The Maclean House Quandary




The Maclean House Quandary

The Maclean House’s entrance, as it currently appears. Photo by Steve Kupferman/Torontoist.

The Maclean House, at 7 Austin Terrace, isn’t looking so good these days. Its windows have been ripped out and replaced with sheets of plywood. The columns and arched pediment that used to frame the main entrance have been removed, seemingly with a sledgehammer. All that’s left is a gap in the house’s stucco cladding. A long wire juts out, connected to nothing.
Wednesday, the Toronto and East York Community Council approved a demolition permit for this ramshackle wreck. “Good,” you may be thinking.
Except the building won’t be demolished for a very long time, in all likelihood. And this is where things get interesting.

The Maclean House was originally built in 1910, and has been a fixture down the street from Casa Loma ever since. It gets its name from its original occupant: John B. Maclean, a Torontonian reporter, editor, and publisher, whose last name lives on as the title of a little news magazine you may have heard of. His company published it.
In 1952, a couple years after Maclean’s death, the house was divided into rental units. It stayed that way until shortly before August 2009, when the current owner applied to the City for permission to demolish the building, to replace it it with something else. The owner then made all the unsightly modifications described earlier, presumably in preparation for the knockdown.
The City, seeing that an old structure with a connection to local history was in imminent danger, did what it frequently does in these cases: it put Heritage Preservation Services on the case, and then hastily declared its intention to designate the building a heritage property, giving city council some authority to intercede in the demolition, against the owner’s wishes.
But by the time the City had decided the Maclean House was worth saving, the owner had already applied for and received a building permit for a three-storey house on the property—this despite the fact that the owner had also submitted plans to build eight townhouses and a six-unit apartment building on the very same land. Because of some legal technicalities, the building permit makes it impossible for city council to refuse the owner a demolition permit, even though they’re certain he wants to build the townhouses (the plans for which haven’t received necessary approval from the City), and not the three-storey house for which the permit was issued.
And so yesterday they approved the demolition permit, but only on several conditions, including that the owner get another demolition permit under Ontario Heritage Act, the legislation that governs heritage properties in this province.
This may sound fairly lenient, under the circumstances, but it’s not. As the local councillor, Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s) explained to a confused colleague during Wednesday’s committee meeting: “While there are conditions to allow demolition, the conditions are of such a strict nature that the demolition would be unlikely to happen.”
In fact, the very next thing the committee did was adopt a staff recommendation to refuse a demolition permit under the Ontario Heritage Act, meaning they imposed the condition and erected a nearly insurmountable obstacle to fulfilling it in virtually the same breath. They also refused a third demolition permit application, submitted by the owner under yet another piece of legislation.
The decisions of the committee still need to be approved by city council at its next regular meeting, where they’re overwhelmingly likely to be upheld.
Toronto has lost many architectural treasures, as we were reminded last week by the dedicated folks at Heritage Toronto. The sting from the alleged Empress Hotel arson, in particular, is still fresh.
But in this instance the law has been bent virtually to its breaking point by both sides, all to decide the future of what is now a fairly unsightly stucco heap of an ex–apartment building, destined for a long, slow “demolition by neglect,” to use the catchphrase.
And so the question is: at what point is it permissible to say “fuck it,” and let buildings like these go?