Monday, September 18, 2017

Another Surplus School


There was a time when Lambeth students wishing to further their education after elementary school had to take the traction line to London or board in the city. The building known as the Lambeth Continuation School came to their rescue when it opened in 1925 to teach Forms 1 to 4, later called Grades 9 to 12. Students taking Grade 13 still had to go to London.

After the continuation school closed in 1949, students once again headed into the city to attend high school. The building then became S. S. # 17, later known as Lambeth Public School. In 1965 its name changed again to M. B. McEachren School after a dedicated teacher named Margaret B. McEachren who taught there for 23 years. Additional classrooms and wings were added over the years.

Declared surplus by the Thames Valley District School Board in 2010, the old school has been owned by Lambeth Health Organization since 2015. Their plan is to demolish the building and build a medical centre on the site. The proposed building intentionally pays tribute to the school, with its red brick horizontal appearance. But why build something similar when you could just renovate the original?

On September 11, 2017, London City Council's Planning & Environment Committee (PEC) voted to remove the school from the city's heritage inventory list, just one year after city politicians voted to preserve it as a heritage property. Odd, since the heritage value hasn't changed. And Lambeth isn't overly endowed with heritage buildings.

All of this leads to the question, what does our society do with all its surplus schools? There are a great many of them everywhere, due to the decline in enrollment. Not surprising - the baby boom is over. Since 2006, the TVDSB has closed 33 schools. (For pictures of schools recently sold, see here.) Not all of them are architectural gems, of course, especially the ones built in mid-20th century which usually look like concrete bunkers. It would be difficult to justify saving all of them, especially since many sit on valuable land in key locations.

But the older heritage schools with style are more worth preserving. McEachren School - like quite a few others - could be renovated into a health centre, community centre, offices, shopping centre, college, apartments ... Just look herehere, and here. (OK, the last link shows the school being demolished but it was certainly successful for a while, each classroom being a separate shop). Personally, I'd like to move into the McEachren Apartments.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The London Plan vs The OMB

We've been hearing lots about the London Plan the past few years. It's the plan for London's future development that replaces urban sprawl with infill. Basically, it means that a new highrise will be built on a plot of land downtown rather than the city’s edges.

Infill is a great idea. It's better for the environment since farmland isn’t eaten up by housing subdivisions and strip malls. And it's less expensive for taxpayers because services such as water and sewers already exist within the city. I support infill development so long as heritage buildings aren't demolished, since I believe our downtown needs a balance between old and new.

The London plan was created by Londoners themselves, during more than 150 community meetings in which about 14,000 Londoners contributed their ideas for the city's future. City council unanimously approved the final draft and even the provincial government approved it. Unfortunately, the plan is now endangered by 42 appeals to the Ontario Municipal Board.

So what is this Ontario Municipal Board or OMB anyway? It was established in 1906 as the Ontario Railway and Municipal Board, mainly to oversee expanding rail systems between and within Ontario communities. Taking its current name in 1932, the OMB has evolved into a quasi-judicial body overseen by provincial appointees, adjudicating land-use decisions throughout Ontario. 

In my opinion, there are a few problems with the OMB:

1. It seldom supports the little people.
Sometimes the OMB seems to exist to allow prosperous landowners to topple planning decisions they don’t like. Property developers appear to have a better chance at the OMB because they have the financial resources to hire top lawyers. Decisions rarely seem to be in the best interest of neighbourhoods or the average London taxpayer.

2. It's a waste of time. 
Often development plans are stalled until OMB decisions are handed down. In the case of the 42 appeals to the London plan, the issues may not be resolved for years.

3. It's not local.
Do OMB members, located in Toronto, understand local situations and concerns? Hardly. Nor do they want to. The Board subordinates local policies to ones of its own making. In an ideal world, once a decision has been made locally, that should be the end of the matter. The city should be able to decide for itself what it will build and where. 

4. It encourages municipal politicians to make decisions for the wrong reasons. 
Municipalities may be tempted to make decisions that will avoid OMB hearings, just to sidestep the costs or the wasted time. In other words, politicians will just do whatever developers want.

