As reported here in December, 2020, the City of Toronto has begun batch listing heritage properties, since too often it finds itself scrambling when an application to demolish raises red flags. Listing, while not offering the full protection of heritage designation, does provide some breathing room – I called it a “Senate-like sober second-thought, but for buildings” – since it requires a building owner to get a Heritage Impact Assessment done and wait 60 days. In all, 963 properties on some of the city’s main streets were listed.
While this was a victory for heritage advocates, I have found myself wondering what it means to the architects and developers who make their living building big, mostly residential things. So, I sat down with former architect and current developer Gary Switzer of MOD Developments and one of his frequent collaborators, David Pontarini, a founding partner of Hariri Pontarini Architects. Mr. Switzer is responsible for the Waterworks development at 505 Richmond St. W., which saves a 1932 Art Deco city maintenance building; Massey Tower with Mr. Pontarini, which preserves the gorgeous 1905 Canadian Bank of Commerce building across from the Eaton Centre; and Five St. Joseph with Mr. Pontarini, which preserves a number of Yonge Street storefronts along with a 1905 warehouse. Mr. Pontarini’s firm has saved Victorian row houses at 7 St. Thomas, and Casey House’s 1875 Italianate building at Jarvis and Isabella Streets, among other notable structures.
[Answers have been edited and condensed.]
G&M: Should potential developers be very afraid of this market?
David Pontarini: I don’t think so, I think there are enough projects that have been built that incorporate heritage into them in a successful way that you don’t have to be too afraid of it … but it’s always on a case-by-case basis.
Gary Switzer: I would add to that it really depends on the location. I’ll give you a real example: You know the church at the south east corner of Mount Pleasant and Roehampton, with the big green roof? [St. Peter’s Estonian Lutheran Church, architect Michael Bach, 1955] An agent brings it to me, says “Oh, good condo site, a block from the future subway.” I look at that, aside from the fact that it’s on the [city’s] map of potential heritage, it should be heritage … you can’t do anything on that site. On the other hand, there are sites that might have one of these second-rate storefronts on one of the main streets … and you think “this is not really worthy of being heritage.”
G&M: What are some of the first steps the new owner of a heritage site will have to take?
DP: You just have to start engaging with city staff and heritage staff. After getting your own consultant to look at it, like ERA [Architects], and to give you their feedback on it, I guess at that point you’re saying, “Is this building going to be one that’ll be on the city’s radar, and, if it is, how much of it will they ask to preserve?” It’s just a long, bumpy road that takes you through many ups and downs and it’s a process that’s not easily quantifiable.
GS: What we’ve tried to do is exceed the [city’s] expectations. When we’re doing certain things, we’re not doing it because city staff is telling us to do it, in a lot of cases it’s the right thing to do. Staff did not tell us, at Waterworks, [to] uncover the skylights or un-brick the windows.
G&M: Batch listing by the city makes the argument that, while the individual buildings on a street may be somewhat mundane, as an assemblage they become worthy. Thoughts?
DP: [At a recent City of Toronto meeting, city staff] said “we recognize we have an issue here with these facades in that we’re going to try to keep them but we’re going to work with people, we’re going to ask, not for the traditional 10-metre setback, but maybe a metre-and-a-half or something to give them some distinguishing character.” So I think they’re starting to recognize that by [batch listing], they are sterilizing a lot of sites or making them more difficult to develop.
GS: This is where heritage legislation gets misused, because, I think we would all agree that if it really is a heritage landscape and you want to preserve the integrity of those blocks, then nothing should be built on them [he brings up the idea of a fully protected Heritage Conservation District as an alternative], or you have huge setbacks [like at Five St. Joseph].
G&M: Mr. Switzer, at Massey Tower, can you isolate what it cost just to restore the 1905 bank building?
GS: It’s an interesting question. I know what we budgeted, and we went over; you book a contract with a restoration company, and they’ll say that famous line you hear when you’re renovating your house: “You know what, as long as we’re doing this, why don’t we do blah-blah-blah?” Or they’ll say: “If this was my house, this is what I would be doing.” [Mr. Switzer brings up the unanticipated cost of restoring the pink marble staircase or the gilded lettering below the pediment]. It probably ended up costing us double of what we assumed [and] we’re talking in the millions.
G&M: Mr. Pontarini, do architects enjoy the challenge of heritage retention?
DP: Well if you’re a practicing architect in the City of Toronto the answer is definitely yes [laughs] and I used this line this morning in a meeting with city staff: “The idea of a perfect site is gone, they don’t exist anymore; what we’re looking at now is imperfect sites, and an imperfect site usually means you’re going to get an imperfect building that’s not going to be the imaginary thing that gets idealized in some of the documents.” I think we do like a challenge, and Toronto’s architects are really good at it because [perfect] sites are gone, [and] Massey is a perfect example of that.
In his seminal book on Toronto’s evolution from provincial backwater to open, cosmopolitan city, Accidental City (MacFarlane Walter & Ross, 1995), Robert Fulford argues that many of the features that make the city great were serendipitous. I’d argue that, in the quarter century since, the reverse has been true: careful creation of new public spaces, of transit, the rehabilitation of the waterfront, the Design Review Panel for architecture, and thoughtful, heritage-respecting developers have created a perfect storm of civilized, urban life … despite – or perhaps because of – the imperfect sites we are forced to build upon.
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