21 Jun 2010

What Do You Value?

WARNING: This post is loooooong (even by my standards). Do yourself a favour; go to the washroom, pour yourself a drink and then settle in. I also admit to show my bias throughout - but, hey, that's my right as a blogger and not a journalist. But please read it all the same.

During our most recent trip to Europe, I took a lot of photographs of darling old buildings and homes. I'm a sucker for history and architecture, although I don't claim to be an expert in either. I'm really more of an ignorant admirer of it all - someone who finds romantic beauty in old glass windows, wrought iron balconies and rusted, ornate door handles. I dreamily envision all the people throughout history who touched these objects and then I feel a funny, fuzzy connection to them all.

I obviously knew that Canada was a relatively new country - I never realized just how new it was (or just how ancient everything else was) until I came face-to-face with the oldness of Europe. And never was this fact brought home more than during a conversation with Gauthier, our friend and host who had all but given us his Parisian apartment during our stay (have I mentioned that Gauthier is one of my very favourite people in the world?).

We were discussing real estate - in Paris and Toronto (a city he lived in for a short period of time). We had explained that we used to rent an apartment in an old house in the Annex, loved the neighbourhood but couldn't afford to own, so we bought a not-so-new condo unit in Old Toronto instead.

With an amused look, he asked, "When was this old house you rented built?"

"Around 1905," we said.

"And this 'not-so-new' apartment. When was it built?" he inquired.

"We think 1994, or so. I mean, it's not *old* exactly, but not new compared to some of the condos in the area," I explained.

He laughed to himself and shook his head.

"My apartment," he said between a long drag of his cigarette, "is older than your country."

That shut us up. The fact is, we were staying in a home that was well over 400 years old.

"And it's nothing," he said after another drag. "There's many like it. It's just a place that I get to sleep in for a while."

That conversation from a spring day in Paris is what first came to mind when I heard about the conflict over 204 Beech Avenue. The story has been circulating around Toronto for some time, but if you're not among the Centre of the Universe Dwellers, I'll give you a recap:

Geoff and Melissa Teehan were (and are, in many regards) a lucky couple. They have two beautiful sons. Geoff had successfully launched his own digital marketing agency (yes, he's in marketing and advertising, but let's not hold that against him). The couple owned a home in the coveted Beaches area of Toronto. Life was good.

Then, one day, without warning, Melissa experienced a series of scary symptoms that led to a 911 call and a long hospital stay. She went from being an active, healthy woman to a wheelchair-bound wife and mother with Transverse Myelitis who had a whole new set of obstacles to deal with. When Melissa was finally released from the hospital, the couple quickly realized that their forever home didn't work with their new life (for example, all their washrooms were on the second floor - something impossible for someone in a wheelchair to deal with). They decided to sell and find a place in the same neighbourhood (so their kids could still go to the same school) that was more accessible-friendly. They settled on a condo but quickly discovered that the place was tight for a family of four. To which, as a condo dweller, I say, "duh."

They decided on the next best course of action - find a space in their neighbourhood that they could build an accessible home on.

Sidebar: Accessibility is actually a huge issue in this city. I firmly believe it's the major reason why we lost the Canadian Olympic bid way-back-when. Just try to maneuver our sidewalks, catch the subway (which involves getting into the subway station to being with), go to your favourite restaurant or enjoy a visit to a home in a lovely neighbourhood while a) carrying a load of groceries or b) hobbling on crutches or c) pushing a baby stroller or d) depending on a wheelchair. And if you don't have any of these completely normal issues to deal with - PRETEND. For just one day, PRETEND that you do, Torontonians. See how incredibly horrible it is for so many people.

After much searching, the Teehans found the piece of land they could live on in the neighbourhood they called home for the past 10 years. This was 204 Beech Avenue. Because it was always their intention to scrap the house (it turns out that homes built in 1910 were rarely code-friendly, let alone accessibility-friendly - and the majority of homes in the area were from around this time), the Teehans investigated whether they could, indeed, bulldoze what was there and build something new before finalizing their home purchase. You see, just because you own something, doesn't mean you can do whatever you like to it. Rather, you have to make sure, plaque or not, that your home hasn't been deemed "historically worthy" by the yuppie a-holes powers that be. So, they did their homework.

Supposedly (she said with journalistic integrity), they did three things - they researched the City of Toronto’s online registry for heritage properties, they investigated the area (their street had voted against being included in the Heritage Conservation District), and they called the city twice to confirm their findings - although the city claims to have no record of this last point. Only they and the city know for sure about that last factoid. That said, I had a job in the past where I had to work with the city to get permits. They also told me, at one point, that they had no record of my requests - this despite of the fact that they had cashed the cheque that was included in the envelope with said requests. Just saying.

