It’s unlikely we’ll see marchers banging drums and waving banners of protest up and down St. George Street in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. But that doesn’t mean they’re not angry.
Annex residents prefer a methodical, by-the-book approach when they protest. Back in 1963, 150 members of the Annex Ratepayers’ Association took to city hall to successfully block a 13-storey apartment building that would’ve spanned from 171 to 191 St. George St., claiming it would have “exceeded height limits and population densities set by area zoning bylaws,” according to the Toronto Star. Walk along that part of the street today and one might think that what ended up there wasn’t much different – two apartment buildings, the handsome black-and-white brick, eight-storey “King George” and a less-interesting brown-brick 10-storey affair – but, well, the difference was, and still is, in the details.
Just like the incredibly large, late-19th century red brick and pink sandstone mansions that they replaced (the ones that remain serve as offices, institutions and University of Toronto frat houses) the postwar apartment buildings along St. George Street tucked themselves back from the sidewalk. Not only did this create a lovely tree canopy vista as enjoyed from Bloor Street West it created a de facto front lawn for the entire neighbourhood. And generous spaces between the smaller apartment buildings created sheltered places for children to play while parents kept watch from balconies that weren’t too high up. And, since all but one building is 12-storeys or less all the way north to Dupont Street, a walker can still see the sky.
“The Annex is a park and everybody gets to enjoy it – enjoy the trees – everybody provides part of the park,” says Gillian Bartlett, director of communications for the ARA (the R now stands for Residents). “These new [developers] coming in are not giving us part of the park.”
“And these [postwar] buildings, they may be bigger [than the Victorian houses] but it’s the way they’re sited‚” adds the ARA’s Sandra Shaul, also an Annex history expert. “That’s one of the best things about them.”
The two women are standing on the northeast corner of St. George Street and Prince Arthur Avenue under the shade of a big tree. Behind the lush carpet of lawn stands 145 St. George St., designed in the late-1950s by Jim Crang and George Boake when they were just a few years out of architecture school, for Marshall Development Co. They were also designers of 169 St. George St. up the street. The building can be easily picked out of its lineup due to its distinctive green-glazed-brick vertical stripes at ground level and spandrel panels of the same material underneath each band of windows.
Conspicuous on 145 St. George St.′s front lawn is a City of Toronto notice announcing a replacement condominium of 29-storeys with 341 units (which will include 130 replacement rental units). While that building, if built, will still be set back from the street, plans found on developer Tenblock’s website, 145stgeorge.com, suggest there will be a hardscaped “POPS” space (Privately Owned Public Space) instead of a lawn, and that the new building will be much closer to its neighbour at No. 149, a slim, tidy, seven-storey by Eddie I. Richmond.
So, it’s déjà vu all over again. Just as the Annex residents of 60 or more years ago fought against height, so too does the new generation. And while it must be mentioned that there were plenty of Annex residents in the 1950s that didn’t want any apartments of any height built, it’s worth noting that the new generation see their collection of mid-rise, midcentury modern buildings as old friends. Friends that provide affordable places to live for the many renters who’ve been in 145 St. George St. for decades (one woman, now in her 90s, has lived in the building since it was new, notes Ms. Shaul).
“This is exactly the kind of housing the city says it needs. … This is your missing middle,” says Ms. Shaul about the 1959 building. “Now we’re in a bit of a bind because there is nothing preventing its demolition by law, only by suasion; the only thing [the city] can do now at [the Preservation Board] is possibly list or designate it.”
In October, 2021, more than 90 people participated in a virtual ARA town hall over Zoom to discuss the proposed demolition. Most shared their worry that the “infamous domino effect” would cause others to fall. In the spring of 2022, Ms. Bartlett, architect David Sisam, and architectural educator Lynne DiStefano co-wrote “Preservation for Sustainability” for Acorn, the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario’s magazine, which argued that if 145 St. George St. came down and a new building went up, it would be “equivalent to the emissions coming from almost 5,000 cars for an entire year – no small impact for a single project.”
Residents of the building have created a website, save145stgeorge.com, to organize themselves and “communicate information, facilitate strategic planning, and provide solidarity among tenants.” The site also archives news stories about the fight, plus other fights, such as the one that happened around the corner, literally, at 64 Prince Arthur Ave., that quashed a 29-storey tower by ADI Development Group.
There has also been a years-long effort by the ARA and ASI Heritage to conduct studies of the West Annex with the ultimate goal of having a Heritage Conservation District created.
If 145 St. George St. does come down, and there is ample evidence to suggest it will, will that start a rolling snowball of love for the other midcentury moderns of St. George Street, Spadina Road or Walmer Road? Will an HCD be expedited so that the very valuable ‘sober second thought’ that it provides can be there for next time? Will residents of other buildings organize in order to be ready for new fights? Will Annex residents march in the streets, or quietly follow procedure … which sometimes moves so glacially that the developers win.
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