There are no plans to do anything with the two-storey brick building housing the Starbucks Coffee shop at the corner of Yonge Street and Davisville Avenue. But Josh Matlow isn’t taking any chances.
The councillor for St. Paul’s will be pushing to have the structure officially designated a heritage property. It sounds like there’s good reason. The building once housed a general store and post office owned by one John Davis — the same Davis that gave the name to the tiny, nearly-forgotten community of Davisville. The second floor lounge of the coffee shop was once home to the first town meeting of Davisville. Up the road, the Davis’ also owned a pottery business.
Sipping coffee on one of the old leather couches in the old town hall, Matlow calls the building “the heart of the area.”
“It’s not just because we get our coffee here,” says Matlow. “Its architecture defines the community — it is iconic. If it were to become a glass and steel condo, the heart of the community would be ripped out. It wouldn’t look like Davisville anymore.”
Matlow is hoping a heritage designation on the site will help keep that heart in its place. But of course it’s no guarantee. While the designation of a site as having significant heritage value causes redevelopment to be more of a challenge, a successful appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board by a deep-pocketed developer can still see that designation overturned.
It is better than nothing, however. Toronto has an inventory of about 10,000 heritage properties listed, with two-thirds of those designated. When a property has no protection, whatever its heritage value may be, owners can demolish the building in sometimes alarmingly short order.
This is what happened a few kilometres south to the historic Stollerys building at Yonge and Bloor Street. The 114-year-old building was torn down by its owner Sam Mizrahi, a few days after the local councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam had asked that the property be designated a heritage property at the Toronto and East York Community Council.
The demolition shocked many but was entirely lawful. Mizrahi met the requirements, applied for and received the demolition permit, and was able to begin work immediately — long before the city’s heritage preservation staff in the planning department were able to even consider the site.
And it might have taken some time. City staff cannot say exactly how long the list is of sites nominated – but not yet reviewed – for the inventory, but Heritage Toronto CEO Francisco Alvarez estimates the list is approximately 1,500 long.
Until earlier this month, the city only had two staff to sift through those applications — some made by city councillors, but many by residents. And it could take years until a site was simply listed, nevermind put through the more rigorous process for designation.
In the 2015 budget, Toronto council approved adding eight planning staff to move matters along more quickly: specifically, to begin studying properties on a neighbourhood-wide basis, to create so-called Heritage Conservation Districts where many properties would be preserved.
But even with the additional resources, nothing will happen quickly. There are 16 neighbourhoods that have put in a request, and over the next year the increased staff will only be able to approve three or four.
“Given the pace of development in Toronto right now it still might not be enough to provide the level of customer service to individuals and developers,” said Alvarez. “The delays mean we may lose buildings, particularly residential buildings, that don’t get evaluated in time to get onto the list.”
Earlier this year, Matlow convinced councillors to seek another way to speed historical designations up, by creating a third designation for historic properties that would list properties of possible historic significance as “identified.” Any plans to redevelop those properties would have to wait 60 days for an assessment.
“What that would be doing is creating that necessary space to consider whether or not that building merits designation,” said Matlow. “If heritage staff come back and say you know what? It’s not unreasonable to develop that site, then that’s fine. But I want the opportunity to ask the question.”
In the same report — expected to come back in June — staff will look at changes beyond the scope of city council, to lessen the ability of the Ontario Municipal Board to reverse or disallow heritage designations.
“Right now even full designation doesn’t mean full protection,” said Matlow. “That needs to be changed. I’d like to see rather than the OMB having to regard the city’s official plan, I would like to see the board respect it and abide by the official plan.”