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Protecting Toronto’s Heritage

The Empress Hotel fire's designation as one of Canada's worst heritage losses of 2011 is a wake-up call on how our city can do better by its past.

The gutted remains of a heritage building after a six-alarm fire at Yonge and Gould, formerly the location of the Empress Hotel.

Among the bounty of 2011 year-in-review lists that Toronto entities have found their way onto is the Heritage Canada Foundation’s list of “Canada’s Worst Losses of 2011.” The less-than-boastworthy designation, one of three given across the country, was granted in connection to an incident that happened within the first week of the past year: the burning of the former Empress Hotel.

The heritage property on the intersection of Yonge and Gould (likely better known to certain readers as the former home of Salad King) dated back to 1888, and had been under the Foundation’s concerned watch for some time. Notoriously neglected by its owners, portions of the building’s north wall had spontaneously crumbled the previous April. Rather than be rescued for restoration, the building found itself a demolition victim, its destruction by fire a blow to hopes that the property’s heritage designation would prove its saving grace.

The fire would later be confirmed as arson.

Heritage Canada Foundation director of communications Carolyn Quinn told us by phone this week that the “worst losses” heritage selections all have a tragic significance in common: “They’re all symbolic of certain systemic problems that make buildings of heritage significance prone to neglect and abuse.”

“[The Empress Hotel building] joins a long list of heritage buildings that have suffered their demise for similar reasons: neglect, a lack of resources for the City of Toronto to actually enforce its own property standard bylaws, and a classic case of owners who consider a building of this type to be an obstacle to profitability,” Quinn explains. The Empress Hotel fire is an especially striking representation of a city’s failure to protect historic property due to its prominent location. “Being on the mark [of an] important corner of downtown Toronto, it was a good example for us to use.”

The main challenge in heritage building protection, ultimately and unsurprisingly, comes down to a simple matter of dollars and cents. Convincing property owners that historic buildings are assets that add to the texture and culture of a street, and are thus worth investing in, can be a tough sell.”There are invariably unknown risks associated with rehabilitating historic properties,” Quinn acknowledges. Still, Quinn points to the Distillery District’s reinvention as a commercial mini-village as an example of heritage restoration gone right, and hopes other developers will follow suit. “Investors and developers should be willing to think outside the box.”

Of course, that leaves open the question of just what form that thought might take. Some changes to the heritage preservation system itself might help. So can examples of developers who highlight the heritage features of their properties and use them to enhance a building’s value (the recent sale of the Flatiron Building is a good recent case). While there are inherent challenges unique to the preservation and redevelopment of heritage properties—as in, they’re old, existing buildings rather than clean, malleable slates—ultimately, it is up to investors and developers to have faith that our history is worth the plunge. Because, truthfully, it is.


See also:

A Brief History of Heritage Up in Flames

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