Queen Street Fire's Second Spring
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Queen Street Fire’s Second Spring

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Today doesn’t mark any kind of numerically significant anniversary for the fire that destroyed six buildings near the intersection of Queen Street West and Bathurst Street on Feburary 20 of last year. There’s no nice, round number of days, years, or months to occasion this post. The timing here might be inconvenient, but then so was the fire’s. (5 a.m. on a Wednesday?) So we’re not totally out of line.
The pictures here were taken a week ago. It’s pretty clear that no rebuilding has happened over the course of these 1.28 years.
Recent news from City Hall indicates that it might be much longer, still. A November 2008 motion by city councillor Adam Vaughan (whose ward all the affected properties are located in) to provide financial assistance to the owners of the affected properties was yesterday referred for further study by City Council’s Executive Committee, and appears unlikely ever to be adopted. The reasons for the motion’s failure to impress are sound and pragmatic, but like a lot of pragmatic things, they’re somehow subtly infuriating, even though they’re justified.


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The crux of the problem is taxes. More specifically, it’s a previously obscure piece of tax legislation—a type of grandfather clause that caps the property taxes of the heritage buildings on the stretch of Queen Street between Simcoe Street and Bathurst Street at levels far below their actual, present-day values, according to a report to Toronto City Council’s Executive Committee. Any structure rebuilt on the site of the fire would not benefit from the cap. This means that if the owners of the incinerated buildings were to put up new ones, they would immediately need to pay as much as triple their previous property taxes just to do business. Which, while perfectly fair, does on its surface seem a little bit like kicking somebody while they’re down…and engulfed in flames.
(The property taxes on the destroyed buildings would have risen to normal levels of their own accord after 2016.)
Councillor Vaughan’s motion proposed allocating funds from the City to defray the costs of these increased taxes so that those affected by the fire could continue to pay taxes at the capped rate, if they decided to rebuild. The motion resulted in a study by Toronto’s chief planner and its deputy city manager and CFO, who, in a May 19 report [PDF], strongly discouraged the City from following through. “If the disincentives to redevelopment are not unique,” they say in their report, “the case for broader application will be difficult to resist.” In other words, if the City bails out Queen Street West, they might have to do it in the future for every vacant lot that comes asking. The City does, in some cases, already provide funding like this, but never to local retail businesses. As dry and flat as the fire site looks today, we are to understand that it is, in reality, a slippery slope.
With most of the destroyed businesses happily resettled elsewhere and no tax relief in sight, we might just get a few more of those nice, round anniversaries to commemorate. In the meantime, here’s to day 468, and still counting.
Photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist

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