It started with a simple tweet.
“Want to own a heritage property? A special building is looking for a new home. FREE if you can move it,” Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam tweeted on April Fool’s Day.
The offer was no joke. The Victorian-era coach house belonging to the Casey House, an HIV/AIDS treatment facility, needs to be moved pronto, due to renovations in the fall. If no one steps forward, the antique home — first owned by the Jarvis family — will be a pile of bricks by Labour Day.
Enter Robert Hiscox, a Toronto entrepreneur and business-owner who caught wind of the tweet. He was intrigued.
“It’s great that all these glass condos are being built, but we should also keep our history alive,” Hiscox told Torstar News Service. “This is an opportunity to lend a hand.”
After spending $20,000 on architectural renderings, consultation with construction companies and an application to the city, Hiscox has a plan. He wants to raze his three-car garage on Molson St. to make room for the 2,100-square-foot coach house, which would be delicately lifted from Casey House and driven more than two kilometres to one of his properties, at 92 Roxborough St., in Summerhill.
The complicated relocation will cost around $1 million, according to Hiscox’s estimates.
“It’s not a digestible chunk for most folks, and I understand that. It’s a decision that isn’t strictly business. We’d like to save historic properties if we can,” he said.
But there’s a catch. The city must first green-light a slew of exceptions to bylaws and accept a rare request to sever the Roxborough property to accommodate the coach house. (It is against city code to have two houses on one lot.)
“This is one of the most technically challenging applications in front of us,” Wong-Tam said of the proposal.
Then there are the neighbours.
At a community meeting Tuesday at city hall, residents came out largely against the coach house, saying it sets a dangerous precedent for others to start building on Molson St., a quiet side street that currently has no houses. Others accused the diminutive Victorian of not meshing with the local aesthetic.
“It looks like a fire hall!” balked one attendee after Hiscox’s presentation.
“It’s just plain ugly,” said Peter Rehak, 77, a retired foreign correspondent for the Associated Press who lives steps from the proposed site. “It would destroy how the neighbourhood is set up.”
Neighbours plan to approach Casey House soon to request they rescind the offer, Rehak said.
“I think the developer is just looking for severance and he’s doing this because it seems to be the councillor’s hobby horse,” he said.
The severance would indeed be a major real estate bonus, effectively transforming one Summerhill property into two.
Hiscox was taken aback by the idea that he was “trying to pull a fast one” on neighbours. In response, he bought the web domain savethecoachhouse.ca to rally supporters.
“(The plan) was to be very straightforward, upfront, and gain support of folks. It’s a little complicated what we’re doing and it’s a great thing for the neighbourhood,” he said.
While James Nadler understands his neighbours’ concerns about congesting Molson St., he says accusations of ugliness are unfounded.
“I think it is attractive,” said Nadler, a Ryerson radio and television arts professor who lives in the area. “Esthetically it would be better to have it there than what is there currently… I’d love to see the building saved.”
The final decision will come June 11, when the committee of adjustment gathers to address the case. If the application is denied, Hiscox insists that won’t spell the demise of the coach house.
“We’re not in the business of backing away meekly. We’ll evaluate our options,” he said. “We can look at storing the coach house if we have to.”
Whether Hiscox is the next keeper of the coach house remains undecided, but Wong-Tam said she’s still taking offers.
“I don’t need 1,000 people to respond; I need the one right person to respond. Whether Mr. Hiscox is the right person has yet to be seen,” she said. “Whether this is the right property has yet to be seen.”