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the architourist

Coffee Time's curved wall at Cedarvale Avenue.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

I’m sorry Di Rosa shoes, but you’ll never make the cut. And that goes for No. 1 Sam’s Hair Styling Place, Trecce, Local 1794, and quite a few others I spy from my vantage point across the street.

As nice as your century-old buildings are, and despite your recent listing on the City of Toronto’s Heritage Register – along with my property and dozens of others on Danforth Avenue, a few on Dawes Road, and one each on Coxwell and Chisholm avenues – your blank stucco faces, modern doors and windows, and general lack of anything heritage-worthy suggests you’ll never move up a step to be designated.

Which means your owners will never have to worry should they decide to demolish you and erect a six-storey building in your place. Nope, all they’ll have to do is get a Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA) done and wait 60 days before swinging that ol’ wrecking ball.

Old Home Bank of Canada branch, now Hakim Optical.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Then why have I seen so much concern on social media about these 165 properties being listed? Why did a letter from the legal representative of the owner of Nos. 2928 and 2930 Danforth Ave., claim that listing “will make it more difficult to develop and improve them in the future and will deter investment” (as found on the City of Toronto website)? Why did the law firm Cassels blog that while “the [Ontario Heritage] Act distinguishes between listed properties and designated properties, the impact on property owners may be the same”?

Fear of the unknown, I guess. So, let’s make it known.

Art deco top of 2742 Danforth.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

With minimal staff, the City of Toronto often is forced to be reactive rather than proactive when it comes to heritage properties; for instance, say a concerned community group alerts the city that 123 Main St. has been purchased by a developer. As the city sends a person to evaluate, 123′s new owner applies for a demolition permit. Realizing that 123 is a perfect example of art deco architecture with many details intact, the city’s preservation board scrambles to file an application to have the building designated, which then triggers a meeting where this item will get voted on, and concerned citizens for or against will have a chance to speak. But, in that time, Ms. Developer collects her permit and, sensing things might not go her way at the meeting, sends a crew to raze it to the ground … which is perfectly legal.

While the above is fictional, I’ve watched it happen. In fact, at the end of November, one of two 1922-23 Frederic J.A. Davidson stone cottages on Superior Avenue in Toronto’s Mimico neighbourhood was torn down just before that meeting. Modernism fans will remember a similar fate befell Isadore Sharp’s Inn on the Park 14 years ago.

699 Coxwell Ave.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

So, one tool the city is now using to prevent playing catch-up is the batch-listing of properties, a method pioneered in the 1970s when the register began. In the case of the Danforth, the city reasons it’s because the thoroughfare is a “largely intact early 20th-century streetscape, characterized by a predominantly main street building type – rows of two-storey brick storefront buildings articulated by intermittent three-storey block buildings” that were built “over a short period of time in the 1910s and 1920s.” Which makes it very pleasant to stroll, don’t you think?

Batch-listing, writes architect and heritage advocate Catherine Nasmith in Built Heritage News, will “buy us some time to have a serious conversation about what is being lost in our current intensification process as it marches up and down our main streets like a drunken sailor, smashing everything in sight.”

The rhythm of storefronts along The Danforth.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Think of it as Senate-like sober second-thought, but for buildings.

As the letter I received from the city states, listing “does not trigger maintenance requirements over and above existing property standards, and it does not restrict an owner’s ability to make exterior and interior alternations.” If, however, I want to make massive changes, or demolish completely, then I must get that aforementioned HIA. And isn’t it in the community’s interest that I’m forced to do so? I mean, my building doesn’t stand alone in a field, it’s part of something bigger; as Ms. Nasmith writes, “how these properties work together is much more significant than the role of any single property.”

With all of this in mind, I decided to take a walk and look at the properties beyond my window-perch. Which ones, I wondered, would cause my (somewhat) educated eye to pause?

Pizza Nova at Danforth and Woodmount Avenues.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

I didn’t find many. On a cold, windy Saturday morning I started at 699 Coxwell Ave., a handsome, buff brick, three-storey commercial building just north of the Danforth; this, I think, is a building would likely raise a red flag. Similarly, other corner buildings caught my eye, as architects usually add extra flourishes to gateway buildings: the Pizza Nova at Danforth and Woodmount avenues for its corbels and little stone head on the roof (with 1926 underneath); the curved wall at the Coffee Time at Danforth and Cedarvale avenues (which I remember was Dainty Miss Frocks when I was a boy); and the Hakim Optical at Main Street and Danforth Avenue (which still sports an etched The Home Bank of Canada on its upper façade).

Non-corner buildings I noted? My building, at 1781, might catch the city’s eye, but only because we’ve replaced lost Vitrolite on our façade (thanks to glass restoration specialist John Wilcox of Vitreous Glassworks); the old Woolworth’s and Kresge’s buildings at 2056 and 2064 Danforth; the amazing, almost untouched storefront at No. 2350; and the little art deco flourish on the top of 2742. These details, I think, would cause the City to look closer if an application for anything major was filed.

Untouched storefront at 2650 Danforth Ave.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

But, for the most part, as Ms. Nasmith points out, it’s how the non-noteworthy, workaday buildings work together as a composition that’s at play here. So, I think that, should an owner with a non-stuccoed façade apply to add a few storeys, he might be asked to set them back to show the original roofline. If a developer gathered three workaday properties to build a larger building, she might be asked to incorporate the original three facades (or, if the lot allows, retain the entire buildings), just like what’s been happening on Yonge Street. And that’s it.

It’s about not clear cutting, Ms. Nasmith says: “Main streets are like old growth forests, they display species diversity, they support a rich variety of interdependent activities, the mature die off and are replaced by new a little at a time leaving the forest whole.”

Unfortunately, too many of us can’t see the forest for the trees.

One-time Kresge's department store, now a Dollarama.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

In all, the City of Toronto is proposing the listing of 963 properties. Others are on Roncesvalles Avenue, Dundas Street West, Queen Street East and West., King Street East, Ossington Avenue, and many others. A full list can be found here:

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