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Buildings in downtown Toronto that are having parts of its facades rebuilt as heritage resources are seen on Sept. 3, 2020.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

“Maybe it wasn’t important to keep it. Is that what we’re saying?” Geoff Kettel asked at a recent discussion of the Toronto Preservation Board. He was referring to the decision that the façades of a 1942 loft and a 1927 office building slated to be demolished must be preserved and grafted onto a proposed 37-storey development on Front St. East.

He and other board members, who advise Toronto City Council on heritage matters, agreed that these two structures were nothing special. “These were second-rate buildings within a larger framework,” said member and architect Robert Allsopp. “[Here,] they’re the last crumbs of heritage.” board chair Sandra Shaul called them “very modest little buildings.”

So why conserve pieces of them? Much of this neighbourhood – and its counterpart on the west side of downtown Toronto, the King-Spadina district – have now been designated heritage conservation districts, which list hundreds of buildings and places as having cultural value, either in themselves or as part of a larger context.

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This is a fine idea, in theory. But these are also two of the areas where the city is growing most intensely. Toronto‘s official plan, unfortunately, bars new development in 90 per cent of the city; the remaining land has stuff on it, often old buildings.

”The city plan’s expectations [for new development] and little heritage buildings don’t mix very well,” Ms. Shaul said.

Indeed. And this could be a real problem for the city in coming years. Ideas about cultural heritage have become increasingly broad. And city heritage planning staff are now willing to go to the mat to conserve some very undistinguished structures – while also beginning a heritage survey that aims to touch every corner of the city.

Will Toronto’s buildings be captured in amber? If heritage conservation combines with the city’s already-strict planning regulations and NIMBY politics, will the city have room to grow?

The St. Lawrence neighbourhood has seen a running dispute between the city and a host of private landowners and developers. The city declared the area a heritage conservation district in 2015; this was recently appealed to the provincial Local Planning Appeals Tribunal, and in a decision in early 2020, the LPAT allowed the policy to stand in a modified form.

While lawyers were arguing, city heritage planners mounted a spirited defence of the two buildings at Front and Sherbourne streets when they came up for redevelopment. This required some stretching. Of the 1940s fur warehouse, a city report cited “the building’s brick cladding, planar façade with minimal ornamentation, and large windows … designed to provide access to light – rather than engage with the sidewalk.” In other words, it’s a 1940s industrial structure built on the cheap. If this is heritage, everything is.

City heritage planners have power to make such calls under the Ontario Heritage Act, which allows them a tremendous amount of discretion.

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This seems benign. But that power could – and likely will – stretch in many directions. This summer the city’s heritage preservation services department, led by Mary MacDonald, launched a heritage survey, which will look at the whole city “and allow us to think in a holistic way about what is worth protecting,” she said.

This is a good idea. Historically, heritage has been focused on downtown neighbourhoods. Postwar Toronto and its diverse social history have been neglected.

But there is a danger here, says Michael McClelland of ERA Architects, a prominent Toronto heritage specialist. “I agree we need to think much more broadly about how we commemorate heritage,” Mr. McClelland said. But that does not mean actually keeping old buildings in all cases. “If planning staff is going to use the tools of listing and designating,” he said, “it’s just going to unleash the NIMBYs across the city.”

This has already happened. In 2017, the city classed as heritage more than 200 buildings in Leaside and North Toronto – the ward of Councillor Josh Matlow. Almost all are of negligible architectural or cultural value. But they constitute commercial main streets full of small-scale retail. Mr. Matlow, a frequent critic of development, publicly expressed a desire to protect these small shops.

This is a reasonable objective. But when you combine this sort of quasi-heritage with all of the other development restrictions in place – especially in house neighbourhoods – a big swath of his ward becomes off-limits to new development.

You can see where this might go wrong.

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Ms. MacDonald said, rightly, that downtown Toronto’s main form of heritage conservation, keeping fronts of old buildings, is not ideal. “We want to conserve much more than façades,” she said. An ideal form of heritage conservation, she suggested, is to retain an entire building as it is.

Okay: then what about a homely two-storey industrial building at 38 Camden Street, near King-Spadina, whose thinly detailed façade is now going to be folded on to a hotel development? The staff report on this structure said it “is distinguished by the treatment of its principal (south) elevation … with vertical and horizontal elements.” (No, this is not satire.)

Should that be kept? She said in this instance, retaining the front façade is simply a compromise., and that she would prefer to see the buildings preserved in their entirety. “Smaller buildings represent opportunities for different types of uses,” she said. This “could be home to a couple of startups.”

But is that a call that the heritage professionals should be making? If they are making it in the name of economic development, it’s a radical policy. And more broadly, if any brick wall might be too precious to be torn down – in a city where population and job growth are intense, and there are brick walls everywhere – then the arcana of heritage may shape our future for better and for worse.

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