Sep. 18, 2005. 01:00 AM

Building new heritage is right choice for city

In any major city such as Toronto, there are inevitable clashes at times between old and new, between those who want to preserve and those who want to build. And, in virtually every case, there is no clear right or wrong choice.

That will be the dilemma that Toronto City Council will face later this month when it is asked to declare a 40-year-old office building a heritage site, which means it could not be torn down. But if the council turns down the request, then the building will be demolished and a massive $200 million project funded entirely by private money will go ahead on the site.

The building in question sits on a hillside at 59 Wynford Drive, near the northeast corner of the intersection at the Don Valley Parkway and Eglinton Avenue East. The building, completed in 1965, is the former world headquarters of the Bata Shoe company.

In 2002, the site was sold to part of the Aga Khan's network of foundations and projects.

The Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, wants to erect two buildings on the site and an adjoining property purchased in 1996. The structures have been designed by world famous architects.

The Aga Khan Museum would house Islamic art and artifacts and be the first of its kind in the English-speaking world. Many of the works would come from the Aga Khan's personal collection and have been in his family for centuries. It would also host art exhibitions, performing arts, lectures and seminars.

Nearby would be the Ismaili Centre, a place of worship as well as a place for social, educational and cultural events.

Surrounding the buildings would be seven hectares of formal gardens, fountains and two kilometres of walking trails.

Total cost of the project, which would start next year and be completed by 2009, is $200 million, all of it paid by the Aga Khan and the Canadian Ismaili Muslim community.

But the project may not proceed unless the Bata building is torn down. The project's backers say it is impossible to take a 1960s-era office building and integrate it into an Islamic-design place of worship and culture.

In May, the Toronto Preservation Board, which advises city council, recommended the Bata building for designation as a heritage site "for its cultural resource value or interests."

It claimed the building, which was "inspired" by an office building in Connecticut, is an example of the Modern Movement in architecture. The committee said the building is also "historically notable" for its association with Bata.

On Monday, the issue goes before the North York community council. The full Toronto City Council will consider it Sept. 28.

Unfortunately, the council will have to decide between two heritages; one from the 1960s that sits empty; and the other which is touted as part of the current renaissance of celebrated architecture in Toronto the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Opera House and the Gardiner Museum.

True, the Bata building may have some historical significance, but there are many other examples of Modern Movement architecture in Toronto.

In its deliberations, the council should reflect deeply on the implications of the Ismaili project being in Toronto. As envisioned, the centre seems fully in step with the vibrant multicultural nature of the Greater Toronto Area as it is today.

The centre could also become an international symbol of the diversity and tolerance that should be Toronto's hallmark.

Thus, in this tussle between two cultural assets, councillors must ask themselves this basic question: Do you preserve heritage or do you build it?

In this case, we say the answer is clear: Build it.