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From left, Geoff Kettel, North York Preservation Panel, Paul Litt, Toronto Historical Association, Karen Carter, Heritage Toronto and host David Crombie comment on a newly released report by Heritage Toronto

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

The crowd at St. Lawrence Hall - well-mannered preservationists gathered to receive a once-a-decade report on the city's heritage - had been fairly subdued until the last audience member rose to speak.

"This is a crisis!" began Paul Farelly, a local activist with a halo of white hair. His neighbourhood association at Church and Wellesley is currently watching yet another row of handsome old buildings be subsumed by a condo tower. The city's heritage protection department, he continued, is understaffed and backlogged, unable to keep up with the pressures of development.

"It's ridiculous. It's lip service. And you really need to make a bigger stink about it," he said.

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For the first time, the crowd erupted in cheers.

These are charged days for the people who watch after Toronto's old buildings. They say the city is short-staffed as it is, and they foresee staff getting still scarcer. Development is accelerating, public interest is mounting, and the loss of the former Empress Hotel at Yonge and Gould - first crumbled, then burned - has rattled nerves.

Now, a survey report from Heritage Toronto, an arm's-length city agency that promotes heritage awareness, goes so far as to paint the city's planning department as underfunded and unhelpful.

In a city where old buildings are crumbling, being reduced to facades and, in some instances, outright falling down, frustration is the order of the day - and the heritage community is coming to a crossroads.

"That's the mood, right there," said David Crombie, the former Toronto mayor, referring to Mr. Farelly's oratory.

Mr. Crombie was on hand Thursday morning for the release of the report, which summarized a survey of the city's historians, heritage professionals, and volunteers.

The report, Heritage Voices, pinpoints a series of concerns, but the top of the list is a long-standing heritage bugbear: The city's Heritage Preservation Services staff is overstretched and underfunded.

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Its six officers are charged with both protecting old buildings and speaking up for heritage concerns as new buildings are proposed - across a city of 2.5 million people. (The Heritage Preservation Service is part of the City Planning department, and is entirely distinct from Heritage Toronto, which is mostly an educational body with no power to preserve buildings.) As a result, according to former staff and politicians, the Preservation staff is forced to spend more time reacting than acting.

"You felt like you were under siege," says Dan DiBartolo, who was a manager at Heritage Preservation Services until last year.

Mr. DiBartolo says he was often called into meetings with developers, lawyers and city councillors, and asked to give an opinion about a development on the spot, without always having had time to fully brief himself.

"You would be under enormous pressure to cave in right away," he says.

Beyond development pressure, the staff shortage has led to a more particular problem: The city doesn't actually know where all of Toronto's historic buildings are. The city keeps a master list of heritage properties; putting a building on the list is the first step in protecting it, and also serves as a heads-up to would-be buyers.

However, the list is notoriously incomplete. This had led owners to buy buildings that don't appear on the list, only to be surprised by a sudden scramble by preservationists to prevent alterations or demolition.

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This is just what happened in the Beaches last summer, when the new owners of a century-old house - not on the city's list - applied to have it torn down. Then-councillor Sandra Bussin attempted to intervene, touching off a bitter public debate.

The problem, again, is man-hours. Heritage Preservation Services has only one researcher to process additions to the city's 9,600-strong inventory of heritage buildings, leading to a substantial backlog.

Complaints like these from the heritage community led to the unusual sight of one city-funded agency criticizing another. According to the Heritage Voices report, "the City Planning Department was… perceived as obstructive in getting heritage information to the public and suffering from a lack of heritage knowledge."

Gary Wright, Toronto's chief planner, said he couldn't comment on the report until he had the chance to read it fully. He noted that the city was in the process of filling two vacancies in the heritage department, and has added 1,600 properties to the inventory in the last few years, but adds that he had to balance heritage needs with the city's growing planning demands.

"I'm not promising we can improve staffing," he said.

Indeed, more staff for any department seems increasingly unlikely as a tight 2011 budget works its way through city hall, followed by the prospect of deeper cuts in 2012. At a Heritage Toronto-sponsored debate in August, Rob Ford told the crowd that he was sympathetic to heritage concerns, but said the city couldn't afford to spend more money on it.

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And, for all the concern about understaffing, others are asking whether an expanded bureaucracy is the only way to handle heritage concerns.

"We're doing a lot of complaining, but we're not looking forward," acknowledged Geoff Kettel, Chair of the North York Community Preservation Panel, which advises city council on heritage matters.

Making better use of volunteers is one possibility. Mr. Crombie suggested that the heritage community and the city's universities could supply volunteers to help with the cataloguing process.

And since the fire at the Empress Hotel on Yonge, which police are now calling arson, heritage activists are reporting a spike in public interest.

Karen Carter, Heritage Toronto's executive director, says that the heritage community needs to push beyond its traditional downtown constituency and into the suburbs, where heritage is seldom perceived to be a pressing issue. Given the right call, she says, "the floodgates would open" with local expertise on which buildings are important.

"Then you're not having this top-down approach of people telling you what should be saved in their neighbourhood," she says.

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Moreover, she says, better local input would be a boon to the developers, who, in her experience, mostly want a clear lay of the land.

"People just want some clarity. 'Tell me where not to go, so I don't waste my time in court,'" she says. "'Don't waste my time, so I don't wind up in consultation with the community, getting called the devil.'"

Special to The Globe and Mail

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