Council should learn from the past on Seaton Hall redevelopment

City Hall can learn, can’t it? Forty years ago, a developer wanted to tear down two dozen 19th-century houses on Sherbourne Street south of Gerrard Street, and replace them with two 30-storey towers. It took some citizen muscle, but in 1973 city council said no to that approach.
Instead, council bought the site, agreed to save all but one of the houses, and built a seven-storey apartment building behind the houses along the rear laneway.

Presto: The heritage structures were saved (including the 1845 home of Enoch Taylor, who sponsored the first public school in the city) and there were as many housing units in this redevelopment as there would have been in the two apartment towers. City council proved that to intensify you didn’t need to demolish and build highrise. You could reuse the past to accommodate the present.

That redevelopment on Sherbourne was the beginning of a whole new way of bringing change to a city — build onto the past, don’t try to totally replace it.

Now the city faces the same kind of opportunity two blocks to the west, on George Street south of Gerrard. A developer is proposing to redevelop Seaton House, the city’s largest shelter for men, and a city committee has agreed in principle to the proposal, which calls for clearing the site and starting over. The eight heritage houses on the site won’t be saved, nor will the large 19th-century schoolhouse, nor any part of the Seaton House, built in the 1950s.

That’s a mistake. The lesson is that we need to build onto the past, not wipe it out and hope we can do better. The city is more interesting, developments more imaginative, and neighbourhoods more resilient when architects and developers work with the past and restore the dignity of existing structures.

There’s no good reason why the redevelopment of Seaton House can’t be based on these good lessons. It’s not too late to get it right.

City councillors can learn from the past, can’t they?

John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto; torontoletters@metronews.ca.

More from our Sister Sites