Christopher Hume April 26, 2013 Urban Issues article in favour of respect for and adaptation of a shared architectural heritage

I’m pleased to share the following article:

Please note: The original article includes links which, to save time in the posting of the text, I have omitted. Please refer to the original article if you wish to see the links.

Geoff Kettel has shared the article with a number of people; David Juliusson has forwarded it to me:

Why developers should heed the lesson of Union Station

Even now we are too quick to demolish, rather than respect and adapt our architectural heritage.

Christopher Hume

Urban Issues, April 26, 2013

Buildings may not change, but attitudes do. What one generation can’t wait to tear down, the next is in a rush to save.

First came the mass demolitions of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s that reduced whole swaths of the downtown core to a giant parking lot. Today many of the buildings under construction are on the asphalt spaces for which so many historic structures were destroyed.

If the city hadn’t been so free with the wrecking ball back then, we wouldn’t need to build today’s Toronto seemingly from scratch.

Even the great Union Station came close to being razed. Designed to impress, it was conceived as one of the great train terminals in Canada, if not North America. When finally unveiled in 1927 — railway and bureaucratic bickering delayed its opening by fully seven years — it ranked right up there on the growing city’s list of landmarks.

As Edward, Prince of Wales, said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, “You build your stations like we build our cathedrals.”

Yet less than 50 years later, Union Station had been declared obsolete and was threatened with demolition. In 1972, train travel was in decline and the country’s two main railroads — Canadian Pacific and Canadian National — declared their intention to build a massive convention centre on the site.

The building was saved by the huge outcry that greeted the announcement; city council voted to reject the redevelopment proposal.

Today Union Station, the busiest transit hub in the country, is undergoing a massive $665-million revitalization. More than 250,000 commuters use it daily, which means its role in the life of the city has never been more critical.

Of course, not all buildings are Union Station; most of the heritage structures we tear down are more modest in their architecture and purpose. But unlike the grand terminus, they can be altered to meet changing needs and tastes. How many 19th-century warehouses and factories have found new life as offices, stores and apartments? Last year, a 1913 public school in the Junction was remade as a police station.

And let’s not forget the countless two-, three- and four-storey buildings that line many of Toronto’s main streets; they are as flexible as any ever constructed.

Indeed, they are an ever-present reminder of what we have lost as a society and urban culture; namely, the art of city-building. Though we are slowly relearning the lessons of the past and adapting them to 21st-century conditions, often our first response to heritage buildings is that they are in the way.

Irreplaceable structures from the late 1800s are regularly torn down, often to make way for some condo banality or other. And if they are kept, it’s as a façade, which only adds insult to injury.

Ultimately, heritage preservation is a cultural not a legal issue. Legislation helps, and we do need more and stronger laws. But until we value heritage, we will continue to treat it as an obstacle.

Typically, it’s the owners of a property who want it demolished; it’s the public that wants it kept.

Sadly, what many developers fail to grasp is the economic potential of heritage. The work of the late Paul Oberman proved just how significant that can be. The Toronto real estate developer, who died in a 2011 plane crash, made a career rejuvenating old buildings. At a time when most developers consider any heritage measure a major imposition, Oberman’s sense of integrity — architectural and material — stood out.

It’s important to remember, however, that Oberman was no do-gooder, no philanthropist dispensing his ill-gotten gains in exchange for respectability. His motivation was profit — and that’s the point.

In addition, retaining heritage means reducing waste, a serious consideration given that 30 percent of landfill in Ontario is construction debris.

As every tourist knows, the cities to which we travel are invariably those with historic centres. Even Paris, the most visited city in the world, attracts people on the basis of its old arrondissements, not the more recent suburbs that surround the core.

Tax incentives would also be helpful, but again, what’s needed above all is a more subtle and imaginative mindset than that which prevails now. If you polled Torontonians, the numbers would make it overwhelmingly clear that most of us prefer historical architecture to that of the last five or six decades, even though grand design has improved in recent years.

The issue now isn’t modernism’s desire to erect the future, but its need to erase the past.

Still, heritage continues to fall victim to developers’ thoughtlessness and greed as well as official apathy. Given the growing number of neighbourhoods and communities for which heritage has been an economic boon, this is ironic.

The one sure thing, however, is that heritage, a finite resource, will only increase in value — economic, emotional, architectural, social and civic. If we are lucky — and smart — the remains of the past will be around long enough to help us grope our way into the future.

[End of article]

Geoff Kettel
Community Connector, Advocate and Consultant

“There are places I remember, all my life
Though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain”
John Lennon, 1965

2 replies
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Christopher Hume has only contempt for those living beyond his
    Oz,downtown Toronto. Didn’t he refer to the people of Mississauga just
    weeks ago as “creatures left over from the second-half of the last
    century.” You can imagine what he thinks of Long Branch, Alderwood,
    Mimico or even Port Credit. Our villages also ‘share this heritage ‘,
    in many cases history and homesteads built long before the real
    estates of the Big Smoke. ( Colleen M. O’Marra

  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    I’d say that part of the job description for a newspaper columnist is to express things in such a way that readers respond with strong feelings.

    I don’t have the sense, from my own perspective as a reader, that Christopher Hume feels contempt for those who don’t live in downtown Toronto. About a year ago he gave a talk at a meeting at the Assembly Hall in New Toronto (near Kipling and Lake Shore Blvd. West). He was well received.

    Of course, other Toronto Star readers may have other views on this topic. A diversity of perspectives gives rise to interesting and valuable conversations.


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