Committee members were not prepared to take a leap of faith and trust that they will do the right thing in the absence of any legally-binding commitment to do so, or even a plan for what that might look like.
By Ryan McGreal
Published October 10, 2013
After a site tour and a two-and-a-half hour meeting, the Municipal Heritage Permit Review Subcommittee tabled a partial demolition request for James Street Baptist Church for a second time.
James Street Baptist Church (RTH file photo)
Property owner Louie Santaguida, flanked by architect Drew Hauser of McCallum Sather Architects and engineer Grant Milligan of Quinn Dressel Architects, fielded tough questions from skeptical committee members but were not able to persuade the committee to approve their request to demolish 80 percent of the church and leave only the east (James Street facing) wall and towers.
Their message to the committee was as consistent as it was troubling: Trust us. We'll save as many heritage features as we can. No, we don't know how many features we can save or what it will look like. We don't have a development plan yet. But trust us.
One awkward exchange summed up the conflict. A committee member pleaded, "It's so easy to tear down something and put something else in its place. That's easy. I'm challenging you to try to see something a little more creative, to be more creative, to use as much of what is there as possible, other than just that chunk in the front."
Milligan replied, "What I can tell you is that two projects have come to my mind where we have actually, stone-by-stone, dismantled - a different word than the word 'demolished' - dismantled the building and re-erected it."
The committee member shot back, "You're asking for a demolition permit, though."
Milligan replied, "Let's not get lost in the wording here."
Of course, the wording is exactly what the Committee needs to consider.
A partial demolition permit - or rather, a "building alteration" permit as it was euphemistically called - is a permit to demolish part of the building. It implies no commitment to dismantle, catalogue, save or re-attach any given heritage features.
The property owner insists that their objective is to save as much heritage value as they can, but since they have not made a plan for their proposed new development, they cannot say how much that will be.
We are asked to take a leap of faith and trust that they will do the right thing in the absence of any legally-binding commitment to do so, or even a plan for what that might look like.
The property owner insists that after standing for 130 years, the building is ready to collapse and that they can't wait to put together a plan before undertaking the demolition.
Santaguida pleaded that he "inherited this issue" with the church, but the fact is that he bought the issue this summer when he decided to purchase the property at the fire-sale price of $610,000 - only 40 percent of the assessed value of $1.5 million.
He knew the building is designated under the Ontario Heritage Act and that he has a legal responsibility to preserve that heritage value.
Santaguida and his team have a big credibility gap to hurdle. First, they are saying what all property owners say when they want to demolish a building: It's structurally unsound, it could collapse any time, it would be prohibitively expensive and/or difficult to repair.
We hear the same dire warnings about every building that is eventually saved from demolition, so the committee is right to adopt an initial posture of skepticism.
The owner supplied a 129-page report, but the report was missing some important information, including:
We are merely told that the latter would be prohibitively expensive.
The subcommittee was clearly uncomfortable with approving the demolition permit without actually knowing how much it would cost either to prop up the building temporarily or restore it permanently - especially in the absence of a redevelopment plan, let alone a timeline or financing arrangement.
Santaguida has another credibility hurdle: in the past two years, two major divisions of his other company, Terrasan Corp., have gone bankrupt and taken down major redevelopment projects with them. His current company, Stanton Renaissance, hasn't completed any development projects yet.
After the demolition permit request first materialized, RTH asked Santaguida if he would be willing to conduct an email interview, explaining that the questions would be tough but we would publish his responses in full. He agreed, and we sent a list of questions that were tough but fair.
We followed up after a few days without any response. Finally, a week later, a spokesperson replied to say that Santaguida would not be responding to any media until after today's meeting. We have resubmitted our questions and will publish them in a follow-up article if he decides to respond.
To be sure, the presence of Hauser and Milligan serves to shrink the credibility gap. They are both respected professionals who are dedicated to heritage preservation and have encouraging track records.
However, until they actually provide an independent heritage engineer's report, a realistic cost estimate to shore up the building - temporarily or permanently - and a much more detailed plan for how they intend to keep their commitment to save as much of the heritage value as possible, their personal credibility is not enough by itself.
We need more and better information, and the committee has asked them to provide some of it between now and the next meeting in two weeks.
It's not enough for the developer to say they will do the right thing. It needs to be spelled out in clear wording as part of the agreement. Verbal promises are no replacement for signed commitments.
Until the developers can tell us what heritage elements they will be able to save and how they're going to do it, they are simply not ready to demolish yet. The committee is right to send them back to do more homework on this important file so they can include some actionable commitments.
If and when they do provide the detailed numbers and a real redevelopment plan that details all the heritage elements they will promise to retain, I strongly expect the heritage committee will approve their request.
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