Heritage preservation is hot topic in Toronto these days, thanks among other things to the recent sale of the Honest Ed's site, the Mirvish+Gehry proposal, and the dust-up over the relocation of the “Sam the Record Man” sign from its original spot on Yonge Street. Balancing the conflict between the Toronto of yesteryear and the Toronto that is being built by new development is not an easy process for a city growing as quickly as ours is, but the addition of five new Heritage Conservation Districts (HCDs) in key areas of Toronto should have make the balancing act easier.

With reports coming up in the new year, the City of Toronto has created a new blog to provide more information about the five HCDs that are in planning. Today, UrbanToronto takes a look at how these upcoming HCDs will help steer the conversation about preservation.

Map of King-Spadina area from Charles Goad's, "Goad's Atlas of Toronto" (1884)

Heritage occupies a special and unique role in planning considerations at the City of Toronto. Empowered by Ontario's Heritage Act (1990), cities like Toronto have been encouraged to be proactive in protecting historically significant buildings and locations within the city. Heritage, however, still must exist alongside other planning matters, which sometimes leads to results that seem messy and confusing. Planning legislation in Ontario attempts to accomplish many goals, and sometimes particular goals rub up against others in uncomfortable ways. The Toronto Official Plan, for example, seeks to conserve heritage resources, but also encourages the intensification of many areas where heritage exists. The result is that heritage concerns rarely deliver a clean 'yes' or 'no' to the almighty question 'does this development represent good planning?'

When preservation and repurposing is done well, the important heritage features of a building remain, while modern interventions such as the sensitive insertion of new towers can give developers the new density they require to make a profit. One King West is a great example of where an older base meshes with a sleek, modern skyscraper.

The Honest Ed's sign is a fixture of the Annex, but its future is in jeopardy. Picture by Louise Morin.

There are essentially two tools that cities in Ontario can use to protect heritage: they can identify properties they feel are of historical significance, and they can identify whole districts that they feel have a particular character that is worth protecting. Designated properties are those buildings which have been studied in depth—a very time consuming task—and have been found to meet three broad criteria:

  • The building has significant design or physical value;
  • The building has significant historical or associative value; and
  • The building has significant contextual value.

Meeting these criteria isn't always simple, and meeting these criteria also doesn't ensure that the building as a whole will receive protection. It's also a very time consuming process to examine each property individually, and it also tends to be a very reactive response to new development. That's where HCDs can potentially bring clarity to the conversation.

HCDs are less about targeting specific properties for protection, and more about holistically examining an neighbourhood, and determining what gives an area its heritage 'character'. The result can be used to help shape development in the area, by ensuring critical features are not removed as redevelopment occurs. Like a heritage designation for a specific property, owners of a building within an HCD must seek permission to alter or demolish the exterior. Unlike a site specific heritage designation, an HCD paints in broader strokes; features specific to individual buildings may not qualify for protection, but the ability to have the larger conversation about a neighbourhood and its place in the city is a useful tool for residents and developers who are looking for clarity, and the city who is trying to balance both preservation with growth.

Map of proposed Historic Yonge Street Study Area. Image courtesy of the City of Toronto City Planning division

In August 2012, Toronto Council authorized five new HCDs to be studied. They are:

While not the only potential HCDs identified for future study, these five represent districts that have significant development pressures, and thus studies of these areas are considered to be the most urgent.

Preliminary results are expected to be presented before the end of the year, with a goal of having reports ready to present in mid-2014. These HCDs are going to be identifying not only boundaries, but also significant architectural, historical, and cultural aspects of an area that are considered to be worth protecting. With these studies underway, it's currently too early to be able to judge their future impact. While they will unlikely please all critics of new development, they will give the city some more negotiating power when trying to preserve the old Toronto, while allowing the new Toronto to be built alongside.

1915 image of Toronto Street, looking north to Adelaide Street, by James Salmon

In the meantime, the website that Heritage Preservation Services has created provides a good overview of each individual study area. Updates will follow as these studies evolve, and you can visit their website for more information about the five upcoming HCDs. We here at UrbanToronto eagerly await the results.

Have an opinion about the studies? Leave a comment below!