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cityscape

The Fall of 81 Wellesley Street East

A sudden demolition raises questions about city building and preservation practices.

Shortly after 5 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre–Rosedale) reached an agreement over the phone with a demolition company, to halt work that had begun that morning at the back of 81 Wellesley Street East. An hour later, as the equipment was moved to the front of the property, a hole was punched in the face of the 19th century building. That act was akin to the punched-in-the-gut feeling Wong-Tam experience when she first learned of the demolition earlier in the day.

The assault on Odette House and its accompanying coach house points to loopholes in City policies regarding demolition permits and heritage designations that have allowed long-standing buildings to fall.

For 20 years, the buildings at 81 Wellesley East housed the Wellspring cancer support centre. When Wellspring determined that the site required costly renovations and lacked space for future expansion of services, the buildings were placed on the market for $3.25 million. The real estate listing [PDF] described 81 Wellesley Street East as a “rare boutique building”—a description that might have attracted a buyer who could have converted it into living, office, or retail space that blended with the neighbourhood. However, the listing also indicated that the site was “free of any historical designation/listing,” which signalled the opportunity to knock down the existing structures. The property was sold in September 2011 for $4.5 million, to a buyer that no one we talked to could identify. (Torontoist contacted the real estate firm that handled the transaction and was told that the buyer may or may not consent to their identity being known. At press time, the name of the buyer had not been released.)

While it is true that there wasn’t a heritage designation for the site at the time of the sale, it’s also true that one was in the works. On November 2, Wong-Tam submitted a request for designation [PDF] that was unanimously approved by the Toronto and East York Community Council. While the approved request sat in the long backlog of proposed designations at Heritage Preservation Services (HPS), the property owners applied to the Building department for a demolition permit on December 1. While requests for residential demolitions are sent to councillors like Wong-Tam for feedback, those for commercially-zoned land like 81 Wellesley Street East do not require such input. Without a heritage designation or listing officially on the books, the permit was granted, as required under the Planning Act, 14 days later.

The loophole infuriates Wong-Tam, who told us yesterday that “the only thing stopping reckless development and demolition in the city is whether or not something has a heritage designation.” Because anyone can submit an application regarding commercial property, and HPS is “so grossly underfunded and understaffed,” Wong-Tam feels that “we are systematically destroying the urban fabric of our city.”

Demolition equipment from Lions Group appeared on the site Wednesday, with the initial wrecking work occurring at the back of the property. Among the nearby residents alarmed by the situation was Paul Farrelly of the Church Wellesley Neighbourhood Association. “I noticed a post there 10 days ago talking about a demolition permit and I went to look around and took photos,” noted Farrelly in an email. “I did some searching and saw it had recently been vacated by Wellspring. But there was no physical notice or sign on the property.”

Residents quickly contacted Wong-Tam’s office to find out what was going on; one texter asked, “are developers pulling a fast one?” The councillor contacted the Building department, where she learned about the lack of input on commercial demolition permits. As she pieced together what had happened among various city departments, she grew angrier. “It was in this City’s hands,” she said. “That building came down because we issued a demolition permit, not knowing what the right hand and left hand was doing. There was a spectacular failure on the City’s part to do a good job of protecting that property and it was an enormous gap in communication and coordination at the City level.” Wong-Tam has requested that the Building department email all demolition requests in her ward, regardless of their zoning, to her attention. She has also scheduled a meeting with City planning officials to work through the loopholes: “we have to codify the behaviour and make it consistent so we can actually protect what heritage attributes we have left.”

Wong-Tam would also like to fix a related issue: situations in which demolition permits have been granted without a construction permit also being issued. So far, no development application has been submitted for 81 Wellesley Street East, though some suspect there are plans to build a condo. The lack of set plans for a site following building demolition has frequently resulted in the creation of surface parking lots in those locations—which owners may retroactively ask the City for permission to operate, such as one Wong-Tam cited at Jarvis and Carlton. Her ideal vision would see owners implement green streetscaping after the wrecking ball has stilled.

While the current half-demolished state of the property makes it a lost cause, 81 Wellesley Street East illustrates the problems of protecting older buildings around the city. A proactive, rather than reactionary, approach is required. More staff to clear the backlog of heritage designations and codifying better coordination between departments could alleviate the confusion that often is manifest now, and has seen historic buildings which might have remained viable parts of the local landscape reduced to rubble.

With a looming lockout of City workers that will further slow the designation process, it may soon be the case that there’s even more opportunity for developers who care more about bulldozing a site as quickly as possible to do just that, rather than consulting with the surrounding community or imaginatively working with existing structures.


CORRECTION: January 20, 3:35 PM Previously, we said the intersection of Wong-Tam’s concern was Jarvis and Church, which do not intersect. It has been changed to Jarvis and Carlton, which do.

Comments

  • plus MEDIC

    Looking forward to a glass monstrosity that will no doubt be erected in its place!

