Christopher Hume covers urban issues and architecture for the Toronto Star. Many of the subjects he covers are very "un-Buffalonian." With a strong economy and booming construction sector producing both good and bad architecture, plans for a remade Lake Ontario waterfront moving forward, and debate on how best to accommodate significant population growth in the region, there's plenty enough to keep him writing. But Toronto also struggles with something we are very familiar with: saving our historic structures.
A six-alarm fire, suspected to be arson, struck an historic 19th century commercial building on Yonge Street in Toronto on Monday. The red brick building was constructed in 1888 and once housed the Empress Hotel, considered to one of Toronto's finest when it opened. Demolition crews are at work today removing what the fire did not destroy after it was determined the building's façade could not be saved. The property was listed on the Toronto's Inventory of Historic Properties and its owner had no interest in preserving it.
Substitute "Buffalo" for "Toronto" and you'd swear Hume is talking about our city. The following column appeared in yesterday's Toronto Star, reprinted with Hume's permission below.
Heritage remains a burning issue in Toronto
The difference was made painfully clear this week when the 122-year-old building at Yonge and Gould burned to the ground.
The dignified red brick building, once the Empress and Edison hotels, has occupied a place in the collective consciousness of Toronto for decades. The public never wanted it to go away.
But to its owners, the Lalani Group, it was an obstacle to profitability. They had been trying to get rid of the structure for ages, and made no secret of their intentions. In 2010, they applied for a demolition permit. Given the city's lack of commitment to heritage preservation, it would eventually have let that happen, but not without a lot of hand-wringing along the way.
Other cases have had happier endings. Think of the old Summerhill train station/LCBO on Yonge St.; it was restored by its owners several years ago and has never looked better.
The critical difference was the owners. Even if governments at all levels were serious about heritage, it's the landlords who hold the power. Because legislation is weak and enforcement weaker, owners can get away with architectural murder.
The list of disappeared buildings is long and extensive. The most relevant was Walnut Hall, the last remaining row of Georgian townhouses that was left to fall apart by its many owners, including the RCMP. Its sad fate led to a 2007 city initiative aimed at ending "demolition by neglect."
Landlords, good and bad, have always been with us. The point is that we have yet to figure out how to deal with properties that fall into that awkward space claimed by memory and money, public and private, cultural and corporate. Architecture is an art form as well as an economic activity. It exists in the public realm of ideas as well as the private landscape of mortgages, building codes and leases.
In Canada, however, property rights trump heritage niceties. Government, when it does get involved, tends to be more preoccupied with public safety than cultural integrity or architectural excellence.
Given the quarter-to-quarter mentality of many developers, it's easier for them just to tear something down than expend time, imagination and worst of all, money, adapting old buildings to new uses.
Yet there are countless instances where refurbished heritage buildings have increased owners' coffers, and made them heroes in the process. Some of them are in this city.
It's tempting to believe that in a more evolved civic culture these vandalizing tendencies would be controlled. From Fort York on, Toronto has never really grasped the meaning of its own heritage. A century ago, the city ran streetcar tracks through the historic garrison and in the 1970s tried to move it to make way for the Gardiner Expressway.
In its own way, the story of Fort York sums up this city's preference for expediency over heritage. It's easier to get rid of things and forget, as we all must.
Yet it turns out that the city even offered money to the Lalanis for restoration, money never accepted. That would have amounted to a commitment to restoration, which would have cost millions; the city offered $32,500. If the building had been designated a heritage site, not just listed, it would have been eligible for tax breaks.
That hardly matters now. The last remaining question is, where will it happen next.
Photos by 'apta2050' on Flickr.