City Centre Mirror
The City of Toronto is taking steps to return the site of Canada’s first Parliament buildings back into the public realm.
A motion by councillor Pam McConnell was passed at the July council meeting to expropriate the last parcels of land that made up the historic site. The grounds, located between Parliament and Berkeley streets just south of Front Street, are currently home to a car wash and a car rental agency.
The plan now is to turn the lands into a regional library that will replace the existing St. Lawrence Library, which is due for an overhaul but limited in its current location.
“The current branch of the St. Lawrence Library was scheduled for expansion within the next 10 years,” McConnell said. “Its current location, on the main floor of a Toronto Community Housing (TCH) building on Front Street, is too small and with no room to expand. The new regional branch, which will service the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, the Distillery District, West Don Lands and East Bayfront, will be located on the First Parliament Site.”
The councillor added the new branch will include artefacts and exhibits highlighting the site’s rich history.
McConnell said the move to secure the land came about more than 15 years ago.
“Back then, a local heritage expert, Rollo Myers, came to me to say that he was certain that this site was the location of the First Parliament Buildings,” she said in an email. “Investigation from an archaeologist confirmed this. One of the last motions approved by Toronto City Council before amalgamation was to secure the lands into public hands.”
The lands housed the country’s first Parliament buildings from 1798 to 1813. The buildings were burned down by American forces on April 27, 1813, after which they were rebuilt on the site and remained there until 1824.
The lands have since been home to the District Jail, the Midland Railway Roundhouse and the Consumers Gas complex.
“There are layers of the history of the city on that site,” Myers said. “There are a lot of stories to tell about that site. There’s a lot there that tells the very history of the city.”
McConnell said some of the land that housed the country’s first Parliament buildings are owned by the provincial government, while the lots to be expropriated – 271 Front Street East and 25 Berkeley Street – are privately owned by developers.
“After years of trying to find a deal that they could agree to, I think that they wanted to develop but saw a lengthy and costly battle on the lands they owned and were more welcome to an exchange that would give them lands with fewer restrictions and objections,” she said.
Council’s decision to approve expropriation includes the authority to exchange plots of land, with the landowner taking over the site of a Toronto Public Library sorting station at 281 Front Street East. That sorting station will move to Scarborough.
“The library people saw that 12,000 people would be moving in and wanted to make sure distribution wouldn’t be impeded by the intensification of the site,” Myers said. “A local architect, Michael Kirkland, came up with an ingenious idea and said, ‘there’s the budget, there’s a good location, so why don’t we push (the development) across the street and get the (Parliament building) land?’”
With the site of the country’s first Parliament buildings soon to come into the city’s possession, questions remain as to how to recognize the site and its history. There is a plaque nearby, but Myers and McConnell agree more should be done to make note of the area.
“You wouldn’t want to make a fake building there,” Myers said, adding that the entire process to date has included input from local groups and stakeholders over the past 15 years.
McConnell said she plans to form a working group with community members and City of Toronto staff over the coming months to come up with a way of commemorating the history of the lands.
“This is very similar to the process we went through for the revitalization of the North St. Lawrence Market, and it is a very exciting and dynamic exercise,” she said.