5. It's not democratic.
Members of the OMB aren't elected. So an unelected board controls the majority of Ontario developments instead of our elected municipal councils. If the OMB makes a decision voters don't like, there's no way to vote its members out.

I find it bizarre that most decisions made by London City Council - whether they be about rapid transit, on-street parking, noise levels, snow removal, or just about anything else - are binding and final. But when it comes to land use, a bunch of people in Toronto are allowed to dictate what happens here. 

Some might say the OMB needs an overhaul. But Ontario is the only jurisdiction in North America with a Municipal Board, so why don't we join the rest of the continent and abolish it altogether? Unfortunately, I'm not quite sure how to begin. Any ideas?

Button It


Look closely at this stucco covering a house on Elias Street, just east of Adelaide in Old East Village. See the buttons? Local tradition says they came from a nearby button factory. Does anyone know where the factory was and when it operated? 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

London Building Types: Terrace housing

A 19th-century term for row housing, terrace housing refers to identical or mirror-image houses sharing side walls. Such terraces were a traditional British form of domestic architecture generally only found in the larger urban areas of Ontario. London has several examples. 

One of the loveliest, 339-349 Princess Avenue (left), known as Princess Terrace, was built in about 1886 in the High Victorian Style. The roof line is broken by three gables with decorative wooden details and round windows. There used to be porches but they were removed during renovations. Still attractive though.
A sad example is Camden Terrace at 479-489 Talbot Street (right), built 1876-77. The buildings, owned by Rygar Properties, have suffered from neglect for years. Rygar intends to demolish the terrace and build three residential towers on this site, incorporating a rebuilt facade of the terrace in the lobby. This, of course, with London city council's blessing, since the majority of councilors voted in favour of demolition on September 13. Take a look while you still can. 

The Camden Terrace situation raises the issue of infill development in London's core. How much do we want, where do we want it, and what should it look like? How many heritage buildings will be lost to highrises? That debate, however, deserves a post of its own.

Update: Demolition of CT began in November 2016 and is now complete. RIP.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

I know this isn't related to heritage but...

...why is Reg Cooper Square being sprayed with Glyfos, a non-selective herbicide that controls grasses and weeds? Obviously there is some danger to humans from this product, since the "Warning - Pesticide Use" signs have been placed around the perimeter. As the "pest" is only vegetation growing between the flagstones, couldn't the weed cutters be used as usual? Is the pesticide use thought to be safe because it's on top of an underground parking garage, not a lawn? 

Friday, May 27, 2016

"Renovating" Kingsmill's

London's famous Kingsmill's building was acquired by Fanshawe College in November 2014. This is what Kingsmill's looks like in May 2016.

I applaud the expansion of Fanshawe College into downtown London, since I work for a Dundas Street business that's likely to benefit from the increased number of students. And as a Wellington Street resident I'm in favour of a living, breathing city core.

This article gives a good overview of the building project so far and includes an illustration of the finished structure, due to open in September 2018. Notice the setback of the new tower, probably meant to preserve the integrity of the original building by separating old from new.

In the article, Shawn Harrington, Fanshawe College's senior manager of campus planning and capital development, is quoted as saying, "The challenge was the high cost of renovating existing buildings, many of which are in the designated Downtown Heritage Conservation District ... The city and the college reached an agreement where the city would provide a grant to the college to offset the high cost of renovating these properties downtown" (italics mine). And Branka Gazibara of Diamond Schmitt Architects says, "The downtown London precinct is designated to preserve historic buildings, so this project respects that and will retain the street character fronting the busy Dundas Street and Carling Street sides."

I'm not disparaging Mr. Harrington or Ms. Gazibara, who l'm sure perform their jobs competently and enthusiastically, but this project is not a renovation, nor does it preserve a historic building. This, except for one limestone wall, is a demolition.

