Designations in bulk

Historic Unionville (Photo courtesy of Regan Hutcheson).

Photo: Historic Unionville (Photo courtesy of Regan Hutcheson).


Regan Hutcheson and Leah Wallace

Buildings and architecture, Community

Published Date: May 06, 2010

Understanding Unionville, by Regan Hutcheson

A visit to Unionville is like a journey back in time. Located north of Toronto in the heart of Markham, Unionville is one of Ontario’s best-preserved rural 19th-century communities.

Founded over 200 years ago, Unionville began when European settlers followed William Berczy from Germany to Markham via Pennsylvania and settled on land granted by Governor Simcoe. The village soon flourished with the establishment of mills and local commerce. In 1871, the Toronto and Nipissing Railway encouraged the greatest period of growth.

Today, Unionville is a unique and attractive heritage oasis in the middle of modern Markham. Its setting of tree-lined streets, Victorian architecture, interesting shops and fine restaurants has made it one of the region’s most popular destinations and a desirable residential address. Part of its appeal is the fact that most of the village’s earliest building types remain – commercial storefronts, a hotel, churches, industrial buildings, a railway station, and historic homes of varying architectural styles.

To ensure that Unionville is preserved for future generations, the former village was designated as Markham’s third HCD in 1997. A heritage district plan was created to provide a framework to guide alteration and development of the properties and streetscapes. Many district plans are very good technical documents, but often not very useful to their primary user: the residents. The Unionville plan provides clear and concise direction as to what is considered appropriate – whether altering an existing historic building, constructing an addition, installing commercial signs, modifying a non-heritage property or introducing a new building to the streetscape. The plan’s policies and guidelines are also supported by clear visual images of what approaches are supported, providing clarity to ensure consistency in decision-making.

The result, for Unionville at least, has been heritage features protected when alterations are proposed and new infill construction compatible because appropriate attention is paid to architectural style, scale, massing, materials and design details. Approvals have been streamlined with compliant or minor changes delegated to municipal staff with the municipal heritage committee only reviewing major proposals.

Support from residents in the district is high as it is understood that everyone in the community benefits from a protected heritage environment where procedures and policies are consistently enforced.

The heritage district in Unionville does not create a frozen-in-time community in a museum-like setting. Rather, it serves as a guide for change to achieve a more attractive and compatible community that celebrates and remembers its past while acknowledging the needs and desires of current and future inhabitants. Unionville and its heritage plan truly embrace Markham’s motto of “leading while remembering.”

A Heritage Conservation District (HCD) is a defined area containing a concentration of heritage resources with special character or historical association. Instead of designating these properties individually, the properties within an HCD are designated as a whole, under a single municipal bylaw.
HCD status under the Ontario Heritage Act (OHA) offers protection from demolition and alterations that are unsympathetic to the district’s character. HCDs may include residential, commercial and industrial areas, rural landscapes or entire villages or hamlets with features or land patterns that contribute to a cohesive sense of time or place. Significant features are not limited to built form, streets, or landscapes – they may also include important vistas and views.

Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake (Photo courtesy of Leah Wallace).

Preserving Niagara-on-the-Lake, by Leah Wallace

The Queen-Picton Streets Heritage Conservation District, established in 1986, is now 24 years old. The district study was completed by Nicholas Hill, who also wrote the district plan.

In his introduction to the plan, Hill wrote, “The downtown section of Niagara-on-the-Lake is a district of unparalleled architectural and historical value, worthy of long-term conservation. The plan addresses all aspects of the district that make up this distinctive streetscape, including buildings, streets, traffic, car parking, landscaping, lighting, signage and pedestrian amenity.” Describing the essence of the district’s character, Hill noted that groupings of buildings of various styles, ages and materials were blended together by a common scale and a richness of detail. Hill’s plan was ahead of its time, recognizing that a district was not simply a collection of buildings but also that there were differences in character between the residential and business areas of the district. Over time, council and the Municipal Heritage Committee (MHC) embraced the policies and objectives in the plan and developed a holistic approach to the assessment of alterations and new development within the district, seeking to conserve not just the buildings but also the streetscape character. Recently, in order to clarify its status, council adopted the Queen-Picton Streets Heritage Conservation District Plan.

Working closely with the planning, building, public works, bylaw enforcement and parks and recreation departments, council and the MHC have developed a heritage permit review process that encourages a high level of conservation and maintenance. The process encompasses both alterations to existing properties as well as the introduction of new buildings. It also provides for adaptive reuse of existing buildings, signs, awnings, streetscaping and street lighting. Coordination of the site plan process with the heritage permit process, adherence to official plan policies and zoning bylaw requirements, strong provisions in the town’s sign bylaw, and the vigilance of building inspectors all assist the committee and council to manage change within the district.

The Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake has been lucky. Loss of building fabric has been minimal. The district contains some of the earliest buildings in the province – with many dating from as early as 1815. Ninety-eight per cent of the building stock designated in 1986 remains.

In the fall of 2009, two significant buildings on Queen Street in the business area were destroyed by fire. The owners, the owners’ architects, planning staff and the MHC have worked together over the past six months to design new buildings that complement the streetscape character and the adjacent buildings without being slavish copies of the originals. Although the town has lost two important buildings, it will be gaining two well-designed replacements that will enhance the district’s building stock and streetscape character.