Heritage Conservation Designation Points to a Tale of Two Cities
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Heritage Conservation Designation Points to a Tale of Two Cities

Accessing the difficult-to-understand heritage designation can leave lower-income neighbourhoods in the dust.

An example of the housing stock typical of Cabbagetown Southwest. Photo by ettml from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

In 2016, the City of Toronto will do a study to determine whether or not Cabbagetown Southwest is “culturally and/or historically significant” enough to merit becoming one of the city’s Heritage Conservation Districts.

A Heritage Conservation District (HCD) is an area designated as culturally and/or historically significant under the Ontario Heritage Act. The City of Toronto currently has 19 Heritage Conservation Districts, each governed by an official Heritage Conservation District Plan that demarcates the district’s borders and outlines the policies for conserving the district’s unique character. Once a neighbourhood achieves HCD status, any new construction or development cannot, according to city guidelines “diminish or detract from the character, history, cultural values, or integrity of the district.” Property owners within an HCD must apply for a permit before altering their property, and any applications that contradict the official HCD Plan must be approved by City Council.

HCD status is highly coveted: six neighbourhoods are currently going through the process, with seven more currently listed as prioritized for study on the City of Toronto website. Torontonians are nothing if not a deeply localized bunch, and neighbourhoods are important cultural signifiers for us. We define ourselves by the tiny section of the grid in which we live, and as Toronto undergoes rapid physical and demographic changes, living in an HCD offers protection from the massive development projects that continue to change the face of the city.

Achieving HCD status, however, is by no means an easy or efficient process. Neighbourhoods are nominated for HCD status by community members themselves, often with assistance from local neighbourhood associations or politicians. Residents must undertake an HCD survey cataloguing the area’s unique traits and then send in an application to Heritage Preservation Services. Heritage Preservation then determines whether or not to do a study based on the criteria outlined in the survey.

Community members used to be responsible for funding this study, but that changed in 2008, and now section 37 funds (where developers fund local projects when they exceed density limits) may be allocated for the purpose. The City then carries out the study, presents its findings to the Toronto Heritage Preservation Board and, if the Board approves, an official HCD Plan is created. The HCD Plan must be approved by the local Community Council, and then by City Council before becoming a bylaw—unless someone appeals the decision, in which case it goes before the Ontario Municipal Board. (Lost? You’re not alone: the City’s official reference document on the subject actually resorts to a flow chart.)

This is a challenging process. Even before the City decides to carry out a study, residents must go through the nomination and survey process, which is both time-consuming and requires a great deal of physical mobility. In short, the current system overwhelmingly favours older, upper-middle class people who live in developing neighbourhoods and possess both the time and disposable income to see the process through to the end.

By and large, the current process means that a neighbourhood’s wealthier residents have the power to define the official boundaries of the neighbourhood. High-turnover neighbourhoods, low-income neighbourhoods, and neighbourhoods that are not easily walkable see more barriers from participation and as a result, Toronto’s HCDs tend to be concentrated in the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods.

So long as the districts’ wealthiest areas remain the ones best able to determine the boundaries of HCDs, low-income neighbourhoods will be left increasingly vulnerable to development. All of the city’s neighbourhoods have a unique character that’s worth preserving. We need to expand our definition of ‘culturally and historically significant,” and we can’t do that without adding more voices to the discussion.

CORRECTION: 5:30 PM An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Garden District is not currently under study as an HCD. The neighbourhood was in fact authorized for HCD study in October 2012. Torontoist regrets the error.

November 26, 2015, 12:58 PM An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that local communities must self-fund HCD studies. Changes to the Ontario Heritage Act were made in 2005, and then implemented in 2008. Parts of the last four paragraphs of this article have been amended. Torontoist regrets the error.