As much as heritage designations can add to the character of a neighbourhood and provide links to Toronto’s past, there’s little question they can provide headaches for developers.
Projects that are approved on heritage sites can prolong work times and ramp up costs as workers have to work around the protected building. In some cases, a heritage designation can even scuttle a project after a developer has invested time and money on a site.
The Wesley Mimico Place project – which will see the historic Wesley Mimico United Church site redeveloped to include 30 seniors residences, community space and a smaller church space at 2 Station Road in Etobicoke – is in the midst of grappling with the former problems.
The project will see much of the church, which was first built in 1923, preserved – albeit at no small cost.
“It’s added about $650,000 worth of costs to the project,” said Deirdre Gibson of Robert Reimers Architect Ltd., the firm tasked with the redesign. “We have to replace copper with copper. We’re taking out old bricks, cleaning them and reinstating them.”
Wesley Mimico United Church was adamant that the original church building be largely preserved. That task provided its share of challenges for the architects to work around, including maintaining the bell tower and converting it into housing, as well as finding room for some of the stained glass windows which had to be relocated.
Robert Reimers Architect Ltd. employed the services of what Gibson called a “heritage super-duper specialist consultant” to help them navigate the process.
Of course, working around heritage features also opened the architects up to new ideas.
“The way the bell tower shapes some of the units, that’s an opportunity,” Gibson said. “The colour scheme with the original brick has influenced the colour of the new building – sometimes it’s contrasting and sometimes it’s complementary – so that’s fun.”
Another challenge was the fact that the City of Toronto’s own Heritage Preservation Services are, in Gibson’s estimation, woefully understaffed.
“The city staff at Heritage Preservation Services want to be helpful and they love their heritage buildings, but there aren’t enough of them,” she said. “It’s a very difficult task to look at the heritage sites across the city with a huge number of files and so few people.”
She added that the Etobicoke York Community Heritage Preservation Panel were extremely helpful in helping the project along, writing letters of support. Still, the lack of staffing made for slow going at times.
“It’s been a three-year journey and we wish it hadn’t been,” Gibson said.
For developer Sam Mizrahi, a last-minute bid for a heritage designation nearly put an end to his proposed “The One” project at 1 Bloor St. West, on the site of the former Stollery’s men’s wear store.
Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam started the process to have the building designated a few months after Mizrahi purchased it in October of last year.
“We did over a year of investigating and due diligence before we bought the site and (heritage designation) was never even on the radar,” Mizrahi said. “Any time we asked about it, the response we got was indifference.”
Mizrahi secured the proper demolition permits and began tearing down the Stollery’s building legally, shortly after word of the move to preserve the building got out. He finds it suspicious, to say the least, that no move was made to preserve the building and no attention was paid to its potential historic value until after his company purchased the land.
“We closed over $200 million in real estate on a landmark street corner and so I was taken by surprise when, after it closed, the councillor brought up questions about heritage,” he said. “I was always transparent about the plans for the site, transparent about what the vision was.”
He believes heritage designation is often used as a cudgel to thwart developers as opposed to as a means of protecting buildings that have architectural value.
“I don’t think it’s acting in good faith to use heritage to try to control the development process,” he said. “It’s an abuse of power.”
That’s a common refrain among plenty of developers who have purchased Toronto properties only to have councillors or residents make last-minute pushes to have the sites declared historically significant.
While the limestone façade from Stollery’s was removed, Mizrahi still hopes to pay homage to the venerable clothing store.
“We kept the limestone and we intend to create a monument for the Stollery family and for the city that will pay tribute to their legacy,” he said. “It will be designed with the city and with local stakeholders and the family giving their input.”
Work on the Wesley Mimico Place project is underway and The One has received early positive reviews from local stakeholders, but on other sites across Toronto, the battle between the city’s past and its development future promises to continue.