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Toronto scraps museum project, plans to raze site instead

The Canada Malting Company Litd.'s old silos, at the bottom of Bathurst in Toronto.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The City of Toronto has abandoned plans to build a $100-million history museum at the foot of Bathurst Street.

The Toronto Museum Project was to spearhead the restoration of the old Canada Malting complex and its crumbling silos, with a potential waterfront condo and hotel development on the 1.4-hectare site at Eireann Quay.

There had been wide support on council for the plan, public consultations and endorsements by a board of "champions," including Sarmite Bulte and David Crombie.

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But officials, citing the recession, are now looking seriously at Old City Hall as a future venue for the Toronto history museum, while the city's chief corporate office has recommended the entire Canada Malting site be razed but for a small "symbolic outline" at a cost of $8.4-million.

That's despite opposition from the city's own heritage preservation services and the Toronto preservation board, which want the silos restored at a cost of $17.7-million. The mayor's executive committee will vote on the two competing visions next week.

Rita Davies, the city's executive director of culture, said the Toronto Museum Project - at one time known as "Humanitas" - was a victim of the economy, which hindered the search for a private-sector partner to develop it.

"Because the economy changed so dramatically in October of last year, we had to put that plan on hold for the time being," she said. "It's certainly not an active proposition at the moment."

Ms. Davies said the dream for the non-profit museum, a "broad and dynamic" space that tells the whole 11,000-year history of Toronto, is still alive. She said the city's focus has shifted to Old City Hall, which has been leased by the province since 1972 and is used as a provincial court.

City council voted last May to serve notice that the lease won't be renewed when it expires at the end of 2016 so the historic building can be used for a public attraction.

"It certainly is a good site for a museum because it's where people are," said Peggy Mooney, executive director of Heritage Toronto.

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Ms. Mooney is less enthusiastic about the demolition of the Canada Malting silos, a designated heritage site, which she said are the last surviving industrial structures on the western waterfront. "We believe it's really important that we save them," she said.

The site, built in 1928 with additions in 1944, has significant structural defects, including unsafe marine legs and falling concrete. Public access to adjacent Ireland Park was restricted along its east side.

City staff considered five plans that ranged from complete preservation of the buildings at $20-million to total demolition at $7.6-million. Either way, the city must spend an extra $3.8-million to repair the east dock wall.

Councillor Adam Vaughan said money is short and preserving all the silos would be a gamble. "Everything I've read in the engineer's report tells me that these silos are in a great deal of trouble," he said.

However, he wants the nine southern silos preserved in their entirety, not the recommended "symbolic representation" which involves cutting them down to about four feet above grade level.

Mr. Vaughan said the site in his ward could be used for "anything," but he's not taking seriously the long-dormant Metronome proposal for a "music city" with education centre, offices and performance space that was first approved for the land in 1999.

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The deal collapsed when the non-profit foundation behind it couldn't raise enough money in time. Many thought it was dead, but the foundation applied this month for a $20-million infrastructure stimulus grant from the federal government, although it has yet to approach the province and city for matching funds.

"Anybody who's been at this as long as I have is obviously an optimist," said foundation president John Harris. "I think this may be our best chance yet."

Neither Mr. Vaughan or the city's culture department has heard from Mr. Harris about his revived plans.

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