The article also states that bricks from the red brick portion of the Dundas Street facade have been catalogued for "reinstalation" at a later date. That portion will be reconstructed to look "similar" to the original facade. Counterfeit heritage.

I understand the interior of the department store had to be gutted, because the original building had wood floors and joists that wouldn't support the predicted new loads. The narrow structural bays are also not suitable for a modern college facility. The demands of modern occupancy are definitely among the challenges of adaptive reuse. Makes me wonder whether a conversion to offices or apartments wouldn't have made more sense that a college facility.

I've ranted about facadism here but I can't resist doing it again. When the facade of a building is preserved with a new building behind it, it's considered a compromise between property redevelopment and preservation. It's a middle ground between preservation and demolition. And it's happening in nearly every city around the world.

The result, however, is an historical fragment, a sham, a folly. What will future generations think of this compromise?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Milling Around

London's latest plaque interpretive sign* was unveiled Thursday, May 19, 2016 in Carfrae Park on the northwest corner of Richmond and Carfrae streets. Entitled "City Mills: The Legacy of Charles Hunt," the sign is just across the Thames from the site of Charles Hunt's first business, the pioneer mill that became one of the most successful, and longest-running, in London.


Hunt immigrated to Canada from Britain at the age of 22 and worked his way up to become one of London's most important businessmen. In 1856 he established City Mills, having bought the land from John Kinder Labatt in 1853. Hunt built a dam on the Thames River and channeled water along a millrace from the river to a waterwheel at the mill. With four pairs of stones for grinding wheat, the sign tells us, the mill produced about 215 bushels of flour a day. That was enough to sell at Hunt's store on Richmond Street, The Golden Sheaf, as well as enough to sell abroad. Hunt's property eventually included a cooperage, granary, and cottages for his mill workers.

Following Charles' death in 1871, his sons Charles and John took over the mill and renamed it Hunt Bros. Ltd. In 1917, the Hunts abandoned this location and moved their operations to a six-storey flour mill powered by electricity on Nightingale Street. The new concrete structure, probably the tallest in the city at that time, was close to rail lines and could produce 1200 bushels of flour a day. A tragic fire there in 1934 took the lives of two London firefighters. The business closed in 1957, after being owned by four generations of the Hunt family.

The structure seen in the river at the original site today is not Charles Hunt's dam but a concrete weir built in the 1930s. It's a Depression-era sewer infrastructure project led by Charles' youngest son, Albert Ontario Hunt, then assistant manager of London's PUC. It's an attractive scene, though perhaps not so idyllic as the views pictured on the new sign showing the original mill and its 19th-century environs.

The sign was made possible by Albert's grandson, Jay Hunt of Ottawa, who for some time has been lobbying the city to recognize the contributions made by his grandfather. His dream finally came true at the interpretive sign unveiling Thursday morning. The night before, Jay entertained the London & Middlesex Historical Society with the story of his successful great-grandfather and the family business.

The Hunt mill may be no more but those wishing to view a working example of an old-style mill can still see vintage machinery in the London area. The Arva Flour Mill, Canada's oldest water-powered flour mill, began operations on Medway Creek in 1819. Unfortunately, federal inspectors recently decided its exposed antique rollers and leather belt-driven motors don't meet today's safety codes. The machinery came to a halt for a while but now owner Mike Matthews has been allowed to resume  operations - without any staff. It's questionable how long Mr. Matthews will be able to run the mill by himself, even while the federal decision is under appeal.

Wouldn't it make sense for there to be a safety code exemption for historic facilities? Shouldn't the government regulations have a grandfather clause for a living, working museum? Many of us would say yes. Unaffordable upgrades take away the uniqueness of the mill. If you've never been to the Arva mill, get there fast.

* The City of London's preferred term.

Update, February 2017: Arva Flour Mill is now back in operation, which is good news for heritage advocates as well as local bakers. A federal tribunal overturned the 2016 safety ruling, after an appeals officer argued that mill staff are well-equipped to work the old machinery. What is still being clarified, however, is whether the owner will need additional guards on the machinery and training for staff.