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Tag Archives: toronto church loft conversion

Toronto Church Loft Conversions

Anna Sharrat writes on the next trend in Toronto real estate development, converting churches to condos

From the Toronto magazine

“It’s got 12-foot ceilings and the light is beautiful,” Sue Bailey assures me with the slick conviction of a bible-belt preacher. Bailey, a sales representative, is describing Roncesvalles Village’s newest loft development, High Park Lofts. Check out its marketing materials and you’ll find the interior atrium garden described as having a “cathedral-like” ambiance, and be able to peruse photos of uber-trendy Roncy. But this development isn’t just another Toronto loft project. High Park Lofts is the latest incarnation of the Anglican church formerly known as St. Jude’s.

Across Toronto, churches are putting their buildings up for sale, and developers are swooping in with ecumenical zeal, converting century-old buildings into loft developments or reducing them to rubble: Riverdale Presbyterian, at Pape and Danforth avenues, is now the Glebe Lofts. The Anglican church of St. Mary the Virgin and St. Cyprian, at Westmoreland Avenue and Bloor Street, will be transmogrified as Westmoreland Lofts. Howard Park Pentecostal, at the corner of Sunnyside and Howard Park avenues, is now a 24-unit development called The Abbey. And Willoughby Baptist, at Indian Road and Annette Street, has been razed to make way for four townhouses.

Not surprisingly, many of these churches had historical designations under the Ontario Heritage Act, which is intended to preserve such properties or at least their architecturally significant characteristics. But that doesn’t ensure a structure’s survival. After Heritage Preservation Services grants a historical designation, a new owner who is not interested in preserving a building can take his case to the Conservation Review Board, which can still approve a demolition. If that doesn’t succeed, he can appeal the decision with the Ontario Municipal Board.

Gib Goodfellow, president of the West Toronto Junction Historical Society, believes the OMB’s panel of judges favours the developers and that a heritage designation merely “slows a developer down for six months while he consults with the community. They can do what they want with it after six months.”

The OMB is well-acquainted with taking heat from residents’ groups — it has a reputation for approving condo projects despite neighbourhood opposition. This past January, for example, it gave the green light to three large condo and loft developments on trendy Queen Street West, a move that outraged locals who object to the buildings’ size and density. One of the projects, the Bohemian Embassy, will feature 345 suites in a 19-storey tower in the low-rise area of Queen Street and Dufferin Avenue.

Joe Whitehead, advisor to Ali Arlani, the chief executive of the OMB, says the board is unfairly portrayed as being development-friendly. “Do developers have more money than some of the other groups? Certainly they do. But people have the right to attend hearings and present evidence. There’s an appeal option.”

But Michael Walker, city councillor for St. Paul’s doesn’t buy that. The way to save heritage buildings is to create new laws, he says: ” We need heritage legislation that allows the municipality to make a decision that’s final: no appeal.” He says if a building is historically designated, a developer should be prohibited from demolishing the structure – case closed – without recourse to the OMB.

St. Jude’s, named for the patron saint of lost causes, is a good example of how a property goes from church to condominium. A deconsecrated Anglican church whose membership fell off in the ’90s, it was sold to a developer short on cash who ended up renting the hall to impresario David Mirvish as a practice hall for musicals. Harry Stinson, the big-talking developer, learned the church was on the market from the person who held the mortgage to the church, and who had power of sale. So Stinson bought the property and the adjacent hall in 2000, and drew up a proposal for a condo conversion.

Local residents welcomed the plan, a modest 30-unit development that preserved the church’s original structure. “Everyone thought, ‘Oh, wow, isn’t that beautiful,'” recalls Paula Snyder, a neighbour of St. Jude’s. “The next thing we knew, the building was torn down.”

Local residents had lobbied for months to save the property, entreating city councillor Chris Korwin-Kuczynski to oppose Stinson’s second proposal for a much larger building that would require the demolition of the church. Snyder says Korwin-Kuczynski gave his reassurance the church was safe. But it wasn’t.

Stinson dismisses the neighbourhood effort. “There was a silly attempt by a local councillor to designate it as historic. He was playing to the locals,” he says. Though Stinson’s first design incorporated the original building, “it was just too complicated. In the end, we said to hell with it.”

