Church Wellesley’s Heritage Win

April 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

The Church Wellesley Neighbourhood Association won the first tentative laurel in its young crown this month. Will its members rest? Not yet, they say.

On Feb. 23, the developer that had applied to raze a block of heritage buildings asked the city for a six-month hold on its proposal to build a 25-storey condo development. As reasons for reconsidering, the developer cited objections raised by the planning department, Ward 27 councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam and the neighbourhood association.

Connie Langille has lived at 67 Gloucester Street for 25 years. Her building, along with 580-596 Church Street and 69 Gloucester, was targeted for redevelopment by its owner, Elliot Sud of Church 18 Holdings. She came home one day last April to find “a big hunk of wood pounded up on the side of the building,” an official notice that the owner had proposed to demolish everything but the façade.

“It was shocking,” says Langille. “I live here and I have a lot at stake.” She and her husband raised three kids in their two-bedroom-plus-den apartment. She served as superintendent of the building for six years and still volunteers as its unofficial landscaper. The yard work was harder this past year, she says. In the garden, she inevitably encountered developers, and once last summer, an exploratory drill tunnelled through her flowerbeds.

That’s where she ran into Wong-Tam, who was then a candidate for Ward 27, the Toronto Centre–Rosedale riding vacated by Kyle Rae. Wong-Tam persuaded Langille to organize a neighbourhood association to protest the development formally. The association now has more than 200 members and a one-for-one battle record. The city returned the developer’s rezoning and demolition application in December with a recommendation to deny it. Church 18 Holdings could have appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board, but instead it stuck by a spokesman’s original statement that it was “looking forward to working with the community.”

City planner Willie Macrae says he’s not surprised that the developer is rethinking its proposal. The heritage committee, for one, strongly recommended that the city reject the proposal, writing that it “is totally out of scale with the rest of the block,” and would “result in total loss of the heritage character … of the streets.” Macrae says the suspension is “good news for the community, for sure, but it’s still uncertain. Residents still won’t know whether they’re going to have to move for another six months at least.”

In the meantime, the neighbourhood association is using the extra time to secure a heritage designation for five of the six buildings owned by Church 18 Holdings. Member Paul Farrelly also says it plans to apply for Heritage Conservation District status for the entire Church-Gloucester block. Macrae says the city hopes to designate the buildings at a council meeting in early April, although a designation for a district will take at least a year. Each Heritage Conservation District is governed by its own set of regulations, but development would certainly be prohibited, as would destruction of the sidewalks by invasive public works projects.

First, though, the neighbourhood association has to demonstrate the historic character of the block, so its members are feverishly researching the annals of Church-Wellesley Village. Among other tidbits, Farrelly has discovered that 596 Church was once home to acclaimed Irish poet Derek Mahon, the author of “April on Toronto Island.” “If we want to be organized and proactive,” says Farrelly, “that means getting the stories. We have to show that there’s more to these buildings than just the façade.” Farrelly and Langille have widened their research to include the entire Church-Wellesley Village, not just Church and Gloucester. “We’re discovering tons of stuff about the neighbourhood,” says Langille. “It’s a lot of fun.”

It’s also smart. Church 18 Holdings owns at least two other buildings on Church Street, and Mohican Holdings submitted a proposal for a property across the street from the Church-Gloucester block last summer. More developers are almost certainly on the way.

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