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cityscape

Making Toronto’s Heritage Official

A report offers proposals for improving the heritage preservation language in Toronto's Official Plan.

Looking north on University Avenue from Queen Street, August 1950—the type of view that would be covered under proposed amendments to the Official Plan. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 121.

“A greater effort must be made to retain our remaining important heritage resources, and to balance Toronto’s growth while keeping important touchstones to our past. Heritage resources need to be viewed as contributing long-term value to our built fabric and individual developments, as well as our collective sense of ourselves.”

That viewpoint, developed from public consultation on heritage policy over the past two years, was one of the key messages in a staff report [PDF] presented by the City Planning Division to the Planning and Growth Management Committee, at City Hall yesterday. The findings reflected the importance of heritage conservation to Torontonians, whether they are active advocates or just people who occasionally line up for Doors Open.

Those same findings will be used as part of the City’s effort to overhaul Toronto’s Official Plan, a document that guides development practices. In other words, this consultation data will have significant ramifications for local heritage-preservation policy. The overhaul may turn out to be a boon for heritage boosters. Or, it may end up making no difference at all.

The proposed changes would triple the number of heritage policy points in the Official Plan, from 13 to 39. Many of the new points offer more details about protective measures and guidelines. For one thing, the City’s heritage inventory list would be converted to a register of designated and non-designated heritage districts and properties. There is stronger wording about enforcing bylaws to prevent “demolition by neglect,” and there are promises to create incentives to entice owners to maintain their heritage properties.

There is also slightly more detail about heritage impact assessments, previously known as “heritage impact statements.” (Is “assessment” friendlier to the ears of a developer or landowner?) The creation of more Heritage Conservation Districts to preserve neighbourhoods is encouraged.

Another recommendation is to lessen the impact of so-called “facadism” in new projects, by promoting the retention of enough of the original heritage building to reflect its original dimensions. If enacted, this would drive some developers crazy and provoke heated debate. It would also spur creative design approaches.

The Empress Hotel fire, January 2011. Photo by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.

Also addressed is what to do if an Empress Hotel-style disaster occurs. The proposal would require the City to create an emergency management protocol to coordinate actions across all affected City agencies and external stakeholders. Such a protocol would also extend to protecting important archaeological artifacts found while excavating for building or infrastructure projects. This would reduce confusion after an incident.

Speaking of archaeology, the proposed policies promote stronger collaboration with First Nations and Métis representatives whenever traces of their cultures are discovered. The current policy simply refers to “indigenous persons” and says sites identified with those groups should be recorded and preserved or, if built over, commemorated in some manner. The proposal calls for an archaeological assessment report before any development can proceed. If something is found on public land, then the City would have the right to deem that property unsuitable for any further development.

Preserving clear views and vistas of historic landmarks and landscapes is identified, in the proposal, as a critical issue. As Toronto accumulates tall buildings, there is a danger that older structures designed to provide a striking view will lose their “visual integrity.” A map has been prepared of sites identified as having significant views. While many of the preliminary buildings listed aren’t surprising (Casa Loma, Old City Hall, Ontario Legislature, Osgoode Hall, the Summerhill LCBO clock tower, Upper Canada College), others are odd. When was the last time you heard anyone marvel about taking in a long view of the East York Civic Centre on Coxwell Avenue?

While the proposed policy addresses many of the concerns we’ve heard at public consultations over the past year and introduces interesting new directions in heritage policy, we’re left with a major question: if the new rules were implemented, who would be responsible for enacting them? As it is, the city’s heritage agencies are dealing with backlogs of properties awaiting the proper research for designation. In recent years, staffing has remained static, or has been cut. Instead of hiring or spreading work to other departments, would the city attempt to rely on the dedication of volunteers to see through the changes, a move that might arouse the wrath of City employee unions?

We may find out in the fall. Following further consultation and a public open house in September, the city’s Chief Planner will present final recommendations at the October 12 meeting of the Planning and Growth Management Committee.

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