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Cathedraltown...suburbia with a twist



Globe: In Cathedraltown, the cathedral is now empty

In Cathedraltown, the cathedral is now empty

Special to The Globe and Mail

Slovak-Canadian parishioners have abandoned the grandest Slovak church in Canada -- and left the growing Markham subdivision of Cathedraltown without the active house of worship that inspired its name.

The Slovak Cathedral of Transfiguration, whose three golden domes soar 20 storeys into the sky, has been closed in an ownership dispute between the Eastern-rite Catholic church and members of the Roman family, who built the massive cathedral.

The only Catholic church in North America to have been personally blessed by a pope, the cathedral is a landmark on Highway 404. Curiously, the church is, in effect, privately owned by the family of Stephen Roman, the uranium mining magnate who financed its construction before his death in 1988. Ownership of the cathedral and 50 acres around it was never formally transferred to the Vatican, although Mr. Roman had expressed his intention to do so.

He died from a heart attack before he could complete his monumental legacy, which was to have included a Slovak-language school, an old-age home and a 10-acre cemetery.

Since then, church officials have been engaged in a protracted dispute over ownership of the cathedral and 50 acres of land in front and back, which are now surrounded by Cathedraltown, a new 1,200-home subdivision being developed by the Roman family.

Neither side wants to discuss the disagreement in detail, but Bishop John Pazak, leader of the Eparchy of Sts. Cyril and Methodius Canada, says the congregation had faced an increasing number of challenges, including a lack of running water; it was cut off when the priest-administrator's small house on the grounds was closed. The cathedral had to bring in tankers of water for its cistern at $250 a load. As well, the declining congregation was stuck with the upkeep bills, mostly to heat the cavernous interior.

"I didn't see any future in staying and not being able to grow," Bishop Pazak says. "So I withdrew from the cathedral."

He celebrated its final mass last week, after announcing his plans to close the church. The next day, the building's locks were changed. The congregation has been unable to retrieve its liturgy books and vestments since. The eparchy (it is equivalent to a diocese) has moved to St. Mary's Byzantine Slovak Church on Shaw Street in downtown Toronto.

"The whole thing is about ownership," Bishop Pazak said. "We don't have title to the cathedral or the 50 acres that was supposed to be part of it. Stephen Roman didn't expect to die when he did." If he did, Bishop Pazak said, he would have tried to complete the transaction arrangements.

After Mr. Roman died, his daughter, Helen Roman-Barber, took charge of the foundation that owns the cathedral and surrounding land. Bishop Pazak said church officials couldn't work out a proposed ownership transfer.

Immediately after Mr. Roman's death, there were negotiations between Ms. Roman-Barber and the eparchy's first bishop, Michael Rusnak, to transfer the foundation to the eparchy -- and thus to the Vatican. But they broke down.

When Bishop Rusnak died five years ago, Bishop Pazak arrived to take charge. He said he was frustrated by the situation to the point that he decided that "I cannot continue to operate under these circumstances."

For her part, Ms. Roman-Barber admitted: "There are some matters of dispute. I doubt I can talk about it." And she didn't.

Several parishioners said the feud revolves mainly around who should get title to the contentious 50 acres. That piece of property is slated for mixed commercial-residential development as part of the new subdivision, according to T.J. Cieciura, of Design Planning Services, overall planners of the Cathedraltown project. He said the developers were Cathedral Town Ltd., 404 Developments Inc. and Slovak Greek Catholic Church Foundation.

Some of the parishioners have taken the closing hard. Mary Snell was one of scores who put in hundreds of hours of volunteer work doing upkeep on the building and holding fundraisers, such as concerts, to take advantage of the good acoustics. "We were stupid," she said. "We worked hard for the church, then we got locked out."

Choir director Mary Seminsky called the development a disaster. "Here we Slovaks were on top of the world with our cathedral and now we have nothing. "

Pope John Paul II, who created the Slovak Byzantine eparchy (responsible to the Vatican) in 1980, personally consecrated the cathedral on his Toronto visit in 1984, the year construction started. Three bronze bells, together weighing 18 tonnes, were installed to bring about the second biggest peal of bells in the world. About $20-million went into the church before Stephen Roman died four years later. Then, enthusiasm for completing the cathedral's interior diminished, along with the funding from the Roman family and individuals. It remains unfinished.

Now, it is unlikely that the eparchy will return to the cathedral, which means the wondrous church will remain empty. "I'm still willing to talk," Bishop Pazak says. "The ball is in [the Roman family's] court."

A staunch Byzantine Catholic who had grown up poor on a Slovak farm and emigrated to Canada as a teenager, Mr. Roman donated generously to the Vatican and intended the cathedral to be his monument.

