When Bill 23 -- the More Homes Built Faster Act -- passed through the Ontario legislature last week, the clock started ticking for staff in the heritage planning division at Toronto city hall.

For planners working on historic preservation, it’s a real race against time. 

The city had, as of mid-November, 11,009 properties listed on the Toronto Heritage Register.  Under changes made to the Ontario Heritage Act (OHA) by the new legislation, 3,973 of them are now subject to removal after about two years. 

It’s one hell of a potential reduction. If no action is taken, more than a third -- 36% -- of Toronto’s heritage inventory could just fade away in a couple of years, like Michael J. Fox at the end of Back to the Future before he saved his parents’ marriage and inspired the music of Chuck Berry.

The risk comes because the legislation imposes a new timeline on properties that are merely “listed” -- but not designated -- as historic properties on the city’s register. Designated properties go through a relatively extensive process of heritage evaluation and property owners are subject to rules that require aspects of the property to be preserved. 

Listing, on the other hand, is kind of like Diet Designation. Properties that are listed only have the requirement that the property owner give council at least 60 days of notice before they call in a demolition crew to start smashing stuff with crowbars.

Before Bill 23, properties could remain listed in perpetuity. But the new bill puts a time limit on listing. If a listed property isn’t officially designated within two years, it automatically gets removed from the register.

And there are no take-backs. A property that was listed but not designated before the two-year deadline is subject to a five-year waiting period before it can be considered for heritage designation again. Call it the heritage preservation version of the penalty box.

In Toronto, this will apply to all 3,973 listed properties on Toronto’s heritage register. If they’re not designated within two years, they’re off the list and can’t go back on for five years. (The specific deadline will be confirmed once the Ontario government proposes regulations under Bill 23.)

What’s at risk?

Properties that are listed, but not designated, on the register include dozens of notable Toonto buildings.

There’s the Wheat Sheaf Tavern at 667 King West, which dates back to 1849, and is frequently proclaimed Toronto’s oldest bar. There’s Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto. There’s the Superior Court of Justice building at 361 University Avenue. 

Robarts Library -- the brutalist hulk that seemingly gets more beloved each year-- is also in the listed-but-not-designated category. If no action is taken, there will be no explicit heritage protections on it once the deadline expires.

Others include the Ontario Science Centre, various buildings at Black Creek Pioneer Village (if that’s not historic, what is?), Little Trinity Church -- which, built in 1844, lays claim to the title of oldest surviving church in Toronto -- and much of Humber College’s Lakeshore Campus, formerly the Lake Shore Psychiatric Hospital.

Then there’s the 184-foot flagpole at Exhibition Place, the boardwalk that stretches across the water in the Beaches neighbourhood, and the statue of Ned Hanlan in very tight shorts that greets beach-goers as they exit the Toronto Island ferry -- all listed, but not designated.

Oh, and one other semi-notable building that’s listed but not designated: the Ontario Legislature -- the place where Bill 23 came to be. The Queen’s Park building, which opened in 1893, was heritage listed by Toronto council in 1973. It has not yet been designated. 

Just being in this category doesn’t mean these properties are in danger of facing the wrecking ball. Some of them have additional protections through broader Heritage Conservation District designations. Others, like the Hanlan statue, don’t really offer a great deal of redevelopment potential. 

But the new legislation represents an enormous challenge for city hall, triggering a need to sift through nearly 4,000 addresses to find the gems that Toronto really wants to keep.

Heritage Versus Housing

It’s no coincidence that the changes to the OHA in Bill 23 comes on the heels of a sharp increase in the number of properties being listed as heritage in Toronto.

Starting in 2015, Toronto began “batch listing” properties -- adding long lists of addresses to the register with minimal justification. Most of them are in areas that will see new transit stations, or already have solid access to transit. Areas like Danforth Avenue, the King-Parliament area that is set to get an Ontario Line station, and midtown, where the Eglinton Crosstown will -- eventually -- begin service.

More than 1,900 addresses have been listed through this process, which means about half of the properties subject to removal -- and the five-year penalty box -- are batch listings.

The batch listings have frustrated developers and housing advocates. Neither heritage listing or designation precludes development, but it adds a hurdle to a process that is already onerous -- and expensive. In a city facing a housing crisis, that’s not great. (Toronto council did seem to have a moment of clarity about this in August, when they voted down a staff report that would have designated an old Leslieville soy sauce factory at the same time Core Developing Group was planning a 132-unit rental building on the site.) 

Still, it’s fair to wonder if the provincial changes imposed on the heritage process will really translate to more housing. At a recent meeting of Toronto’s Preservation Board, a presentation from heritage planning staff concluded that the new rules “compel designation.” That same basic message was repeated in a memorandum to council written by interim city manager Tracey Cook: “The proposed Bill would compel unnecessary designations,” she writes. 

In other words, one impact of the change could be to push the city to more aggressively pursue designation by default. This would impose more burdens on property owners and could stick developers with even bigger hurdles when pursuing housing projects. 

At the same time, it seems unfathomable that the city will be able to thoroughly work its way through evaluations of nearly 4,000 listed properties in just two years, increasing the odds that something truly valuable from Toronto’s history will be lost when time runs out.

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