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The corner of University Avenue and Dundas Street in Toronto is being transformed to make way for a 55-storey, mixed-use building.


Everything old is new again – at least, it seems, when it comes to the restoration of heritage properties for high-end real estate projects.

A good example of that meeting of the old and the new is the appropriately named The United Building being erected by Davpart Inc. at 481 University Ave. in the heart of Toronto's financial district.

In this mixed-use project, a mighty tower will stretch up from the historic Maclean Publishing Co./Maclean-Hunter Building, which began life on the block in 1928 and was expanded in 1961.

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From the space that brought forth some of Canada's most thoughtful written works, modern condos, office space and commercial areas will spring up in the 55-storey structure, which is said to be the tallest architectural heritage restoration development in North America.

“We love mixed use,” says Mark Berest, principal at B+H Architects who is working on the project with Davpart. “We think that there's a kind of dynamic in the mixed-use building that doesn't isolate residential from the rest of life. It makes for a more animated, more urban, more diverse, more energetic city.”

The facade of the old buildings will be preserved and improved, with such touches as windows originally used in the 1930s to replace ones installed in the 1970s, bringing it back to its former glory. Bays from the original building will be employed to help create a ground-floor arcade that will ease pedestrian traffic on the street.

But incorporating heritage buildings into dynamic new spaces such as The United Building has additional advantages besides protecting major parts of a city's history. There are also environmental benefits as well in this era of concern about climate change.

“It's incumbent upon architects and developers to use as much existing building stock over and over and over again as possible,” Berest says. “The structures are generally going to last for 100 years, much of the rest of the building won't. But repurpose, reuse – this is important from a sustainability point of view, from a global responsibility point of view.

“As construction really is responsible for 60 per cent of carbon emissions in the world, that's a place we need to look at. We have to build more, of course, but we always have to make sure we maximize on what we have and we waste as little as possible.”

He says The United Building will also be energy efficient because it is being built under Toronto's new green building standards, which require higher levels of thermal performance and lower levels of energy consumption.

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Graeme Stewart, principal at ERA Architects Inc., who is working with Davpart and B+H on the restoration, notes that projects like The United Building are a way to also address the scarcity of real estate in a city.

“There's only so many plots left in the city to develop,” he says. “Most of them are gone and so people who want to develop things are now looking at where can they do that. In most cases, there's existing buildings and many of them are heritage buildings.

“Twenty years ago, when the condo boom started, developers would do everything they could to avoid a heritage building because it's so complicated and now almost every building has to incorporate one or the other so, absolutely, (it's) a growing thing.”

ERA Architects are specialists in heritage preservation.

The tower will rise up from the historic Maclean Publishing building, shown below in 1929, and will preserve and improve the old facade.


“They're helping us understand the technical side of maintaining the materials and how we might best now construct a contemporary, high-performance building envelope within that context,” Berest says.

He explains that the heritage aspect really applies to the exterior of the building since its interior had been altered or even gutted a number of times during the past century.

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The Heritage Preservation Services of Toronto's city government is also an active participant in the project, as it is with any heritage restorations in the city.

The City of Toronto takes renovations to heritage properties seriously. Its Heritage Register includes more than 11,750 addresses, including 7,500 properties located in 25 Heritage Conservation Districts, says Tamara Anson-Cartwright, program manager for heritage planning in Toronto's City Planning department.

“Most of the city has yet to be surveyed for heritage potential,” she says. “City Planning undertakes proactive heritage assessments with planning studies and has recently initiated phase one of the Toronto Heritage Survey to better understand which properties or areas in the City of Toronto have cultural heritage value.

“It will support timely and transparent decision-making while engaging Torontonians in the proactive identification of cultural heritage resources that residents, neighbourhoods and communities value. A Toronto heritage survey will also contribute significantly to city building through the collection and dissemination of comprehensive data about the heritage resources of the city.”

Properties receive heritage designations according to criteria set out in the Ontario Heritage Act. They must meet one or more criteria in the act, which considers such aspects as its design, uniqueness and historical value.

While the Heritage Act doesn't regulate the use of a property, changes to it are another matter.

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“An owner of a property who wishes to change its use will need to consider the use permitted by zoning,' says Anson-Cartwright. “If an owner of an individually designated property proposes alterations to change the use of a property, Heritage Planning will review the owner's alteration plans to determine if they might compromise the heritage attributes or features of the property.”

A heritage permit is required for visible alterations, including new construction, such as additions or garages. It is also required for new windows and exterior cladding, as well as demolition of the building or part of it. Government programs are available to help owners with the cost of maintaining the conservation aspects.

Justin Cohen, vice-president of RE/MAX Realtron Barry Cohen Homes Inc., says there is an appeal to owning a heritage property.

“You're buying something that is culturally significant,” says Cohen, who is also a broker. “You're buying a piece of the history of the city.”

He cautions, however, that buyers need to know what they're getting into, pointing out the restrictions that come with owning a heritage property.

“You've got to educate the client what those restrictions are,” he says. “The city determines what's culturally significant with the property and they want that maintained. It's usually more expensive to do it.

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“It's expensive to renovate them; it's expensive to maintain them because you're usually restoring, not replacing.”

He recalls one unusual case where the front part of a client's house was deemed to be of heritage value but not the rest. Cohen said the owner's solution was to literally cut the house in half, restoring the front and putting a new addition on the back.

All these considerations would likely pay off down the road in increased value, he says.

“They're usually in great locations,” Cohen says. “They're usually in stellar locations because they were around a long time. They're around built-up areas, the mature areas of the city so you're usually buying a premium, premium location.”

That’s one of the draws of The United Building, which besides its own amenities also has a prime location right in the midst of shops, public transit, cafés, hospitals, parks and nightlife, with such neighbours as Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto City Hall, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Grange Park, Chinatown, as well as Ryerson University and the University of Toronto.

How it works

Owning a heritage property can be challenging but rewarding. Here's some tips from the City of Toronto about the things you should know:

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  • Heritage properties are designated because they meet certain criteria under the Ontario Heritage Act, such as their historical value to the community, their uniqueness in design or construction methods and their potential to provide information on a culture or community.
  • In Toronto, entire areas can be designated as Heritage Conservation Districts if potential cultural heritage value or interest is identified and it is consistent with provincial regulations.
  • Properties to be evaluated are often identified through planning studies and heritage surveys, requests from ward councillors, nominations from members of the public/preservation panels and through development review.
  • If an owner of an individually designated property proposes alterations to change the use of a property, Heritage Planning will review the owner’s plans to see if they compromise the heritage attributes or features of the property.
  • A heritage permit is required for visible alterations, including new construction, additions and demolition. In general, it guides changes to exterior areas that can be viewed from the sidewalk.
  • Most day-to-day work does not require a heritage permit. This includes activities like painting your front porch, replacing eavestroughs, installing seasonal decorations and gardening.
  • The City of Toronto offers two heritage incentive programs to assist owners of eligible heritage properties with the cost of conservation: the Heritage Grant Program and the Heritage Tax Rebate Program. Beyond providing funding support, these programs have also assisted people to reach the highest conservation standards possible for their projects, large and small.

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail’s Globe Content Studio, in consultation with an advertiser. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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