I opened the news last week to find yet another chapter in London’s most predictable saga: heritage versus development. This time: the battle at 150 Dundas. Like many people, my first reaction was, “Wait, what? That’s a heritage building?”
And then like some people, I read past the headline and found ACO London’s president explaining the reasons why a group of heritage advocates are raising concerns about this particular development. It’s easy to criticize them for sticking their noses in, but we should probably be thanking them for taking up the slack.
The unfortunate backstory is that very few people understand urban development either from the city’s perspective or that of the businesses investing in it. Hardly anyone knows how development charges work, understands design principles, or grasps the series of steps a developer has to take in order to make something happen.
I’ve been lucky enough to have opportunities to learn many of these things through city staff. Whenever I’ve had the chance, I’ve also sat down with members of the development community to try to better understand the issues and motivations that drive their business. But as I say, I’ve been lucky. Most people don’t get a chance — or have the time to seek one out — to tackle those topics the same way.
One group has been motivated to learn these things: “the heritage people.” They’ve become de facto development watchdogs, keeping an eye on both the city and its real estate moguls. Their focus is on heritage preservation, and sometimes legacy creation, but they’ve also had to fill a void where other citizens should be.
Thus, the community discussion around every new project becomes a head-to-head between heritage and development, regardless of details. The lines between these two factions are clear and deeply-etched. The exchanges lack nuance and, to be frank, are nearly devoid of any actual exchange of ideas.
The unfortunate upshot is we now seem to believe the only reason to criticize or delay a development is its heritage impact. At a stretch, we sometimes revolt against something not in keeping with the character of a heritage district. Outside of those two things, mumbles about human-scale are pretty much all we manage.
We need a higher standard for urban development than that. In my opinion, we should really be pushing back far more often because developments aren’t meeting the city’s needs (I mean, honestly, how hard is it to put a three-bedroom apartment downtown?) or are aesthetically subpar. We should be demanding excellence on so many levels besides heritage preservation — many of them at a much higher priority.
But in order to do that, we need to step up as a community. And we need to step back from the development vs. heritage smackdown, and allow ourselves a more mature approach. Neither criticizing nor supporting a project should automatically label anyone “one of those people” unless we’re talking about people who care about London’s success and believe our developers are capable of contributing to it. If we can get there, I’ll be happy to be called one of those people.