With the supposed all-clear given, the Teehans formalized their home purchase in January 2010 and began the long and costly process of developing a new accessible home on the land.

Then the new trubs started.

A neighbour caught wind of the Teehans' plans and was deeply offended that the face of her beloved street would be forever marred by a home that didn't fit "the look" she had come to expect from her window. She attempted to launch a petition, but when many of her neighbours were less than outraged over a homeowner doing what he wished with his own non-heritage-designated property, she took it to her city councillor, Sandra Bussin.

Bussin then requested that the city's Preservation Service investigate the property for its heritage value. She eventually received a report back that stated:

“The building, built prior to 1910, is an important surviving example of the early development of the Balmy Beach Neighbourhood. ... This home is also representative of the local beach cottage building tradition, and speaks of the district’s beginnings as a summer retreat.”
This was apparently good enough to delay and deny the Teehans' building permits and warrant a formal request to declare the home "historic." After they purchased it, to be clear. Councillor Bussin went so far as to say that the Teehans didn't do their due diligence in buying the property, as apparently, they should have contacted her directly to find out if their home was of interest to the yuppie a-holes historical folks of the city. Um, seriously? I don't know about you, but I've had the *pleasure* of speaking with city councillors - and every one I've encountered has been a flaky, fake, egocentric d-bag who I wouldn't trust with my real estate decisions if my life depended on it. Nor would I ever, in my wildest dreams, think to contact as part of "due diligence." Please. Anyhoo - a more thorough explanation of this process is available at Beach Metro Community News.

The family is now fighting tooth and nail to retain the property rights they believe that they bought into and their right to build the accessible home they need.

And that was the recap!

If, after all that, you remember my Parisian cafe conversation with Gauthier that intro'd this blog post - bravo! In any case, it was his astute observations that our sense of history, of 'old' and sacred that really made me think and give perspective to our life in Toronto.

In Paris, what was built 100 years ago would still be considered modern. What was built 400 years ago, but not "pretty" (like Gauthier's apartment) would be historically significant by our terms, but "nothing" by his. So, I wonder, what was at 204 Beech Avenue 400 years ago, when dear Gauthier's apartment was being built? A forest? An Ojibwe village? Should those have been saved? And later, when a totally wacky home with a castle-like cone was propped up - did the neighbours complain? (History tells us that they probably did. Too gaudy!) What has been built, over time, on the land, was suited the people who lived there then. Why must we halt progress, now that we realize that people (the disabled, the aged, the with-children, and my personal cross to bear - the lazy) need accessible homes too? In neighbourhoods they like? In neighbourhoods they've called home for over a decade? In neighbourhoods their children were raised in?

If people want to conserve what's been there for 100 years - and it's been deemed "protection worthy" - the more power to them. But when it hasn't been deemed so in the decades it's been standing there? And if the new homeowners, those who are alive and thriving, don't desire it to look as people a hundred years ago thought it should? I truly don't understand the sulking. Must we save every scrap of "history" or can we please save ourselves from being featured on Hoarders?

Our friend Gauthier is more wise than I think he would ever give himself credit for. When, between sips of wine and puffs of cigarettes, he referred to his home as "nothing" and "a place that I get to sleep in for a while," he was surprisingly in tune with some of the most deep philosophical thinkers of our time.

The Tibetan monks who meticulously build the Sand Mandalas knew what Gauthier knew. Their creation, in this girl's opinion, is more beautiful, more sacred and more awe-inspiring than the "historical" home we stayed in while touring Paris - and yet, it is not forever, nor do its creators pretend it should be:



It is a thing. It is beautiful, but it is impermanent. What was in the place at 204 Beech Avenue, before the "cottage" was erected, was likely also cherished at one point. But it is gone, and life continues.

What it comes down to, is what do you value?

Do you value history, for history's sake?
Do you value beauty, even though it is in the eye of the beholder?
Do you value quality of life for those who live in your neighbourhood now?
Do you value progress?
Do you value life and happiness over bricks and memories?
Do you value property values over life values?

If you would like to support the Teehan family, you can sign their petition. If you live in the GTA, I strongly suggest that you attend this meeting that will decide if 204 Beech Avenue will be their home:

When: Wed, July 7, 9:30am
Where: Council Chamber, City Hall, 100 Queen St West, Toronto


Have thoughts? Comment them! Have compassion for this family? Support them at City Hall!

