Linda McCarthy thought she had plenty of time to finish an application to protect a stately old bank building in North Toronto. But after the developer that owns the site quietly obtained a demolition permit, she soon found herself standing on the sidewalk crying as she gazed at a pile of rubble.
"Our history is ending up in the landfill and the developers have literally taken over, taken control. I don't know whose fault it is but it needs to change," said Ms. McCarthy, a director of the Lytton Park Residents' Organization. "Developers just think they can come in and do what they want and they're getting away with it everywhere."
The demolition of the former Bank of Montreal building at 2444 Yonge Street, north of Eglinton Avenue, on Saturday has sparked an outcry from local residents, heritage-preservation advocates, city councillors and senior city staff while highlighting faults in the heritage-designation process.
"Developers are definitely taking advantage of this gigantic loophole. And when they say that they've done nothing wrong, yes by the letter of the law, they did nothing wrong. But I think property owners and developers have a moral obligation to the community they want to build in and that means operating in good faith," said Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who sits on the Toronto Preservation Board.
The 110-year-old building, which was one of the city's few remaining old Beaux Arts banks, had been recognized by the city as having historical value but had not yet been listed as a heritage site. Ms. McCarthy was in the process of completing the application. When buildings are designated as heritage sites, city council has the authority to refuse alterations or demolitions.
The developer that owns the property, Main and Main, did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday. The company applied for a City of Toronto permit to demolish the building on Dec. 16. The permit was granted on Jan. 18, according to the city. Depending on the type of building, such permits must be issued within 10 to 30 days under Ontario rules, a provincial spokesman said.
Ms. Wong-Tam called on the provincial government to allow the city more time to issue demolition permits, which would allow staff to assess buildings' heritage value before they are knocked down. Unlike with residential-demolition permits, owners of commercial properties do not have to obtain approval for their new development plans before razing old buildings.
"The only way that I can see this working better for us is if the province actually created the same level of protection for commercial properties as they already have in place for residential properties," she said.
In a statement, a spokesman for Municipal Affairs Minister Bill Mauro referred a request for reaction to Ms. Wong-Tam's remarks back to the City of Toronto, noting that cities are responsible for making land-use planning decisions and enforcing the building code.
Jennifer Keesmaat, the City of Toronto's chief planner, said there is a significant backlog of applications for heritage evaluation. In a series of tweets, she said: "This was legal, but done by stealth." She also said it was "a very greasy move." She called for a change at the city level so that some demolition permits, which are issued by the building department, are first circulated to the planning division, which is responsible for heritage designations.
The building at 2444 Yonge Street was identified as having historical value in a 2014 city-planning study, which noted that heritage staff had taken an interest in protecting portions of the building. That document was written in response to an application from the former owner, KCAP Roselawn Inc., to redevelop the site into a five-storey retail and restaurant development that would have incorporated the bank's façade.
But, unbeknownst to local residents, the building was bought by Roselawn and Main Urban Properties Inc. last year. The address listed in the firm's corporate records is the same as that of Main and Main.
In response to the challenges of designating individual historical buildings, the city has, in some cases, designated whole neighbourhoods as heritage-conservation districts, meaning all buildings are subject to special protection.
Advocates of preserving the city's heritage have previously raised concerns about developers quickly razing architecturally significant buildings, including the former Stollerys clothing store at Yonge and Bloor Streets.