My Take on 204 Beech, Part 2

The debate around 204 Beech is blowing up.

I have been trying to read all that I can about 204 Beech. That means hitting “refresh” repeatedly on the #204beech Twitter search, reading the Save 204 Beech blog, and getting into the comments at OpenFile.

In my opinion, the best place to read about 204 Beech is OpenFile. They’ve done a killer job of breaking some of the major details of this story, all of which I will try to comment on below. Please, please, go read the article and the comments. It’s all gold.

The first comment is from Lloyd Alter, president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario. He says that the over-arching issue is that there is “no real list of what buildings are architecturally significant.” He’s correct, and I hope he works hard to get such a list and inventory created, so that the BS that’s happening to the Teehans doesn’t happen to someone else. But nothing in what he said helps us determine what to do in this specific situation.

Further along in those comments, I ran off a bit and told a fellow commenter Brian Moffatt that he was guilty of “lightweight thinking.” Because I try to keep the decorum up and the negativity down, I later recanted and apologized for my poor choice of words. I instead said that for him to say “they [the Teehans] could easily sell and find a new lot” was cavalier, and I think that is accurate.

Then, in contrast to the well-reasoned comments on OpenFile, I found this on the “Save 204 Beech” blog.

A Jim Graham says (in the comments in the National Post) “…the “community” had decided that it was not a heritage property….” In fact, the “community” had not ‘decided’ anything. There was no need. The house was occupied and well cared for. It was only when the house was threatened with complete demolition – a plan the “community” learned about from Mt. Teehan’s website, and an article in The Star -that the thought of a heritage designation arose.

Ms Campbell, if you’ll allow me to respond:

  1. In the context of the 204 Beech debate, I’m not “a Jim Graham.” I’m the Jim Graham. However, I will also accept “that Jim Graham”.
  2. I should have been more clear in my comment to the National Post. Perhaps the community hadn’t “decided” that 204 Beech was not a heritage property. They couldn’t even get around to making a decision. Or as the English say, “you couldn’t be arsed.”
  3. You’re not in the community. You’re 6000 KM away.
  4. As to the overall point of “the community” getting to decide after the property is sold, allow me to present an imperfect analogy:

“I didn’t buy fire insurance before my house burned down. There was no need. The house was occupied and well cared for and in an unburnt state.”

Okay, a bit of hyperbole. But that’s how I roll. Hyperbolically.

My point is simple. Really, really simple. If you want to protect something, you should be proactive. Ms. Campbell’s parents had the opportunity to designate the cottage as a heritage home. They did not. As we’ve learned from OpenFile, the city worked with the residents of various streets around Beech Avenue and ERA Architects to get Heritage District designations for six areas from an original list of 14, starting in 2004. Beech Avenue was not one of those areas. Either the residents of Beech Avenue did not want a heritage designation, or again, they couldn’t be arsed to get it. That was six years ago.

So … seems pretty clear to me that the community of Beech Avenue, and specifically the former owners 204 Beech, have decided. That they did not want a heritage designation. And this point is really important. Perhaps in Germany there is uniformity of thought, and one can expect without saying so that the buyer of a house will share one’s exact tastes and viewpoints. However, in Canada, we have diversity. Of race, language, religion, and taste. So one absolutely cannot expect that the buyer of a house shares your views on how cute it is. One has to tell buyers what is expected, and that is done by writing a contract, or getting a heritage designation before the house is sold. It allows for informed choice on the buyer’s side. And that’s a component of the freedom we Canadians hold dear. This attempt by the “community” to get a heritage designation is a direct assault on the Teehans’ freedom.

Next, let’s discuss the “Community”. On the various blogs, mine included, and on Twitter, a number of people have come forward to say that there is a great deal of support on Beech Avenue for the Teehans’ plans to build their new home. And that the bulk of the opposition comes from the one neighbour across the street at 205 Beech. So as far as I can see it, the “community” that has decided that 204 Beech might be a heritage property has a nucleus of three people: the neighbour at 205, Ms. Campbell of “Save 204 Beech” (who lives in Germany), and Councillor Sandra Bussin. More people than that will actually live in 204 Beech when the Teehans finish building it.

That brings me to Councillor Bussin. Again in the comments of the OpenFile story, Brian Moffatt said “though you or others may not like her or the positions she takes, it does seem she listens to her constituents and acts on their behalf.” I respectfully disagree. She seems to listen to some of her constituents. It seems to me that if your vision of Beach architecture lines up with hers, you’re good to go. In fact, you don’t even have to be a constituent. You can get in the public record if you live in Germany, but happen to agree with Ms. Bussin. If you are a constituent, like the Teehans, but you don’t share her aesthetic, you might end up having your councillor ask an architectural firm to draft an opinion letter on your property without your knowledge and then have that entered in the public record without a chance to respond. All of this comes from the excellent reporting of OpenFile:

  1. Upon receiving a complaint about the Teehans’ plans to build at 204 Beech, she asked ERA Architects to draft a letter about the heritage value of 204 Beech. From OpenFile:

    Bussin says she has received “a number of emails and calls concerned about the future of that particular house,” as well as an online petition. She said she couldn’t give exact numbers of how many people were concerned.

