The City of Toronto wants to buy the 16-hectare (40-acre) Hearn site from Studios of America, which bought it last fall from provincially owned Ontario Power Generation in a controversial $16-million deal.
City council voted 20-2 on Thursday to direct city staff to start discussions with Studios of America, the longtime tenant that bought the hulking former generating plant and sprawling grounds on Lake Ontario in a surprise move.
Councillor Paula Fletcher, whose Ward 14 Toronto-Danforth includes the Port Lands site, said after the vote she hopes Studios of America, which rents out the site for film and video productions and special events, will make a deal.
“If they agree to sell it for what they paid, or what they paid and costs, that would be fantastic,” Fletcher said.
“It is a landmark building on the waterfront, and it really should have been turned over by the provincial government to (tri-government agency) Waterfront Toronto, but, unfortunately, that didn’t happen, so we’ll have to see if the private owners are willing to put these lands into public good.”
She noted that OPG said it had the Unwin Ave. site, east of Cherry Beach, professionally appraised. That means, she said, there should be no argument over the value of the site, which includes a big stretch of waterfront, but also soil polluted from years of coal-fired generation.
OPG included as conditions of sale that Studios of America not be able to resell the site within three years and not put homes or other “sensitive uses” there within 15 years.
Neither Studios of America president Paul Vaughan, nor Mario Cortellucci, a partner in the company and prominent real estate developer, could be reached for comment Thursday after the vote.
The sale was heavily criticized at city hall, where Fletcher and Mayor John Tory said Toronto should have been consulted before the sale of an iconic building and significant patch of the Port Lands, and at Queen’s Park, where the opposition NDP accused the Progressive Conservative government of giving a sweetheart deal to a developer who is a past campaign donor to Premier Doug Ford.
Ford’s government said the decision was OPG’s. An OPG official told councillors, during a 2017 meeting, that his agency would not sell the Hearn site without the provincial government’s “blessing.”
Asked if Toronto will consider trying to expropriate the site if Studios of America doesn’t want to sell, Fletcher said that’s a discussion for April when city staff report back on the result of talks about the sale and on another council direction to consider the site’s heritage value.
Tory believes that Hearn “is an iconic landmark building, and is of significant importance to the city’s waterfront,” his spokesman Don Peat said. “Mayor Tory strongly believes it is in the city’s best interests that the site should be in public hands, so that it can be protected and preserved.”
Council voted 15-9 to continue Toronto’s role in a court fight against the Ford government’s unprecedented move to unilaterally cut city council from a planned 47 seats to 25 mid election.
The vote came after council discussed a provincial offer in a closed-door session. Two sources, not authorized to speak publicly, said the offer was simply for Toronto to walk away from its legal challenge and not risk being saddled with the province’s court costs if Toronto loses.
Council voted 21-1 to ask Airbnb to follow the city’s new regulations for short-term rentals, even though the regulations are on hold while Airbnb hosts appeal them to the province’s Local Planning Appeal Tribunal.
The rules would ban landlords from using self-contained basement apartments for short-term rentals, and any property not their primary residence. Councillor Joe Cressy said he wants short-term rental services to follow the rules, so Toronto renters don’t lose long-term homes to the short-term market.
Council voted 21-3 to allow councillors to request a second “Environment Day” in their ward, with activities including distribution of free compost to residents and collection of old electronics and hazardous waste including paint, if they so choose.
Queen’s Park shrinking council meant only 25 Environment Days across Toronto under the old rule of one per ward per year. That would save the city money — each event costs $15,000 — but some councillors said it wasn’t fair to compost-enthusiastic residents in their new supersized wards.
Councillor Stephen Holyday (Ward 3 Etobicoke Centre) drew gasps from his colleague when he proposed eliminating Environment Days altogether, arguing they are all about “councillor self-promotion” and don’t justify costs.