Paid for with his uranium holdings -- Mr. Roman's Denison mine at Elliot Lake in the 1950s was the biggest uranium mine in the world -- the church was constructed on his 1,200-acre property near the lavish home he had built for his family. The home was modelled after the estate of a Slovak baron. The entrance centrepiece was the world's biggest chandelier, bought from the Nizam of Hyderabad, then the world's richest man.

Mr. Roman raised prize Holstein-Friesian cattle, received the Order of Canada, and founded the Slovak World Congress, aimed at bringing about Slovakia's independence.

Suitably honoured, he launched his most ambitious project, the Cathedral of Transfiguration. He never lived to see Slovakia freed, nor his church, designed to bring pride to Slovaks, completed. Instead, it may now serve as a namesake backdrop to a subdivision.
Cathedraltown: suburbia with a twist
Architect who led Westminster Abbey restoration guides Markham project

It's hardly news that the town-planning fashion called "new urbanism" -- with its emphasis on gracious, walkable boulevards and old-fashioned streetscapes -- is taking firm root in suburbs across North America. Of more interest, however, are the surprising things that happen when this philosophy hits the ground.

Take Cathedraltown, a 2,000-unit residential project now under construction in the Toronto suburb of Markham. Like U.S. developments executed under the rubric of new urbanism, Cathedraltown intends to defy monotonous sprawl and feature a mix of homes and shops, live/work spaces and offices, all within walking distance of each other. It's to be a pleasant blend of the ingredients, in other words, that make up any successful town.

But livability is where the comparison of Cathedraltown with American models ends. The U.S. versions of new urbanism seek to evoke small Southern towns at the turn of the 20th century, with their white frame façades, sociable porches, Fourth of July picnics and so forth. In sharp contrast to that brand of nostalgia, Cathedraltown offers its own: 19th-century European this time, with robust little buildings standing proudly around a central square dominated by a great church.

I suspect that everyone who's been up the 404 between Toronto and Newmarket has seen the church at the heart of the Cathedraltown scheme. It's the imposing, baroque Cathedral of the Transfiguration, rising from a pasture just east of the expressway, which was begun in the early 1980s by late industrialist Stephen Roman on his Markham property. (The interior of this structure, which Mr. Roman meant to be the mother church of Canada's 30,000 Eastern-Rite Slovak Catholics, is still incomplete.)

As explained to me by Helen Roman-Barber, who is developing Cathedraltown on the site of her father's cattle ranch, the project will introduce a strong grid of through streets lined, in the cathedral quarter, by mixed-use buildings up to six storeys tall. A straight high street, with shops and services, will extend westward from the church toward the 404. Shorter structures, mainly residential, will dot the grid as it falls away from the cathedral, creating an attractive, staged transition from high and ceremonial -- the church's golden domes are as tall as 20-storey buildings -- to the intimate scale of two-storey residences. A low-shouldered lake, now under construction, will provide further counterpoint and visual balance to the soaring church.

Cathedraltown is more, of course, than an attempt to replicate an old-world plan on new-world soil. To help with the fashioning of the project's stylistic look, Mrs. Roman-Barber has commandeered the talents of a somewhat unlikely designer: Donald Buttress, senior partner in the British firm Buttress Fuller Alsop Williams, and from 1988 to 1999, the official architect of Westminster Abbey. Dr. Buttress's best-known architectural work so far has been the restoration of the abbey's famous and magnificent west front -- not exactly the kind of thing you'd expect to find in the résumé of a designer of suburban houses on Ontario farmland.

But Mrs. Roman-Barber has large ambitions for Cathedraltown. Drawings by Dr. Buttress on the development's website show a dignified, compact town centre, with august Georgian buildings topped by domes and spires echoing the towers of Transfiguration cathedral. One cannot imagine a Blockbuster outlet in such a serious place, let alone a Mac's Milk store. It will look more like a Cambridge college than anything I've ever seen on the outskirts of town.

Will Cathedraltown work as a living community? We'll get an answer when it is built out and complete, some five years from now (if all goes according to the developer's ambitious timetable). There are reasons to be cautious, however, having to do with the portion of Cathedraltown that's largely finished and now being occupied.

There, on the northern edge of the project, the high style and period flair Dr. Buttress has lavished on the future town centre is largely absent. The note struck by the variously designed houses along the avenues -- the street names, by the way, come from prize-winning heifers and bulls raised by Mr. Roman -- is Georgian or early Victorian: sturdy, dressed-down, businesslike. To work as an urban form, Georgian needs oomph and big-city attitude it doesn't have here. And the developer's neglect of retail -- even a milk store -- in this part of the project means that, so far, Cathedraltown is looking a lot like the monoform, car-dependent suburbia it's trying so hard not to become.

