Inside Toronto
Sep. 21, 2005

Aga Khan centre wins support

Who's Who of T.O. politics shows up to support leveling former Bata building to erect museum, cultural centre

An Ismaili cultural centre is one step closer to reality as North York Community Council voted unanimously Monday against granting the former Bata Shoe Company headquarters heritage status, paving the way for the much anticipated centre on Wynford Drive.

The land on which the 40-year-old Bata building sits, which was designed by Toronto architect John B. Parkin, was bought by the Aga Khan Foundation Canada in 2002 with the hopes of tearing down the building to make way for a $200-million cultural centre, museum and public park on the 17-acre site. Construction would be slated for next year.

But the Aga Khan Foundation Canada was up against a potential roadblock should community council designate the Bata building under the Heritage Act, which meant the foundation would have had to go through a lengthy process from council should they wish to dismantle certain parts of the building.

Without the heritage designation, it would virtually pave the way for the project, making Toronto home to only the fourth Aga Khan cultural centre in the world.

Supporters of the project packed the council chambers Monday, many standing at the back, as council heard from 18 speakers - including Sonja Bata, wife of the shoe company founder - the majority of whom were in favour of tearing down the Bata building to make way for the new project.

Representatives from several architectural companies and Heritage Toronto failed to sway council to designate the Bata building heritage status after pointing out the modern-era historical and architectural significance the building.

"In the interest of the whole city, the cultural centre should be built," Bata said. "It is an honour Toronto was chosen for the project and this opportunity should not be passed up. It would be most unfortunate and a great loss to Toronto if this marvelous project does not go ahead."

Former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall also threw her support behind the Aga Khan project, adding she was excited about the proposal for the Don Mills community.

"This community wants to make a contribution to Toronto," she said. "It is world class in the real meaning of those words. Don't put barriers and roadblocks in the way of this proposal."

Terry West, president of the Don Mills Ratepayers Association, said debating which side to throw his support behind was one of the most difficult decisions he's had to make.

"We treasure our cultural centres and this is a world-class development," he said. "I believe this (project) is a great asset to our community and we welcome it."

One by one, the nine councillors took a moment to praise the project proposal before voting unanimously against granting the Bata building heritage status, which drew a standing ovation from the audience.

Ward 8 Councillor Peter Li Preti (York West) was absent from the meeting and Ward 26 Councillor Jane Pitfield (Don Valley West) abstained from voting, citing what she called a "quasi" conflict of interest.

"I was the former representative for Don Valley West and I agree that it's (proposal) a jewel in the Don Mills community," said Ward 34 Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Don Valley East). "Cities cry out for these investments. It is a fantastic proposal."

Ward 23 Councillor John Filion (Willowdale) said he's going against his normal principals of designating significant buildings with heritage status because he was thoroughly impressed with the presentations in favour of the Aga Khan project.

"We are replacing a building of value with a building of greater value," he said.

City council, which still has to approve the recommendation, will vote on the issue next week.