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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.

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