDF]:

    Under Section 33 of the Planning Act and Municipal Code Chapter 363, Council has the authority to refuse or approve demolition permits for residential properties. However, where a building permit has been issued to construct a new building on a property, the Courts have held that City Council cannot refuse the demolition permit. As previously indicated, the applicant was granted a building permit for an “as of right” single detached 3-storey house in fall 2009.

    City Council does have the authority to apply certain conditions on a demolition permit where a building permit has been issued. Section 33 of the Planning Act allows the imposition of conditions of approval to require that a new building be constructed within a specified period of time (not less than two years after demolition has commenced), and that a maximum charge of $20,000 may be added to the tax bill for each approved residential unit not completed within the specified period of time.

    And as to your other objection, that TEYCC decisions are subject to approval by city council–I say that.