Sylvia Watson, currently seeking the Liberal nomination in Parkdale High Park, says she’s dismayed by church demolitions like St. Jude’s. She points to The Abbey, a development just down the street from High Park Lofts, as a blueprint for how to preserve historic churches. But The Abbey‘s elaborate loft conversion was a tough sell – both in terms of construction and aesthetics.

In its conversion of Howard Park Pentecostal, a neo-Gothic church, developer Abbey Inc. undertook a lengthy and costly process of preservation, right down to the stained-glass windows.

Yes, it’s a win for the preservationists, but it’s an undeniable setback for the loft sales teams. Looking at The Abbey, it’s easy to understand why many developers aren’t keen to perform architectural back flips for the sake of preserving heritage features.

For Watson, part of the solution is for historical groups and residents to act before developers enter the picture. “If we actually did a proactive review of designations of buildings, we wouldn’t be caught in a situation where we’re scrambling at the last minute to designate a building.” Currently, only 75 Toronto churches are listed under the Ontario Heritage Act.

Her idea is good in theory. But heritage groups tend to consist of volunteers and do not have the resources to undertake preservation projects en masse. “It’s very hard to protect churches,” says Goodfellow.

Still, rallying the committed is a good first step. A community effort saved St. Stephen’s-in-the-Fields in 2006 when the Anglican Church wanted to sell the imposing structure near College and Bathurst. A lengthy media blitz ensued and the sale was halted. Now, to meet its costs, St. Stephen’s rents itself out to community groups and runs city-funded out-of-the-cold programs. It’s a bid to survive at a time when cash-starved churches are increasingly closing their doors.

It’s a sad fact that no amount of prayer can change; congregations across the GTA are increasingly declining. Anglicans and Presbyterians are particularly hard hit: Most often, it’s their churches that are on the chopping block, with the churches themselves blessing the sale.

Jim Czegludi, associate secretary for evangelism and worship for the Presbyterian Church of Canada, says the challenge for churches is to connect with their communities. “Congregations are getting smaller and older, and churches need to reach out. Churches are born, they grow, they develop and sometimes they die. The question is: How do we resurrect these churches?”

But it’s the resurrection of parishes – not the church structures themselves – that must take precedence. “The church is more than a building. Sometimes we have to sacrifice a building to maintain the church presence,” says Reverend

Linda Saffrey of Emmanuel Howard Park United, on the corner of Wright and Roncesvalles avenues. That sentiment is echoed by Reverend Debra Schneider of Manor Road United (at Manor and Mount Pleasant roads) in Toronto’s north end. “It can be really good stewardship to let that building go and let the proceeds go to helping people who really need help.” She suggests using the money for projects like community housing.

The key is resourcefulness, says Paul McLean, executive director of Potentials, a consulting firm that helps churches develop plans for sustainability. He says many parishes are turning to new income-generating opportunities, such as renting their spaces to day-care centres or other congregations.

The trend has certainly spawned an interesting array of split personalities; Manor Road United is also Toronto Joosarang Church, a Korean Pentecostal congregation. Victoria Royce Presbyterian is Full Gospel Young Sun Church. Koreans have become major players in the church rental market, and they’re often buyers, as well. And it’s their dominance in Toronto’s religious life that may play an important part in the future of many historic buildings.

For Doug Hain, who’s managed Victoria-Royce Presbyterian in the West End for most of his career, it’s too late. He fears for the church, at the corner of Annette Avenue and Medland Street, which was sold to Triumph Developments in April for close to $2-million. He’s witnessed what happened to nearby Willoughby Baptist Church, which, despite a well-organized residents’ protest, was demolished by a developer mere minutes before he was served with a historical designation.

“It’s kind of sad, my grandparents were there in 1885,” he says, a time when Victoria-Royce’s congregation boasted 2,000 people. Over the years, the congregation died off, while maintenance and heating bills rose to more than $30,000 a year. “It’s the role of the community to keep things going.”

On a windy summer evening in June, the baby-blue paint is peeling off the wooden front steps of Victoria-Royce, the organ has been sold and six Koreans sit solemnly inside the massive church, waiting for the rest of their congregation to arrive from the far reaches of Toronto. “I hope the stained-glass windows can be saved,” says Hain, noting that they’re among the finest in Toronto.

But he doesn’t hold out a great deal of hope. He knows that when it comes to churches, there are rarely resurrections.


Contact Laurin Jeffrey for more information – 416-388-1960