A couple of blocks from the Distillery District in the downtown Toronto Port Lands, there is a series of buildings, over a hundred years old, that once made up the Dominion Wheel and Foundries, manufacturing railway equipment for Canadian National Rail. With the decline of rail transportation and manufacturing, the area had become derelict until revitalization that began with the adjacent Distillery District and continued through the Pan Am Games.
On January 18, 2021, with no notice or consultation, demolition crews erected fences and began preparations to dismantle these heritage buildings under the instruction of the Government of Ontario. Community members, neighbourhood associations and businesses in the area were aghast at seeing these iconic buildings suddenly being demolished without warning. Elected representatives in the area were also blindsided: without access to answers because the obscure use of a Ministerial Zoning Order (MZO) issued by the Minister of Municipal Affairs, Steve Clark, allowed the demolition to bypass the City’s usual procedures.
According to City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam’s office, there was – and remains – no formal development application for this site. “The City has asked the province to produce or demonstrate provision for: Cultural Heritage, Archaeological Assessment, Heritage Impact, Strategic Conservation, and Environmental Site Assessment. None of this has been provided. In fact, the developer for the site has not been revealed by the provincial government.”
Councillor Wong-Tam continues: “One thing I know is that before the MZO was issued up to and including today [January 18, 2021], not one single person was consulted about the Province’s intentions for the site. In not doing so, the Province is willfully negligent in following its own heritage policies.”
Following well-established practices in both provincial and municipal law, heritage buildings are subject to extra scrutiny and preservation of the core elements of the building, in whatever project a developer has in mind. People have the right to participate in public meetings, while city staff and planners work to ensure the adequacy of planned services and utilities, as well as ensuring cohesion with the surrounding neighbourhoods. Developers must obtain feedback to ensure their projects mesh well with the existing community and do not become random, unwanted aberrations.
None of these processes were followed in the lead-up to this demolition, and the public has not been informed of what is contemplated for the soon-to-be vacant land.
The type of MZO issued by Minister Clark and Premier Ford, if left unchallenged, will allow developers to bypass any public and City input into what gets built on the land where the foundry buildings are located. The MZO also allows for destruction of the heritage properties on the site, which is normally not permitted. For a developer, being unshackled from the preservation of heritage elements of the foundry buildings means they can build faster and at a lower cost, ultimately increasing the profitability of the project.
One local stakeholder in the area is the International Resource Centre for the Performing Arts (IRCPA) which has long been championing an arts and culture hub in these buildings, something they call the “Foundry Project.” IRCPA executive director, Ann Summers Dossena, said about the unplanned demolition: “Losing the buildings is only half the story. The benefits of the Foundry Project with new and old buildings include a work and performance centre for musicians, a cultural centre, affordable housing for musicians, daycare and a community hub for the 25,000 people and businesses in historic Corktown. All this will be lost.”
For over a year now, the IRCPA and the Corktown Residents and Business Association have been working to bring their vision of an arts and culture hub to fruition in the area. So much of what makes the area attractive is the blend of the old and new. Aaron Binder, owner of local business Go Tours, told The Wholenote, “the balance between heritage and modern is a key element of our company’s tours – and the fabric of our business and residential communities. The Distillery District neighbourhood is our home and a shining example of how commercial and residential interests can meet at the intersection of preservation and profit.” It’s hard to imagine the Distillery without its historical significance. Yet, in the same area the Province is about to destroy the foundry buildings.
The NDP MPP for the riding where the foundry buildings are located, Suze Morrison, also commented on the loss: “It is appalling that Doug Ford is rushing forward with the demolition of the Dominion Foundry heritage buildings despite vocal opposition from the community. Ford needs to respond to the community’s calls for greater transparency. The community has been advocating for years for these beloved heritage buildings to be transformed into community arts space with affordable housing. Ford needs to immediately halt demolition and engage with the community on the future of this site.”
With the looming threat that the foundry buildings would quickly be reduced to a pile of rubble for landfill, the City sought injunctive relief to stop the ongoing demolition in order to buy time to force the provincial government to reveal what its plans are, who the developers are, and the reasons why this heavy-handed override of local planning procedures is being conducted. On January 22, 2021 the injunction was denied, leaving the province free to continue demolition until a hearing, scheduled for January 27 could be conducted before the courts.
Community members persisted, continuing to demand transparency and accountability; and demolition work was suspended “as a courtesy” by Minister Clark. On January 27, the Ontario Divisional Court held a provisional hearing on a motion to stop the demolition, with Justice David Corbett reserving his decision until Friday January 29, at which point, in a clear, albeit temporary, victory for the community, Justice Corbett ruled that demolition should cease until a full hearing is held on February 26, 2021.
So the story continues, with the demolition of the foundry buildings just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the Ford government’s plans for the area. On the same day as bulldozers rolled onto the foundry site, the City was also notified that, only a few blocks away, the Province was beginning expropriation proceedings at 271 Front Street East and 25 Berkeley Street. Currently home to parking lots and a car dealership, this was the site of the first Parliament Buildings of Upper Canada, built in 1797, and has huge untapped archaeological history likely hiding underground.
The area as a whole was subject to a master plan that elected officials, city staff, neighbourhood and business associations, and community members have been working on for years, to be implemented over the next two decades. Now the Province is seeking to expropriate much of these lands, ostensibly through Metrolinx, which Premier Ford requires as part of his so-called-plan for the “Ontario Line.” As with the foundry site, the master plan and local planning process will not apply. This public transit project, too, was proposed without any public input and without any consideration from the Toronto Transit Commission or the City of Toronto.
Regarding the First Parliament site, Councillor Wong-Tam said: “Residents and community leaders have been engaged in the assembly of land and the design of the First Parliament Master Plan for years. In order to build complete communities, it is essential to work with impacted stakeholders, business owners, and residents, as it makes for a stronger neighbourhood master plan. This cannot be another provincial example of bulldozing local democracy and our neighbourhood master plans.”
Amidst the closure and loss of live music venues across Toronto, well documented in the pages of The WholeNote, the destruction of landmark heritage properties would represent both the loss of something that was, and a lost opportunity for what could be. It is unusual to find a set of unused government-owned buildings of sufficient size and scope in stable condition in the heart of a vibrant and growing community in downtown Toronto. This unique offering of empty, large industrial manufacturing buildings with historical significance could still be a beautiful economic and community hub with both housing and arts and music at its core. The opportunity will not easily be replicated.
“No one in our community asked for these buildings to be demolished,” continues MPP Morrison. “The community has been clear that it wants affordable housing, it wants an arts hub, it wants community space. Everything that Ford is doing here contradicts good planning, takes away local voices, and puts Doug in the driver seat. This is wrong.”
Is the reduction of heritage and history to piles of rubble for landfill the legacy the Ford government wants to leave for the West Don Lands?
Brian Chang, local musician, resident, and former NDP candidate for Toronto Centre, writes Choral Scene forThe WholeNote.
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