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cityscape

The Curious Case of 129 St. Clair Avenue West

A proposed condo development at the site of an historic church raises issues about heritage preservation and community involvement

Photo by Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist.

Preserving Toronto’s past is complicated business. Current example: the planned conversion of a historic church into a condominium, which raises issues about heritage preservation, adaptive reuse, and community intervention. Preserve the full building? Adapt it, with pieces missing? And how much say should neighbours get? Such questions surround the development proposed for 129 St. Clair Avenue West, which was on the agenda of Tuesday’s Toronto and East York Community Council (TEYCC) meeting.

Former Deer Park United Church. Photo by Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist.

The church in question is the former Deer Park United Church, which served worshippers at the corner of St. Clair and Foxbar Road from 1913 until 2008, when the congregation sold the building due to rising maintenance costs and the loss of heating previously supplied by the neighbouring Imperial Oil Building. The site was designated as a heritage property for being the oldest church in the neighbourhood, its role in the community, and its neo-Gothic design. Following its closure, the building slowly decayed while the site was used for parking.

Around the corner, Foxbar Road is a neighbourhood attempting to maintain its quiet character despite its proximity to a major intersection. Signs marking limited parking hours line the curving one-way street. Homes have seen little turnover: in his deputation at yesterday’s TEYCC meeting, Foxbar Neighbourhood Association (FNA) member Paul Le Vay noted that his family was only the second to live in his century-old house. Such entrenched communities usually don’t take landscape-altering change well—which is what happened when Diamond Corp revealed its original development plan for 129 St. Clair over a year ago. The proposal included a 32-storey tower, private residences built into the church, and no provisions for public space.

The FNA took their complaints to Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) and explained them at a public meeting in March 2011. A working group consisting of Matlow, City staff, the developers, and community members was charged with making the project more amenable to local concerns.

After meeting four times between May and September 2011, a compromise plan was devised which reduced the tower’s height to 27 storeys and introduced a public, landscaped area to replace the existing parking lot [PDF]. The plan knocked down the southern portion of the church, a Sunday school wing built in 1931, so that the condo tower was placed closer to St. Clair. Stone from the demolished section would be reused for construction of six townhomes along Foxbar.

Matlow observed tensions early on, before the group created a workable solution that met most community concerns. “In my view, there was no perfect proposal,” he told us in a phone interview. “The only thing that would have made most people happy, including myself, was if the City had policy that protected heritage sites, that ensured that they were kept in good repair, and that they were genuinely preserved.”

It’s an evaluation City staff agreed with. In a January 25, 2012 report [PDF], the City’s planning department found that with the exception of that 1931 wing, the proposal would see the site “protected, used and managed in such a way that its heritage values, attributes and integrity” would be retained.

Proposal for 129 St. Clair Avenue West (middle tower). City of Toronto Staff Report.

One working group proposal that wasn’t initially submitted to the City, but has since been folded into the revised plan, has been controversial among the local heritage community: the roof over the core of the church will be removed to build a publicly accessible courtyard, featuring a design reminiscent of the Evergreen Brickworks. Those associated with the working group stress that the courtyard creatively respects the site’s traditional role as a community congregation spot. If built, the courtyard would be maintained as per City park standards and would be open to the public from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Heritage Preservation Services has expressed reservations about the working group’s plan, indicating that it believes the new scheme does not satisfy provincial and municipal requirements, nor does it preserve the property in terms of “minimal intervention” to the original structure. We contacted Heritage Preservation Services several times to learn more about their view on the matter, but had not received a response to our questions as of posting time.

Heritage consultant Julian Smith, who peer reviewed the project, noted during his TEYCC deputation that the courtyard was a fine example of “contemporary best practice” in the heritage field. He believes it represents the shift from an old paradigm—of historical properties as static objects—to new standards (ones he worked on with UNESCO) that recognize the importance of related cultural, economic, and social impacts on the surrounding community. In this case, for instance, Smith said the courtyard’s use by people seeking quiet and sanctuary mirrored the usage of the church.

Site plan submitted to City Planning Department. City of Toronto Staff Report.

Architect Michael McClelland, who worked on the project, shares that view. He feels the divide between residents and heritage advocates is unnecessary, and that greater overall community engagement is critical when adapting heritage buildings—and while he admits NIMBYs will appear during consultations, he thinks petty concerns can be sifted out in favour of important ones. In a telephone interview with us, he noted people have immediate reactions like “if you’re going to keep it, keep all of it” without thinking through what comes next. The working group has done that, he believes, and the courtyard plan demonstrates that “the idea of a place of congregation is something of real value and is as important as bricks and mortar.”

None of the deputations at Tuesday’s TEYCC meeting opposed the revised plan. Developer Steve Diamond showed slides of the new design, and used a section of the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada to support the case for the courtyard. Councillor Matlow reiterated that heritage preservation policies needed more teeth. “If I had my way,” he said, “I would have just said no to the whole thing. I would have said once the church is designated heritage, it means you can’t touch it, it means that it’s protected in perpetuity” (though this may prompt some to wonder why he didn’t push to block the development). Despite initial hesitations, Matlow fully backed the new plan, believing it would prove an “award-winning design.”

Community council didn’t, in the end, endorse a recommendation for the site. The proposal will return to the Toronto Preservation Board for review at that body’s February 21 meeting. After that, city council will make a final decision at their next meeting on March 5. Regardless of whether the proposal proceeds, it will provoke debate on future approaches to preserving the legacies of Toronto’s past.

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