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Ryerson still interested in heritage building site

Firefighters work to extinguish the last remaining of fire at the the old Salad King, an heritage building located on Yonge and Gould Streets that resulted destroyed by a six-alarm blaze.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

In the wake of the fire that gutted a crumbling heritage building at Yonge and Gould earlier this week, Ryerson University president Sheldon Levy is calling on Mayor Rob Ford and the Liberal government at Queen's Park to "get on with the job" of redeveloping the site after the fire marshal's office has completed its investigation.

"You don't sit back and watch a building fall down and burn and then say, 'Let's think about this for another six months or a year," he said in an interview Tuesday.

Mr. Levy stated that Ryerson is still interested in securing the property as a "gateway site" for its rapidly growing downtown campus, and expressed frustration that the building, a 164-year-old former hotel that partially collapsed last year, has been allowed to languish for months behind hoardings. "Our rhetoric is world-class city and we do third-class things," he said.

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He added that in New York or Chicago, municipal officials would never have tolerated such neglect in a key downtown location, a view shared by others in the heritage community.

Ryerson has eyed the property as a potential venue for an additional entrance to the Dundas subway station for years, but failed to persuade the owners, the Lalani Group, to sell the land.

The university in recent years bought the Sam the Record Man site a few metres north, and will soon unveil the design for what's expected to be a striking student services centre. It is also restoring Maple Leaf Gardens in partnership with Loblaw.

Though hardly unique, the building's slow-motion demise reveals the perilous and often contradictory state of heritage preservation in Toronto. While public pressure to save historic buildings and districts has grown in recent years, the city's heritage services department consists of a handful of overworked bureaucrats. Officials often find themselves in tense standoffs with property owners determined to demolish, but sources say the city also fails to enforce its own preservation bylaws, leaving such buildings in a kind of regulatory limbo.

Toronto offers limited financial incentives for owners to maintain historic buildings, but they pale in comparison to the grants and tax breaks in other jurisdictions, said Scott Weir, an associate at ERA Architects, which assessed the property in recent years. In U.S. and European cities, "public funding for heritage is a lot higher than what we fund in Toronto."

Featuring a Second Empire Italianate design and various other influences, the building was one of only a handful of Toronto's surviving 19th-century hotels that tout distinctive tower structures, Mr. Weir noted. The others include the Winchester Hotel on Parliament and the restored Gladstone on Queen West.

When ERA staff inspected the structure prior to the collapse of the northern wall, "it was in extremely poor condition" because of careless sandblasting and prolonged decay. "The basic bones were quite rough," Mr. Weir said.

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What becomes of the husk of the structure is not yet clear, and the investigation into the cause of the blaze hasn't really begun. Toronto firefighters can't begin examining the wreckage in their search for clues as to what started the overnight blaze because entering the destroyed building would be too dangerous.

"They still have not been able to conduct a primary search because of the stability issues with the building," fire investigation supervisor Bryan Fischer told a news conference on Tuesday. Investigators will also be looking for the remains of anyone who may have been trapped by the fire.

During the conflagration, firefighters did not actually enter the building because it was considered too unstable, except for two who accidentally fell off a neighbouring roof into the second floor and had to be rescued.

Mr. Fischer said Toronto Fire Services is waiting to receive a permit from the Ministry of Labour to begin sifting through the debris.

But Captain Mike Strapko said that even after they get the permit, they won't be sending people inside. Instead, they will be pulling out wreckage with a mechanical arm while surveying the scene from an aerial bucket.

Mr. Fischer said that, optimistically and if the permit is approved, they might have the building secured by the weekend, at which point a closed section of Yonge Street would reopen.

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John Lorinc is Special to The Globe and Mail

Editor's Note: The original newspaper version and an earlier online version of this article contained an incorrect reference to Ryerson's attempts to acquire the property. This online version has been corrected.

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