Edited to Add: The Teehans received their demolition permits two days after I wrote this blog (so, yah, you can thank ME for that, har har). They did what anyone would do in their situation and used 'em. The City Hall meeting is obviously off. Congrats, Teehan Family! Happy building!

12 comments:

Anonymous,  7:23 pm, June 21, 2010  

I had no idea this was going on! I feel terrible for that couple. :(

Colleen,  8:10 pm, June 21, 2010  

The new house is gorgeous! It looks like a Richard Librach. There's no accounting for taste, is there?

Paula 9:41 pm, June 21, 2010  

I am digging your take on this and the eloquence with which you did NOT toss out the issue of accessibility.

Inaccessibility: not a heritage feature worth preserving.

Good on ya!

John,  9:45 pm, June 21, 2010  

Well said! I'll be there on July 7th.

Foxy Renard 10:10 pm, June 21, 2010  

You know, I see both sides, but... this city IS awful for accessibility, which really bothers me. I had not particularly noticed it 'til I had a kid. Trying to get around with a stroller is no doubt a bazillion times easier than trying to get around with a physical disability, yet good GRIEF it is a mess. I have YET to try to take transit with the kid (and I live downtown, as you know) because of the inaccessibility!

Anyway, tough questions indeed.

Anonymous,  10:45 pm, June 21, 2010  

It seems the city of Toronto is forgetting that homes are for humans. The more accessible homes and communities we have in the city, the better. Thanks for blogging about this important issue.

Susan Being Snippy 10:44 am, June 22, 2010  

I just wrote a blog post on a very similar subject. I make quilts and well, quilts to me are meant to be used. So making use of a quilt is my business... But the use I am putting a particular quilt is not generally approved of by those who collect heirloom quilts. I am very glad that no one can actually prevent me from using the quilt in the fashion I want to. Its mine. And so I would expect a house to be, too bad that is not so...

Anonymous,  1:20 pm, June 22, 2010  

"all councillors are flakey" -- so many generalizations in this piece. unless you're mind was made up that tearing down Beech is good, I can't figure out rational points in this diatribe.

Anonymous,  1:22 pm, June 22, 2010  

And also, what if everybody has a story of why they should tear down a house? And everybody *does* have a story. Then what do you value?

joe 11:26 pm, June 22, 2010  

This is a question of property rights. If a purchase agreement does not include contractual constraints defining what the buyer can or can't do with a property (and those constraints have a value that the buyer factors into his/her offer to purchase) then the buyer should be free to do whatever the heck he/she chooses to with the property after it is purchased PERIOD! No neighbour - who has no financial stake in the property - should have anything to say about what the buyer chooses to do with it.

The notion that ANYTHING, simply by virtue of being "old", is precious and irreplaceable is absurd.

If I go out and build some crappy shack it would be insane for future generations to insist it remain where it is forever unchanged simply because it is old.

Of course you are also right that our definition of what constitutes "old" is naive.

Cities and neighbourhoods need to evolve over time with the form of its architecture suiting the needs of the CURRENT residents not those of the former occupants.

Jen 7:46 am, June 23, 2010  

Thank you for the comments, everyone!

Anon 1: Indeed - so do we.

Colleen: As I said, I'm a totally ignorant admirer of architecture, so I have no idea who Richard Librach is. Ha. Off to Google!

Paula: Thank you. While I do think the key issue is property rights, I think accessibility is still very much a part of the picture (and a significant issue for the city as a whole).

John: Glad to hear it!

Foxy: The inaccessibility of the city really is ridiculous. I think it will become even more of an issue as our population starts to get on in age and as the little baby boom continues.

Anon 2: Well said - and thanks!

Susan: You bet - and clever comparison, too!

Anon 3: Why should a homeowner even have to *have* a story? If they own the land and there were no restrictions on it, they don't owe you or anyone else an explanation of what they'll do with it and why.

Joe: Perfectly said.

meltee 10:53 am, July 23, 2011  

I just re-read this and now that this fiasco is behind us, I still feel the same. What an articulate, well thought out piece you've written, Jen. What I find extra special is your ability to understand and empathize with our situation without having experienced it. There was so much judgement on Geoff that he was using my illness to build a home of his dreams forgetting that although disabled, still right of mind, I too had an equal say. Thank you for your support and for taking the time to tell our story!
Melissa

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Need words? I'm a Toronto-based freelance writer who injects great ones into blogs, websites, magazines, ads and more. So many services, one lovely Jen (with one 'n').

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