    These concerns led her to get an independent opinion of the property. She consulted ERA Architects, Inc., a firm the city regularly works with for heritage conservation issues.

  2. Ms. Bussin did not inform the Teehans of ERA’s letter. Again from the article

    The assessment is certainly news to Geoff Teehan.

    “I was never made aware that they were doing that, that they were on my property sniffing around without my permission.”

  3. At the community council meeting, Ms. Bussin introduced a letter dated 25 May 2010 asking the Toronto HPS to report on designating 204 Beech a heritage property. She did not inform the Teehans that she would either ask HPS to do this, or that she would enter the letter into the public record. They were not aware of the meeting and hence could not respond.
  4. The appendix of the letter was a screen capture of the “Save 204 Beech” blog. A blog created and maintained by a person living not in Ward 32 Toronto, but Germany.
  5. Finally, on May 26th, Geoff Teehan reported that his wife received a call from Councillor Bussin indicating that Ms. Bussin was submitting 204 Beech for heritage status.

I’m not foolish enough to believe that Ms. Bussin has Solomon-like wisdom and can please all of her constituents all of the time. But I do think she owes it to everyone she represents to hear from both sides of the issue before she acts. We expect leaders to make decisions and take actions. I certainly don’t expect them to do so secretly and unilaterally, especially in an emotionally-charged issue such as this one.

So, to summarize.

The Teehans:

  1. Bought the property at 204 Beech
  2. Wrote in a clause to allow four days to do their due diligence (see Jon Lax’s comment at OpenFile)
  3. Asked their architects and the City if 204 Beech was a heritage property.
  4. Hired an arborist to ensure they could build without affecting trees on the lot
  5. Spoke to a number of residents of Beech Avenue who supported their plans.
  6. Wrote a blog about their plans.

The “Save 204 Crowd”

  1. Did nothing when they lived in and owned 204 Beech.
  2. Did nothing in 2004 when the City, other Beach residents and ERA architects were working to create Heritage designated areas around Beech Street.
  3. Complained from Germany when their childhood home was to be torn down.
  4. Complained to Councillor Bussin, who without discussing it with the Teehans (the most affected party) elected to ask ERA Architects to draft an opinion letter, and entered that letter and the German blog into the public record.

Whose team to you want to be on?

[Aside: We’ve learned from OpenFile that Ms. Bussin thinks there’s nothing wrong with this, and blames the Teehans for not vetting their purchase of 204 Beech with her office first.]

To conclude: go read Geoff Teehan’s blog post. It is excellent, and succinctly makes all the points I’ve been gassing on about. If you live in Ward 32 The Beaches, please, please, please be vocal about your opinion in this matter. A very small number of people are speaking for “the community” and distorting the view of “Beachers.” And the rest of Toronto’s opinion of The Beach. If you want to be known as NIMBYs who don’t respect property rights, please stay silent. If that’s not you, please speak up, both to the Teehans and to your Councillor.

For my part, I’ve written to Mayor Miller, and I’m trying to get assurances from my councillor that he views this kind of behaviour as offside. I’d also happily contribute to the campaign fund of any of Ms. Bussin’s opponents who will state on the record that they will help the Teehans build their home.

I wrote an email to Councillor Bussin on May 27th (see below). I did not get a response, perhaps because I don’t live in the Beach. If you do, get out and make your voice heard. All politics is local, and it doesn’t get more local (or loco) than this.

Dear Councillor Bussin,

I have read on the National Post site (http://news.nationalpost.com/2010/05/27/family-plight-sparks-furor-in-the-beach/) that you have decided to recommend that the Teehans’ house at 204 Beech Ave be declared a heritage property. I have never met Mr. Teehan, but as a resident of Toronto, I do have an opinion on this matter.

I have to state, in the strongest possible terms, that this is the wrong decision. You are incorrectly placing the diffuse wishes of the community over the very real needs of this family. They bought the house in good faith when it was unencumbered by a heritage designation. It is wrong to try to add one after the fact. If the THS agrees with your recommendation, it will have very real financial, physical and emotional effects on the Teehan family.

In the article you are quoted as saying, “I have great empathy for the family.” It’s time to prove it. So far you’ve done nothing to help one of your constituents who is in a very difficult situation.

I hope you will reconsider your position.

Sincerely,

Jim Graham

My Take on 204 Beech, Part 2
Tagged on: