"Afterthought." "Undervalued." "Lacking teeth." "Underfunded."
Such is the state of heritage architecture and heritage laws in the province, according to Heritage Toronto and the Toronto Historical Association, and despite my efforts in this space at Pollyannaism, I'm inclined to agree.
The two organizations presented findings contained within a report, "Heritage Voices," at St. Lawrence Hall on a bitterly cold morning last week. The result of a series of consultation sessions with heritage and community groups that began in the spring of 2010, it was a sometimes shocking, always enlightening and mostly depressing laundry list of woes for anyone who cares about our built heritage.
It was also a clarion call for change.
Host and former Toronto mayor David Crombie, thankfully, fed the capacity crowd sugar before the bitter pills were forced down a hundred throats. He cited a "rigorous study" by author Robert Putnam that demonstrated how areas in Italy flourished "particularly in times of significant change … because they were able to understand their own history and heritage and deploy it."
He spoke of successes with waterfront regeneration in Hamilton, Cobourg's Victoria Park, Toronto's Distillery District, the Royal Conservatory of Music and one of his "favourites," the restoration of the old Toronto General Hospital at the MaRS complex at College and University. If we can "match" our interest in natural heritage with that of our built and cultural heritage, he concluded, the resulting symbiosis would please more people and, ultimately, save more buildings.
Heritage Toronto's "newly minted" executive director, Karen Carter, and the president of the Toronto Historical Association, Paul Litt delivered the bad news. Heritage groups often look like the bad guy - storming in at the eleventh hour to complicate the plans (and lives) of developers - because the "one issue" that never gets resolved is funding; anemic city staff can't keep up with the listing and designation of heritage properties, said Mr. Litt, and this often places them in a reactive rather than proactive position.
"Despite having Heritage Preservation Services included within the Planning Department, there still seems to be quite a disconnect between Heritage Preservation Services and key decisions with regards to development and broad planning across the city," added Ms. Carter. "Participants [of the consultation sessions]felt that heritage conservation was sometimes left as a last consideration or an afterthought." Even when HPS is on the case, developers routinely steamroll over their wishes using the star chamber-like Ontario Municipal Board.
Combine the "undervalue of heritage issues" at the provincial level with "development pressures" at the city level and it's next to impossible to create a "culture of conservation," continued Mr. Litt. Over and over during the consultation process, Montreal and Chicago were trotted out as examples of places that understand that the well-being of both residents and city coffers is rooted in an investment in heritage.
Being generous, Ms. Carter suggested that Toronto's increasing problem of "demolition by neglect" might result from "vague or contradictory statements" within the city's Official Plan, but my quick survey of the audience caught more than a few eye-rolls. Also, despite the strengthening of the Ontario Heritage Act in 2005 (which allows elected officials to deny demolition of designated buildings), "participants felt that the rules were confusing, cumbersome and, in some cases, lacking teeth," added Mr. Litt.
So, what to do?
Perhaps it would help if we stop referring to Toronto as a "new city." It's not. The Toronto region was well used by aboriginals before European settlers arrived in the 1700s; geologically, the site dates back some 11,000 years. It was decided that a Toronto Museum would go a long way toward remedying this misconception (it was noted that Toronto is "one of the last major cities without a museum to tell its story").
The panel, which also included North York Community Preservation Panel chair Geoff Kettel, then took comments and suggestions from the audience. These included:
•To solve the understaffing problem, why not enlist the aid of post-secondary students in the cataloging, listing and designating of heritage properties?
•Dozens of grassroots heritage groups intimate with their specific pockets of the city already exist. Why not "deputize" these groups to submit lists of candidate buildings and/or take on some of the workload involved with designation? "We haven't even thought about that," lamented Mr. Kettel, who brought up a community group's good work that recently saved the 1930s-era Talbot Apartments on Bayview Ave. from demolition.
•Tourism Toronto would do well to involve those same groups, said one audience member. He also suggested that community groups take advantage of Heritage Toronto's "wonderful" plaques and markers program.
•Funds collected from condominium developers that have been granted permission to add height and density to their projects under Section 37 of the Planning Act should be used to beef up staff at Heritage Preservation Services.
"This is a crisis!" said the passionate audience member, Paul Farrelly, after he'd made that last suggestion. "It's ridiculous, it's lip service, and you've really got to make a bigger stink about it."
To download Heritage Voices, go to www.heritagetoronto.org and click on the bottom right corner.