The Casey House Story
December 24, 2016
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York Square Is At Risk

GUEST POST: Catherine Nasmith, President of the Toronto chapter of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, explains why designated properties such as York Square remain at risk.

Reprinted with permission.

In Praise of Architectural Modesty-Toronto’s York Square

Catherine Nasmith, April 11, 2016

Whenever I mention that ACO Toronto is interested in protecting Toronto’s York Square people ask where is that? In some ways that is a compliment to its success. This modest project, a seminal work of the ground breaking architectural firm of Diamond and Myers, set the architectural and planning world on its end in 1968, yet its modest contextual approach has been so widely copied that it is almost invisible today.

York Square is better known as the location of the Vidal Sassoon hair salon. It is no accident that a revolutionary in women’s hair, who singularly set out to free women from sleeping on bobby pins and rollers, located in this similarly revolutionary project.  We now take for granted the idea of working with and around existing buildings, but York Square, was the first project to mix new and historic to make something new. It was THE project that set out on a different path to the scorched earth approach of “urban renewal.”

Fast forward almost 50 years….even though the youth movement has long since departed, Yorkville’s counter culture physical fabric remains. Carved out of old houses, with new infill between, low scale development winds from street to street, full of pedestrian lanes, small courtyards, buildings of modest scale that are now home to some of the city’s most expensive boutiques, professional offices, bars and restaurants. The generation that made the place returns as well heeled tourists.

Now Yorkville is under major re-development pressures. There is fear that it may disappear entirely. Property owners complain that even with high rents, property values, hence tax rates, are set by OMB fuelled redevelopment speculation, forcing rents beyond the capacity of existing tenants. That tax spiral led to the sale for redevelopment. The excellent restaurant Il Posto continues in the best outdoor patio in Toronto, but for how much longer.

York Square was sold to Empire Communities who now propose to demolish all but the corner façade and pile a massive 40 storey, 128 foot condominium tower on stilts above. The project, designed by the Zeidler Partnership with Scott Torrance landscape architects, dwarfs the lone façades that are retained from the existing project. In his recent lecture, John Sewell described the project as “Death from Above.”

Proposal for York Square

The intimate courtyard is lost, replaced by a plaza off of Yorkville Avenue that will have none of the enclosure or quiet calm of the present space. A recent Ontario Municipal Board decision on Church Street near McGill was turned down because it dwarfed the adjacent designated building and the surrounding neighbourhood. Building over, as this scheme does, is to my mind more egregious.

The current scheme was introduced in February 2016. It replaces modesty with the opposite, making a mockery of the retained heritage elements. Because of its historic significance and because it is already exactly the right size and scale for Yorkville, ACO Toronto has been arguing for the conservation of York Square.

The City of Toronto has designated the property under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act, and identifies all of the exterior features and the courtyard as heritage attributes, ie important to retain. The City would be within its rights under to refuse any demolition, and its reasons are well described in the designation report. Would the OMB agree?

The City of Toronto has not yet taken a position either in favour or against the development. Empire Communities have appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board. Several community groups have obtained Party status at the hearing. Over the next few months negotiations will continue. A ten day hearing has been scheduled for January 2017.

Last week ACO Toronto retained lawyer Jane Pepino to represent ACO and the heritage of York Square. Watch this space.