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My Take on 204 Beech (Part 1)

Introduction

I wrote this a few days ago and didn’t publish it, because I wanted to think about it a bit. But now the story has exploded since Councillor Sandra Bussin has gotten involved against the Teehans. More details at the National Post and Open File. I hope to add more later.

Original

I’ve been following with great interest the discussion about the house at 204 Beech Ave in The Beach neighbourhood of Toronto. It’s (so far) a discussion that pits the specific rights of the property owner against the more diffuse claims of the “community”. I got interested because we’re planning a renovation that will require a bylaw variance, and the desires of the community come into play there.

The backstory is that the Teehan family needed to find a property on which they could construct a new house that would incorporate accessibility into its design, because Mrs. Teehan has been afflicted with transverse myelitis. They found and purchased what they thought was the perfect property at 204 Beech Ave.

Geoff Teehan is a digital designer and a founder of Teehan & Lax. Maybe because of his profession, and also possibly because his partner Jeremy Bell had done something similar, Mr. Teehan created a blog to document the progress of building the new house for his family. After the blog received some press, a small but vocal opposition arose to protest the Teehans’ decision to tear down the small cottage that currently sits on the property. Now, literally, all hell is breaking loose.

Now, I’ve never met Geoff Teehan. I follow him on Twitter, and I commented on his blog (before he removed some of the posts). He responded in email to my comment, so I’ve communicated with him. But I couldn’t pick him out of a line-up. Having said that, my bias is that in this whole schmoz, I definitely support his point of view.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Teehans need to have a wheelchair-accessible home. That is incontrovertible. The debate surrounds whether the cottage currently standing at 204 Beech has to be torn down so that the Teehans can have what they need. The critics of the Teehans say two things: the first is that there are any number of other lots that would serve the same purpose, and the second is that the cottage currently on the property is a fine example of early Beach architecture and is important for maintaining the character of the neighbourhood.

Mr. Teehan himself addressed the first point in a blog post that he has subsequently taken down (but I hope that he will put back up). First, they want to live in the Beach. I assume it’s where their kids have grown up, and where they go to school, and they are integrated into the area and they like their neighbours (perhaps they are reconsidering that last one). Second, Mr. Teehan stated in the blog post that they needed at 50-foot wide lot so that they would not have to build a three storey home. The house will need an elevator, and going up three storeys is not an option. I currently live in a house on 25-foot lot, and I don’t like going up and down three storeys. Doing it in a wheelchair would be extremely difficult. Finally, the property has to be inexpensive enough so that they can still afford to make the necessary changes (renovate or rebuild).

At this point, the naysayers who say there are plenty of lots that fit that description should go off to MLS and find them. We’ll wait. According to Mr. Teehan (and there’s no reason to doubt him on this, otherwise he would have bought it), there’s been one property for sale in the last 18 months that meet the criteria, and that’s 204 Beech. He bought it, and plans to build the house his family needs. Case closed.

Or not. A group of neighbourhood activists has decided to try and do an end-run around the sale of the property and have it declared a heritage building. The kicker is that one of the instigators of this idea is a person who grew up at 204 Beech but has resided for the last seven years outside the neighbourhood. In Germany.

Kirsten Campbell, the owner of the “Save 204 Beech” blog, wants to apply to the Toronto Heritage Preservation Services to declare 204 Beech a heritage property, under the category that the property has contextual value in supporting the character of the neighbourhood. I’m not in a position to judge this property on those merits. I happen to think that there are any number of other cottages in the Beach that show similar characteristics, and that there is nothing exemplary about 204 Beech. Others will disagree. Ms. Campbell started her blog to try and gauge support for her idea to preserve her childhood home. She was at the receiving end of a tonne of comments (now removed) and some very strong language describing her as “selfish” and “despicable”. She also had her supporters who claimed that Mr. Teehan had marshalled his Twitter followers to lambaste her. She offered a defense that she was “express[ing] my opinion, as is my right to do so,” but never discussed the very real and very negative outcomes for the Teehans if her campaign is successful.

The problem as I see it is that her anger is misplaced. If there’s anyone she should be angry with for not preserving the cottage at 204 Beech, it’s her parents.

Her parents owned the home. If they felt strongly that it was a heritage property that needed to be preserved for future generations, they could have started that process. That process may have cost them actual money in terms of the eventual sale price of the house, but it would have set the expectations of what future buyers of the property were able to do with said property. They chose not to do so, and not to add any riders to the sale contract when the time came for them to sell the property. The future buyers should be able to expect that when they bought the property, it is theirs to do with what they want within the boundaries of the law.

And that’s what “selling” means in a country like Canada. When you sell something, you give up your claim to it in exchange for the money that the buyer pays you. The Teehans have acted in good faith according to the rules as existed when they purchased the house. They exchanged cash for the fair market value of the house so that they could do what they need to do within the bylaws, zoning and building codes as were written when the house was sold. The “save 204 Beech” community is trying to retroactively change the rules. It is fundamentally not fair or just. It is selfish. I understand that Ms. Campbell may be offended and upset, but that is really just too bad. Toronto isn’t governed by one giant restrictive covenant where you have to ask for your neighbours’ permission, and if you live here, you have certain freedoms to do what you want with your property.

Finally, let me say that while I don’t know him, I have huge respect for Geoff Teehan. I think he’d be the first to admit that his 204 Beech blog and its surrounding publicity was a strategic mistake. But in all the ways that I can see, he’s acted in the most stand-up matter that I can imagine. I hope that if, God forbid, something like what happened to his family were to happen to mine, I could act with 10 percent of his grace.

The person most affected by this tragedy is notably absent in the online discussion; that’s Mrs. Teehan. She’s been through an ordeal that most people can’t imagine, myself included. She not only needs this new home; she deserves it.

Godspeed, Teehan family.