Toronto spans over 600 square kilometres and is filled with thousands of buildings and tons of neighbourhoods with unique histories, and the City of Toronto is surveying all of it in a city-wide heritage study. 

Approved by Council in 2019 but still in its early stages, the city-wide heritage survey aims to transform Toronto’s heritage strategy from reactive and case-by-case to proactive and systematic. The hope is that the survey will result in more clarity and better information for city planners, citizens, and property owners regarding the location and value of heritage resources.

City-wide surveys like this are an international best practice that could drastically change how decisions related to heritage properties or potential heritage properties are managed in the City of Toronto. But to see why, we first need to understand what heritage significance means, how it affects potential development, and how it can be co-opted by NIMBY movements... 

What is Heritage Significance?  

There are two types of heritage properties included on the Heritage Register: listed and designated. 

Anyone can nominate a property to be listed, including property owners, heritage committees, planning staff, or residents’ associations. Being listed is like being flagged for potential significance. These properties aren’t protected under the Ontario Heritage Act, but Toronto’s Official Plan does require their conservation. Owners of listed properties may be allowed to make alterations, but extensive redevelopment may be subject to further restrictions. Owners also have to give local councils notice before demolishing or removing any structures on the property. The notice gives council time to try and designate it if heritage significance is determined. 

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Being designated represents a higher level of protection, as these properties are protected under the Ontario Heritage Act. Like listed properties, designated properties are required to be conserved as per Toronto’s Official Plan and have already been evaluated and determined to have significance. In Toronto, there are hundreds of designated sites, including the well-known ones like St. Lawrence Market and Casa Loma, but also sites like an old cigar box factory at 736 Dundas Street West, a public school at 95 Regal Road, and countless former residences with names like the Heydon House, the Goulding Estate, or the George S. Henry House. You can explore them all on the city’s interactive map.

It’s not just officially listed or designated properties that are impacted by heritage considerations though. Properties adjacent to these buildings must also ensure that the integrity of the heritage property’s value is preserved. This might have some design implications for new buildings next to heritage properties.

View corridors can also affect non-heritage buildings. The City of Toronto has identified a number of views that new buildings must not disrupt. For example, Toronto’s City Hall is a designated heritage site with a protected view corridor. This means that the silhouette of City Hall must be preserved and that buildings behind it cannot penetrate its silhouette. This had serious implications and height restrictions for the New Toronto Courthouse right behind City Hall. There are many more view corridor examples like this outlined in the City’s Official Plan and view corridor maps. 

But what determines whether a property or view has heritage significance and should be protected in the first place?

To be heritage designated, a property must have at least one of the following three things: physical value, historical value, or contextual value. Physical value refers to properties that represent a rare or early example of a specific style, or to properties that exhibit a high degree of craftsmanship or technical achievement. Historical value refers to properties with ties to a person, belief, event, or organization that is significant to a community and that contributes to an understanding of that community or culture. Lastly, contextual value refers to properties that help define, maintain, or support the character of a neighbourhood, such as a landmark. In some cases, designation can apply to an entire area. These are known as Heritage Conservation Districts. 

The criteria for heritage value can sometimes be hard to interpret, which is why municipalities have committees or staff dedicated to interpreting and evaluating potential heritage properties. In Toronto, this work is done by the Toronto Preservation Board and Heritage Preservation Services. 

Balancing Heritage and NIMBY Attitudes

In many ways, the open-endedness in how heritage value is determined is a very good thing. A broad definition of heritage ensures that a plurality of heritages -- ones that align with Toronto’s diverse population -- are recognized, protected, and celebrated. 

Yet, open concepts of heritage can also be problematic. It means that almost any property can be considered for heritage value, which can slow or postpone development in a city that desperately needs more housing. Loosely applied heritage value can also be weaponized by NIMBYs that are resistant to progress and change. There have been multiple examples of this across Toronto. 

In 2020, the Toronto Preservation Board recommended adding nearly 1,000 properties to the Heritage Register as part of a “batch listing.” This included more than 150 properties on Roncesvalles Avenue and Dundas Street West, 215 in West Queen West, 165 properties near Danforth, and more. Other batch listings have been recommended in the past, including 258 midtown properties in 2017.

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Some critics have noted that the communities where these batch listings occur are often ones with a history of NIMBYism and opposition to new development and densification. The City has defended batch listings by saying they play a proactive role in supporting Toronto’s heritage preservation. But others argue they stagnate development and make it harder to build homes and amenities for Toronto’s growing population. 

For these reasons, batch listings can be controversial but they’re not the only example of the collision between heritage and NIMBYism. Another took place in Cabbagetown in 2018 when a daycare was proposed in a 120-year old red brick house near the Necropolis. Given the city’s drastic undersupply of daycare options, this might have been a welcome proposal – but not for everyone. Opponents of the daycare cited issues related to noise, parking, traffic, but also concerns that the daycare would affect the heritage character of the neighbourhood. Some even argued that strollers being parked on the porch were a heritage concern. 

In this case, heritage was not the sole or even primary argument against the proposal, but its inclusion in the discussion shows how heritage can be manipulated in the name of NIMBY wishes. When this happens, it dilutes the impact of heritage value and makes it harder to argue on behalf of legitimate potential heritage sites. 

Preservation and progress do not have to be at odds, but a careful balance must be found if we want to build a city that is worth preserving. 

Urbanity Fair