Though I am usually dismayed by architectural nostalgia of any kind, I'll be watching the rollout of Cathedraltown with interest. The Georgianism and Europeanism of it all is surely part of the marketing strategy, but I find the approach -- as expressed in Dr. Buttress's sketches -- to be more earnest and principled than mere salesmanship. Cathedraltown is suburbia with an engaging twist -- hence its durable interest to everyone fascinated by what's new out on the ever-evolving city's edge.
Drawings by Dr. Buttress on the development's website show a dignified, compact town centre, with august Georgian buildings topped by domes and spires echoing the towers of Transfiguration cathedral. One cannot imagine a Blockbuster outlet in such a serious place, let alone a Mac's Milk store. It will look more like a Cambridge college than anything I've ever seen on the outskirts of town.
The Town of Markham is eager to see this project work by turning down an application from Loblaws and other big box stores to build a massive retail complex adjoinging the property. I wonder though if this project like Cornell is doomed to fail because the demographic make-up want big box retail, Mac's and Blockbuster. Time will tell.
Cathedraltown Update

Project modelled on European towns

Special to The Globe and Mail

Fram Building Group and Romandale Group have moved into the third phase of their Cathedraltown project in Markham, offering a collection of more than 60 detached residences that will be closer to the community's landmark cathedral than previous phases.

The master-planned development -- adjacent to Highway 404 at Major Mackenzie Drive -- was modelled after European cathedral towns with their piazzas and restaurants. It also will have fountains, boulevards and a man-made lake.

"People have embraced the concept that there's going to be a monument-like structure in the middle of their community that will be surrounded by piazzas, open spaces and shops," says Mariana Giannone, marketing director for Fram.

"That concept has been very important" in peoples' decision to buy.

The 250-acre site will eventually contain 1,500 luxury houses, townhouses, condominiums and work/live spaces.

More than 200 homes in phase one are built and occupied; construction will begin on phase two this spring.

"For anyone who is purchasing today, they have the ability to drive through and see what the product will look like," Ms. Giannone says. "It is so special; it seems like a movie set."

Donald Buttress -- who once worked on the restoration of Westminster Abbey -- designed the project around the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, whose cornerstone was blessed by Pope John Paul II in 1984.

In the third phase, purchasers can choose from among two-storey homes on 45- and 50-foot lots.

Their designs will reflect Regency or Georgian architectural influences. As in previous phases, there will be attached, rear garages, leaving room for balconies, dormers and Palladian windows overlooking the street.

"The front facade is so beautiful because it's void of the garage," Ms. Giannone says.

There will be formal libraries, and separate living and dining rooms.

Rear family rooms and eat-in kitchens will be more open for casual entertaining.

Depending on the plan, there be main- or second-floor laundry rooms, optional fifth bedrooms and second-floor studies.

Some plans will feature master suites in a private wing, with walk-in closets and en suite bathrooms.

Each home will be built to Energy Star standards to lower utility bills and improve indoor air quality. Among the components will be heat-recovery ventilators, low E-argon gas-filled windows and increased insulation.

Features will include nine-foot ceilings on the main floor, oak stairs and gas fireplaces. Flooring will be available in hardwood and porcelain tile.

Purchasers will receive a bonus package of $20,000 worth of upgrades.

Residents can find golf courses, schools and recreational facilities nearby.

"It's immediate highway access, which is fabulous," Ms. Giannone adds. "It's so accessible from downtown [Toronto]."



BUILDER/DEVELOPERS: Fram Building Group and Romandale Group

SIZE: 2,249 to 3,881 square feet

PRICE: $548,000 to $682,000

SALES CENTRE: Woodbine Avenue, north of Major Mackenzie Drive. Open Monday to Thursday, 1 to 8 p.m.; weekends and holidays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

CONTACT: (905) 927-1418 or


Anybody know how the cathedral itself is doing?
The Cathedral is now empty. Check this post for more details:

I think I always see a car parked outside the cathedral nowadays. Sometimes I see someone inside the car. I think it is a security guard or something.

I know the city turned down an original plan from Loblaws about 2 years ago. Does anybody know what has been going on since then?
Now they can turn the cathedral into a Loblaws!
Markham turn down an application for larger format Loblaws or Canadian Superstore. Mayor Cousens was opposed to the size and location just off the 404 on the north side of Major Mac. There was also a woodlot on this site which was threatened, this sealed the deal against the plan. Not sure if Loblaw is resubmitting new plans or not. In the meantime, townhouses are going up aroud the cathedral.
Is Markham the only municipality that has new urbanism, with Cornell and this, or am I missing some (or many)?

It would be a shame to convert the cathedral to a big-box store, nor do I really see how that's possible. If anything, the Loblaws should just consume normal ground-level retail space.
Oakville seems to be taking a significant New Urbanist tack, too (notice the street plans around 5 + Trafalgar)--though not as thoroughgoing as Markham about it...