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marcus gee

Toronto, let's face it, has done a poor job of protecting its architectural heritage. Scores of beautiful old buildings fell to the wrecker's ball in the post-War period as the city grew and glass and steel replaced granite and limestone.

In response to that age of destruction, a vigilant heritage lobby has formed to fight for the preservation of what is left. Its members do great work, documenting the city's built history and campaigning for better conservation regulations and resources.

A report this week by Heritage Toronto, an arm's-length city agency, recommended promoting Toronto's heritage to tourists, appointing a city director of heritage preservation, pushing forward with a proposal to create a new museum of Toronto history and tightening rules to give officials time to assess the heritage value of threatened buildings.

But like members of any campaign, heritage activists need to pick their battles. The latest fight, over the Stollerys site at Yonge and Bloor, was the wrong hill to die on.

The clothing store with its trademark green awnings had been a fixture on the southwest corner of the intersection since 1901. So when a developer started pulling it down last month in a shower of broken stone and shattered plaster, some conservationists and local residents let out a cry of outrage. Why hadn't there been more warning of the demolition? How could the developer trash an historic building and leave a vacant shell on a central street corner?

In fact, it has been clear for a long time that the Stollerys site was going to be redeveloped. It stands on prime real estate at the transfer point of the city's two main subway lines. Right across the street on the southeast corner, a soaring condominium tower is under construction, with three storeys of new shops at its feet.

Developer Sam Mizrahi, who bought the Stollerys property last fall, says he won't leave it vacant for long. He proposes to put up a dramatic 80-storey tower designed by renowned British architect Norman Foster.

That would be a boon for Toronto, helping bring new street life and architectural distinction to an important crossroads in the centre of the city.

Toronto's Official Plan calls for more density and high-rise construction at key hubs that are well served by rapid transit. Bloor and Yonge is just such a hub, ripe for city-building. It would be a shame to see one structure stand in the way of that evolution.

It would be different if the corner had been occupied by an old church or ornate Victorian bank. In truth, Stollerys was a rather poky place, much adulterated over the years. A squat modern addition in smoked glass sat on top, adding a third storey. It had some nice features, like the arched second-storey windows, but no one would have called it an architectural gem. Perhaps for that reason, no one sought to give it protected heritage status until the last minute, when local city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam tried to intervene.

Critics of the developer say that all they wanted was a chance to have Stollerys at least considered for protection. Fair enough. With scant staff and resources, city preservation authorities can't keep an eye on every endangered building. The city needs to find a better way to flag heritage sites before demolition ends any debate.

But fights such as these often end with a developer making some awkward compromise like preserving a chunk of building frontage – the dog's breakfast known as facadism. Better, in this case, to build something altogether new.

The great buildings that we construct today are the heritage of tomorrow's Toronto. A city growing as fast as this one needs to find a way to embrace the future while respecting the past.