With mounting development pressures, heritage conservation districts play an increasingly crucial role in preserving the city's historical fabric.
An article published here called into question the funding model for heritage conservation districts (HCDs) in Toronto, criticizing the former system through which communities were asked to self-fund HCD studies and plans. As City Planning and Heritage Preservation Services (HPS) prepare to enact the first round of HCDs under a new system, it’s worthwhile to explain how these studies and plans are financed, and the role community organizations play in HCDs.
Under the old HCD system, community organizations were responsible for financing the HCD study and preparing the plan, with administrative and technical assistance from Planning staff. This community-funded model led to the designation of some of Toronto’s most valued heritage conservation districts, however it also placed a significant burden on community members to finance and manage the HCD process, and risked cutting out communities that lacked significant financial resources. It also potentially excluded historic areas that lacked residential or business organizations from evaluation.
In 2008, City Council amended the Official Plan to allow for the allocation of Section 37 funds for HCDs, in doing so recognizing that HCDs are a community benefit that should be accessible to all Torontonians. City Planning soon after secured a multi-year budget to undertake five HCDs per year, regardless of an area’s access to S.37 funds. This new source of funding for HCDs removed the burden placed upon communities; it also provided HPS greater control of the HCD study and plan process, to ensure consistency with applicable legislation in the case of appeal.
The current raft of HCDs—King-Spadina, St. Lawrence, Garden District and Historic Yonge Street—have all benefited from multi-year funding that has supported the often long and resource-intensive work required to complete and pass an HCD. These areas were not selected for study due to the financial resources of local residents; they were prioritized as a result of the significant development pressure within their boundaries, and imminent threat to their heritage fabric.
This approach rightfully acknowledges that the primary objective of HCDs is to “…manage change in defined areas of the city that possess cultural heritage value and reflect important periods of the City’s history and development.” While community organizations are no longer asked to finance HCDs, they are nonetheless important and valued stakeholders; groups such as the St. Lawrence, Bay-Cloverhill, Church-Wellesley and Garden District Neighbourhood and Residents’ Associations have all participated in the current HCDs, providing local knowledge and feedback to City Staff and consultants.
HCDs have been in use for over 40 years in Ontario, however recent legislative revisions and amendments have re-positioned them as a sophisticated policy tool through which heritage resources can be conserved, and the places we as a city value are protected. The allocation of public funds for HCDs was long overdue, however without a commitment to increase the capacity of HPS to manage the HCD process and review heritage permit applications, the City risks creating a significant backlog of nominated HCDs and applications for review. As more communities recognize the value of HCDs, City Council will have to increase its commitment if it is to ensure the continued designation of heritage conservation districts in the city, and ensure the long-term viability of those districts once they have been designated.