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Garden Court heritage designation updated …but the landscaping needs a renewal plan

Ash tree removals in process at Garden Court apartments on September 9, 2016.

Ash tree removals in process at Garden Court apartments on September 9, 2016.

To go through the entrance arcade from Bayview into Garden Court Apartments (across from ValuMart and Davisville Avenue) and down the steps into the main courtyard is to be surprised!

Surprised by the formal axial views north and south, east and west, and by “the skillful integration of architecture and landscape architecture” (“East/West: A Guide to Where People Live in Downtown Toronto,” Nancy Byrtus, Mark Fram, Michael McClelland, editors). It’s an urban oasis, secluded from the passing traffic on Bayview, and a delightful home for the tenants of the 104 units fortunate enough to live there. And it’s been a designated heritage site since 1987.

The project, built between 1939 and 1941, was the result of the close collaboration of architects Forsey Page and Steele with Dunington-Grubb and Stensson, the city’s best known landscape architectural firm of the period. Today it’s an internationally recognized example of a designed “cultural heritage landscape”. The Cultural Landscape Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., included Garden Court Apartments (and Leaside) on their “What’s Out There?” Walking Tours as part of its annual conference held in Toronto in May 2015.

So what’s new? Two things: one good, one not so much.

First, on October 5 City Council approved revised “Reasons for Heritage Designation” of Garden Court Apartments. Why now, as it is already heritage protected? There is a degree of uncertainty about its future and this re-designation will help to ensure the preservation of this iconic property in Leaside.

The property’s owner applied for permission to convert it to a condominium. Although this was turned down by the City in 2013, the owner appealed to the OMB. While no hearing has been held to date, City staff discovered that the heritage designation language was all of two paragraphs, and staff felt, quite rightly, that it needed to be updated to meet today’s more rigorous standards. The Reasons for Designation have been approved and now extend to four typed pages! But there is a period during which objections may be filed, and if there are objections they will be heard by the Conservation Review Board (sibling of the Ontario Municipal Board).

Second, it is apparent, even to a layperson, that the treed landscape of Garden Court Apartments is not in good shape. Mature trees are dead or dying, whether because of diseases, climate change, or merely lack of maintenance. Garden Court Apartments contains examples of a fairly rare grafted tree called the camperdown elm, with a distinctive weeping character. However, these unusual trees are vulnerable to a disease called the elm leafminer, and several were removed this fall from the upper level, in addition to seven ash trees from the lower level. The ash trees were infected with emerald ash borer, which has been destroying trees across Toronto for years.

The tree removals were necessary for legitimate safety and security reasons as they were diseased and dying and posed increasing risk of injury to residents, but they also represent a significant loss to the Garden Court Apartments’ landscape. What should replace these trees? It seems to me that this is a question of interest not only to the property owner but also to the tenants and other residents of Leaside…and to the City because the trees, their character, if not their species, are supposed to be protected under the heritage designation. We desperately need a landscape renewal and conservation plan for the property that maintains the integrity of the original landscape plans for the property, and has community input.

Let’s hope the property owner shares this vision.