  • Anon

    Wong-tam is the perfect example of the useless busybody who’s got nothing better to do than run around trying to ruin people’s lives.
    It may be sad that such a building is destroyed, but strong property rights are key to a prosperous society as they give owner an assurance they can try to increase the value of the property. Whether it is moral or not to destroy “heritage” buildings is besides the point.
    Plus nowadays, even the most pedestrian buildings, as long as they are over 50 years old get the designation.
    People bitch all the time that living in the city is expensive, but it is nosy bureaucrats like Wong-tam that drive up the cost of everything by creating unnecessary red tape under the pretense of caring for “the greater good”.
    Let look at the other side of the coin where a potential developer will improve on the city by renewing the building stock and providing a market where demand is high with an important supply in housing. How about the “greater good” there? And the creation/reinforcement of a community spirit by bringing in fresh blood?
    Life is not so black and white and there is always what you see and what you don’t…

    • Anonymous

      If the owner doesn’t want there property to be listed as a heritage building, they have every right to get involved in the process and make objections accordingly.

    • http://www.yasmary.com/ yaz

      Greater good? Of course! If only we can have more CityPlace-like buildings that will turn into hugely expensive ghettos 40 years down the road!

      • Wqtrqw

        You are wrong!

        • Anonymous

          No, she’s right, and that’s what most of these new glassy towers will end up as once the bubble bursts. Please read around some more on this topic.

      • Anon

        City place is a private development, why would you care what it would cost the owners to maintain it if it does turn out to be a ghetto as you said. I’m not saying it’s a good development. If it turns out the way you predict, it will be demolished and and replaced. Mistakes are made and corrected. From design a point of view, I’d say there are far worse places to live in.

        • Stealthe1

          I lived in cityplace, what a nightmare. Westone broken elevators, floods. They painted over the wet drywall. nice mould

    • Anonymous

      “trying to ruin people’s lives”

      Hyperbole to the max.

      “strong property rights are key to a prosperous society as they give owner an assurance they can try to increase the value of the property”

      Properties in the city are not islands in the Pacific; as a city and a society it is in everyone’s interest to balance property rights with heritage preservation and integration with the streetscape/neighbourhood, among other things.

      “People bitch all the time that living in the city is expensive, but it is nosy bureaucrats like Wong-tam that drive up the cost of everything by creating unnecessary red tape under the pretense of caring for “the greater good”.”

      Well, no, it’s developers and real estate speculators who drive up the prices when they rebrand a neighbourhood as Upper Lower Trendy Area and demolish a block of unassuming low-rise buildings to erect a galleria-cum-hotel-cum-condo tower.

      • Anonymous

        You said it.

    • ife

      50 years isnt enough for heritage designation? In the 50-60s, 30 years afer the Art Deco era, many heritage properties were destroyed, including many Art Deco buildings, and made into parking lots. Modernism and its variations, like Brutalism and International style are part of the very fabric of Toronto (you know, the buildings built fifty years ago), and one day if they all get demolished, we will repeat mistakes we are trying to correct to this very day.

      You seem to be under the impression that the condo market hasnt met its demand for supply, which is not the case at all. And on top of that, you forget the fact that there was no application to build on this property at all.

      Maybe you would be happier if all heritage properties were demolished and there were vacant new towers everywhere? Yeah thats great for the economy!

    • Stealthe1

      Anon you are such a jerk

    • Carl

      Funny, Rome and Paris and Berlin all seem to manage without throwing buildings in the garbage every chance they get. Hmmm… I think I’ll go back to throwing all my recyclables in to the trash. Why recycle when most of our landfill is from demolition?

  • Anonymous

    Here’s a solution: change the by-law so that no demolition permit can be issued while a application heritage designation is being considered. Simple, really.

  • Urbanist

    Good for the developer. If we designate every building that is old as heritage, construction would come to a halt in this city. BTW, did you know that owners of these properties are not notified of a heritage designation until AFTER the fact and approved by council. Gee, I wonder why? How retarded is that? The group that is most affected by the designation doesnt have a say until after the fact is done. Talk about dirty and underhanded. oh well, that’s why they’re politicians.

    • Anonymous

      Property-rights are important, but property-rights zealotry (that such rights trump everything else) is like any other kind of zealotry—simplistic myopic. Heritage designations are important, and owners ARE notified of these designations. If they’re absentee owners who can’t be bothered to pay attention, too bad for them. They shouldn’t be in the business anyway.

      • Urbanist

        Yes, heritage rights are so important that the local residents know about the impending sale over a year ago according to another blog i read. why didnt they act than? They obviously knew there was a good chance a developer would buy it. Of course a heritage designation wouldn’t help the sale of the property for cancer society owners…

      • Anonymous

        It’s not as simple as “the owners should know”. In one recent case, the local councilor (Bussin) tried to pull a fast one on the property owners by commissioning a report on the heritage value of their house and recommending it for heritage status without informing them.

        The owners bought the house, with the intent to tear down the house and rebuild it — because one of them is disabled, and the original house on the lot was not accessible.

        According to the owners, they checked on the heritage status of the house before buying, and asked several neighbors if they would object to their plans; further, at least some of those who complained to Bussin — former occupants of the house — no longer live in the neighborhood. Afterward, Bussin allegedly blamed the new owners for their plight, because they didn’t check with her first!

        Google for “204 Beech” for all the details.

    • yikes

      Actually, there are dozens of properies in the downtown core that are just parking lots, and many buildings incorporate older structures into the newer towers. Also looks at many older cities that also have a lot of new buildings as well. Having lots of heritage properties is no excuse. In fact, its appaling that somehow people can get the idea that heritage properties is somehow bad.

      • FAC33

        Yep, if reuse of heritage properties is so damn difficult, why on earth is the Distillery District so successful?

  • http://www.bitpicture.com Marc Lostracco

    See James Cooper Mansion and Radio City as proof that condos and old houses can be integrated relatively nicely onto the same property.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cassandra-Tgf/100002718955641 Cassandra Tgf

    Next up: demolition of crappy 2-story houses in the downtown. It’s time to get rid of these eye-sores and make room for denser housing – 5-8 stories with large apartments where families can live.

    But first we need to get rid of the NIMBY-ists on council and their constituents who are committed to keeping this city backward.

    • Anonymous

      How will all these new residents get around? Oh right, cars.

    • Anonymous

      Either property owners can do whatever they want – demolish old buildings standing in the way of boundless progress, or maintain those same buildings because they’re selfishly living in them – or they can’t. You can’t have it both ways.

  • F89lux

    I’ve heard rumours that 77 wellesley st is next…

  • guest

    That is an absolute shame. When will we stop losing our historical buildings. Toronto is architecturally horrible enough without the lose of old beautiful buildings.

  • ActualReporter

    When issuing a correction, you should probably spell Councillor Wont-Tam’s name correctly.

    *face palm*

    Don’t know what’s happening over at Torontoist, but it appears to be going downhill fast.

    • Anonymous

      Yikes. Fixed!

  • ActualReporter

    Thanks for deleting my comment, after I pointed out the error in your correction.

    Didn’t think my levels of disdain could drop any lower, but they have.

    • Anonymous

      What deletion? Three comments up “Don’t know what’s happening at Torontoist…” is still showing up for us. If you posted another, it was screened out by our spam filters.

    • Anonymous

      “Didn’t think my levels of disdain could drop any lower, but they have.”

      Keep posting here, because your levels of disdain has become the subject of a betting pool.

    • Anonymous

      So dramatic! Get back to work writing the Sun’s front page headline.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Maryan/637195659 Chris Maryan

    I have yet to see anyone describe why this building is historically important and should be preserved. It’s old, but that seems to be about it. Not even all that old, 100 years by some accounts, making it one of thousands of houses in Toronto from the early 20th century.

    Why should this building have been preserved?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Brown/700895109 Kevin Brown

    According to the below blog – Wong-Tam is not telling the truth when she claims to have been blind-sighted by this demolition. She blames a lack of communication and “lack of funding” for this “falling through the cracks” The FACT is her office was emailed TWICE after December 2nd. when a blogger noticed that a demolition permit had been requested! She had ample time to act and put the brakes on this!

    http://urbantoronto.ca/forum/showthread.php/17993-81-Wellesley-Street-East/page4

    • yikes

      She alone can’t stop a building from being demolished. Obviously she knew about the building, but it takes time for it to receive a heritage designation.

      • Sdfsdfk

        she could have stopped it months ago when she KNEW the property was for sale.

        • yikes

          Well she seems to be doing more for heritage preservation than most councillors, too bad theres some who have to run conspiracy theorues against her. The real fault is city hall, maybe if we had just listend to E.J. Lennox a hundred years ago…

  • Con Current
  • Carl

    Interesting that while I’m recycling my cardboard and other recyclables, developers can throw whole buildings – even whole city blocks of buildings – in the garbage and no one blinks. Demolition is, itself, an totally unsustainable practice. Where are the environmentalists?

  • Anonymous

    This isn’t really about heritage. This is about waste of resources. We, the taxpayers subsidize demolitions like this by paying for landfill sites where all this gets dumped. Otherwise, demolition would be unaffordable. When developers have to pay for the reuse, or recycling of all the materials from buildings they so cavalierly toss onto landfill, the destruction of historic buildings will slow. Why recycle popcans, while this kind of flagrant waste of materials continues at this pace? Demolition is not a sustainable practice. It never will be. They are the source of the majority of landfill materials. Not plastic bags. Not popcans. Not Sofas. Buildings are.

    • Sdfsdfk

      Carl…Lenny’s calliing. He wants u to come back to bed.

      • TorontoCarl

        Good timing. I’m tired!

  • Lynda

    Why did this beautiful building not get saved and used for a community service building? Or if all failed, like it did, then why didn’t the material and lumber get reclaimed for recycling? What a loss.

  • guest

    What a sneaky weasel Tam Wong is. Only after is sells does she try and get the building historically designated. Why didn’t she do it before the sale?