Friday, November 10, 2017

The Point of Heritage Conservation Districts

467-469 Dufferin Avenue may not look newsworthy. But another London heritage battle is looming over this one-storey vinyl-sided building on the south side of Dufferin between Maitland and Colborne. Marigold Homes wants to replace it with a 3 1/2 storey apartment building with 12 "microsuites." According to a Free Press article, the owner, Ben Lansink, thinks it's "awful looking" and "beyond repair." Of course, he's let it deteriorate to its current condition himself. He also claims the design for the new building will "fit in" with the historic neighbourhood, although no new design is going to fit in like the real historic building that's already there. 

The issue is not whether there could be a demand for microsuites, or tiny apartments, in the core. I'll bet there is. But the place for them is not on the site of what may very well be one of the oldest buildings in London.

This may be one of the original British military barracks buildings, moved here about the time the military base closed to become Victoria Park. City records show the building has been on this site since 1874, coincidentally the year the barracks buildings were sold to be moved elsewhere. The building might date to as early as the 1840s but, of course, without a detailed inspection of the interior it's difficult to say for sure. Furthermore, 467 was the first office of the London District Trades and Labour Council as indicated by old city directories. 

This is West Woodfield Conservation District. The point of conservation districts is to conserve heritage. There isn't much point in creating Heritage Conservation Districts (HCDs) if the city is going to allow property owners to demolish the buildings within. Make changes to buildings, yes. Create sympathetic additions, fine. But not demolish the oldest, most historic structures we have.

Let's hope the city agrees the microsuites should be built elsewhere. Otherwise, we have a precedent for the further erosion of the heritage resources within Woodfield. Once this building comes down, why not others?

Update, December 2017: The city's Planning and Environment Committee (PEC) has turned down Marigold's request to build microsuite apartments on this site. Not because PEC thinks the building is worth saving but because the planned apartments would create too much intensification in the area. While the decision saves 467-469 Dufferin for now, how much longer will it be allowed to deteriorate?

Update, January 2018: Once again PEC has turned down Marigold's demolition request. Stay tuned.

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.

Update, September 20, 2017: City Council has decided to designate the school property with Councillor Jesse Helmer suggesting the building be renovated for a new use.

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?

Update January 2018: The OMB is to be replaced by the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal in 2018, which will have more limited powers. 

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?