UPDATE: Jan 27 – Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam will be meeting with the chief building official, the chief planner and the city’s legal department early next week to explore ways to close the loophole that allows the Building department to issue demolition permits for commercially-zoned properties without first notifying other city departments or the local councillor, she says.
Jan 26 – Ward 27 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam has blamed the City of Toronto for the sudden demolition of a historic house in the Church and Wellesley Village on Jan 18.
The wrecking ball came down on Odette House at 81 Wellesley St, an 1800s-era building that was home to the Wellspring cancer support centre for about 20 years.
“My heart is broken,” Wong-Tam says. “This is difficult to swallow because it wasn’t arson. It wasn’t an accident.”
Wong-Tam is also angry. She says the surprise demolition has revealed a loophole that seems to give developers an opportunity to snatch properties not designated as heritage buildings, possibly to turn them into condos or parking lots.
“With this it was in the hands of the city. We issued the demolition permit. That’s why it’s so difficult for me to accept this one. It was in the hands of the city and it slipped right through our fingers.”
The worst part, she says, is there’s no application for any new development.
“There’s now no building and no plans for the future from the applicant. Now it’s just an abandoned site for five months, five years, 10 years.”
She says the process through which the city designates heritage properties must be changed.
“The mayor is not a fan of heritage,” she adds. When Toronto loses historical buildings, “you erode history.”
Area residents are also saddened by the loss of the historic house.
ZB, who lives at 85 Wellesley St, says the demolition happened too fast. “I’ve never seen a building go down that fast in my life.”
Will Nester also mourned the loss of 81 Wellesley.
“It all sounds a bit unscrupulous. That building had a lot of character. To replace it with a parking lot or condo is such a waste.”
Wong-Tam says a heritage designation request had been filed in November and was in process. The Toronto and East York Community Council unanimously approved her request.
On Dec 1, while the heritage application waited for approval, the property owners applied for a demolition permit. On Dec 14, the permit was issued by the building department.
Wong-Tam says that unfortunately, 81 Wellesley St was not zoned as residential property, so Toronto Building staff were not required to notify either the local councillor or Heritage Preservation Services prior to the issuing of the permit.
Under the Planning and Building Code acts, demolition permits must be granted as-of-right if a commercially zoned property isn’t designated or listed in the heritage inventory.
“This has everything to do with zoning. If the property was residentially zoned they would have to ask me first,” Wong-Tam says.
Staff in the city’s Heritage Preservation department were not available for comment.
Wong-Tam says the department is in disarray: underfunded, understaffed and overwhelmed by a backlog of applications.
She wants the city to create a new layer of protective policy so the hasty destruction of historical buildings doesn’t happen again.
“There is obviously some gap,” she says. “This is not the first time this has happened. But this is the first time this has happened on my watch. Close the gap . . . It’s a spectacular failure.”
Wong-Tam also wants a change to ensure all demolition permits require community feedback. “We would be able to canvas the community. Ask if there was any opposition to development and get feedback.”