City Building and The Legacy of Church Architecture in Toronto

I found it curious that both of the churches in Toronto where my father was minister were no longer active United Churches.   Mount Dennis United Church had recently been converted into an evangelical Filipino Church and Deer Park United Church was proposed to be partly demolished to make way for a new condominium.

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Deer Park United Church Before
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Deer Park United w. Condo
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Deer Park United w. Condo

I was certainly aware that United Church congregations had been dwindling in numbers over the last number of decades, but wondered just how deep the rabbit hole went.  If the trend is true for the United Church, is it also true for other places of worship?  What might this mean for Toronto, whose public realm is defined in large measure, by its vast number of churches – many of which are iconic structures that beautify and give life to streets and neighbourhoods?  What might this shift mean for other Canadian Cities who are no doubt, faced with the same statistical inevitability?

In its heyday, the United Church was second only to the Catholic Church in the number of churches it had constructed and operated in Toronto.    The United Church had 131 churches and the Catholic Church (of varying sub-denominations) had 133.  It appears that the vast majority of Catholic Churches remain intact and continue to operate as Catholic Churches.   This is not the case for the United Church of Canada.

In 1980, the UCC had a national membership of 389,492.   By 1990 that number had dwindled to 338,040 and by 2000 their numbers dropped to 270,361.    As of 2011 the membership sat at 166,936.  Roughly 42% of its 1980 numbers.

http://www.calgaryherald.com/life/Churches+keep+faith+congregations+steadily+shrink/9347983/story.html

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Eglinton United Church as a Condo

If one assumes that this decline has been distributed evenly across its ministry, then clearly the maintenance of 131 churches in Toronto would become an unsustainable challenge.

And so what has actually happened?   What are the numbers?*

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Of the original 131 churches, 82 remain as originally constructed or as merged congregations that combined forces to save at least one of two buildings.  Another 10 churches have been redeveloped as both churches and other uses such as community centres, seniors residences and health centres.  Approximately 92 churches total remain intact as churches.  (70%).

It is also interesting that only 15 church sites have been demolished and replaced outright by some other land use. (11%)

Other changes include:

No. of churches taken over by other faiths:                                               6

No. of churches converted to condos or other residential uses:           9

No. of churches converted into schools:                                                      0

No. of churches converted into community theatres:                              1

No.  of churches converted into community centres:                               1

No. of churches expanded as a result of amalgamation:                          5

Based on these numbers it appears that the decline of the church has been managed with a great deal of creativity and innovation.   There seems to have been a concerted effort by the City and Church to maintain the buildings as physical structures within our public realm and this, I think, should be applauded.

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The Former St. James Bond United Church

One concern of note however is the fact that so few have been converted into schools or community centres.   It seems to me that those public uses would serve a greater good than converting to condos or other ‘singular’ uses.   Those public uses would not only allow for the maintenance of iconic architecture, but also ensure that they remained focal points for community use and enjoyment.

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The Bathurst Street Theatre

If this trend is likely to continue (and it is), then perhaps the City Planners should try to get out in front of it in order to ensure that every opportunity is taken to preserve the public nature of these beautiful buildings.

*Note:  The statistics cited are approximate.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_Church_of_Canada_churches_in_Toronto

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The Old City Hall Conundrum

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Old City Hall in Toronto is a building that has served as a Provincial court-house since the construction of New City Hall in the 60s.  It is a classic example of Romanesque Revival architecture and at one time was the largest civic building on the continent.  It is an iconic fixture of our public realm

In September the City adopted a staff report that confirmed they would not extend the Province’s lease beyond 2021.  That same report authorized staff to release the reservation placed on some areas for  future use as the Toronto Museum Project and to create publicly accessible space.

So clearly there is a move afoot to consider its use as a  museum….of something.

At the same time, the report recommended that staff report back with final recommendations for a strategy for new tenants at Old City Hall which — of course — precludes any final decision on a Museum.  Perhaps the plan is to use rental revenues to offset the cost of installing a museum.

Since September the City hired a Real Estate Consultant to advise them on the ‘highest and best use’ for Old City Hall.  Their conclusion?   Conversion to a retail centre that contains a mix of food service, leisure, event and civic uses and provides some encouragement for future office.

Old City Hall is located next door to the two biggest shopping malls in the City. The Eaton Centre and The Bay Store on Queen Street.  So…retail?  Really?

Clearly, the City’s real estate consultants responded to the terms of reference they were given.  But I would argue that what the City needed was not a ‘highest and best use’ assessment, but rather a business case to justify keeping Old City Hall an entirely PUBLIC building and to do so at little or no net cost to the City.  How do we strategically and financially  justify its use as a public amenity now and in the future?

Old City Hall is an iconic building in an iconic location.  Few citizens know that it is a court-house and a jail.  But they know it as a public building.  They know it as part of the architectural fabric of this city.  Grand steps to the front doors and a monument to lost soldiers out front.; the backdrop of every Remembrance Day Ceremony.  It contributes to the ‘look’ of our city as it sits as a visual anchor looking north from Bay Street.  In many ways, it is the logo of the Toronto brand.

How does one keep the origins of this building intact, while facing the inevitability of change?   How do we ensure that it’s ‘highest and best use’ is to keep it as a public building?

The City owns two premium properties in addition to Old City Hall; the Central Library on Yonge Street and the Toronto Archives on Spadina Road.

The Central Reference Library occupies half a city block and while in its day it was viewed as ‘cutting edge’ architecture, in fact it is a static building.  Half of the floor plate is given up to a four story vaulted ceiling, and it offers little to nothing in the way of contributing to life on the street.  It is a wall of brick.  It fails to help animate our city in a way that should be demanded of all public buildings.

The Toronto Archives building is a small building that occupies a large site on Spadina .  It is in a residential neighbourhood and the site would be better suited to high end residential development.   It is also not a building that contributes in any meaningful way to the life of the street.

My business case is this:

Sell both the Central Reference Library and the City of Toronto Archives properties and use the significant proceeds to convert  Old City Hall into the new City of Toronto Central Reference Library and City Archives.    What could be more fitting than an old building housing old books?   If there were a demand for a ‘museum’ at Old City Hall, then what better than to couple it with our city archives?

Bring in some limited retail that is synergistic with a library. The retail could generate revenue to help off-set operating costs.

A  City such as ours has a multitude of moving parts: assets, liabilities, challenges and opportunities.   The measure of our success is determined by our ability to move those parts and assets around in order to achieve our greatest opportunity and deal with our greatest challenges.  Old City Hall is one of those challenges….and one of those opportunities.