Heritage activist fights to save East York’s architectural past

On the coffee table of Geoff Kettel’s Leaside home sits a catalogue of neighbourhood development plans, an architectural timeline of the area. He’s concerned about the survival of the Durant Motors Company building on Laird Avenue.

“I think where we want to go should be reflective of where we’ve come from,” he said.

Though the business existed only 10 years in the area, Kettel believes it stands as a testament to East York’s working class heritage. The Durant Motors building is currently a government office, but there is a proposal to demolish it to make room for an eight-story retirement home.

“I have concerns about the project from a planning perspective, as just too big, too dominating in the neighbourhood,” said Kettel, a former developer and current chair of the North York Heritage Panel.

Earlier this month crews began demolishing Stollerys clothing store at Yonge and Bloor streets in downtown Toronto. Kettel said that demolition has raised concerns about architectural conservation in East York. Kettel believes that mass development disrupts communities where people have lived functionally for generations. He and others have campaigned on this issue before.

In 2012, a developer wanted to demolish the Thomas G. Elgie house in East York to create three new homes. Kettel and others in the community petitioned the city to have it designated as a historical site. Activist Renee Jacoby served with a mediation team to find a compromise, to preserve the oldest wings of the Elgie home, while allowing extensions of the building to be demolished to make room for new smaller houses.

“We are waiting to see this property be restored, the portion that is heritage,” Jacoby said. “But we are watching to see the portions that are being taken down that aren’t designated.”

Such development compromises give Kettel hope. Recently, the North York Heritage Panel petitioned Toronto City Council to make an assessment of the Durant building. Kettel said the government is considering preserving the structure.

“Let’s build in a way sympathetic to the past, rather than destroy stuff,” Kettel said.