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Photo: Theodore C/Flickr

To say Toronto City Councillor Josh Matlow isn’t a fan of a plan to line Old City Hall with storefronts and offices would be an understatement.

“I think the proposal to rent out Old City Hall for private office space and retail space, such as beauty products and home décor, is a completely disgraceful way to repurpose one of Toronto’s most iconic and important historical buildings,” said Councillor Josh Matlow, in a telephone interview with BuzzBuzzHome News.

“Old City Hall was our seat of government and I think that we need to treat it with respect and repurpose it in a way that celebrates the role that it’s played.”

The plan Matlow so vehemently opposes is the subject of a report that the City’s Government Management will mull on October 5th. The report recommends that the building be used for offices and “a retail centre that contains a mix of food service, leisure, event and civic uses.”

The City of Toronto Real Estate Services Division brought on Avison Young, a Toronto real estate firm, to analyze the possibility of a commercialized site, and its findings are the report’s basis.

Currently, Old City Hall is home to municipal and provincial courts, but with a brand new “super court” expected to open by 2023, the City is exploring ways to once more repurpose the building, which opened in 1899.

Avison Young’s analysis of what to do when the courts move out included a number of “themes” for future Old City Hall tenants. As Matlow pointed out, specialty retail such as fashion and beauty and home décor stores made the firm’s list of themes.

However, arts and culture, “Best of Toronto,” international trade, a technology/innovation centre, and post-secondary education were also among the themes proposed. In each case, there would be a civic event space of some sort and the building would be accessible to the public, the report stated.

This isn’t the first time Old City Hall’s future has been unclear, said Matlow, pointing to a proposal in the mid-’60s to tear it down to make way for the then unbuilt Eaton Centre. “It was only because of the public revolt that it was protected,” he explained.

By 1965, the City had relocated to its current headquarters after holding an international design contest in the fall of 1957 to develop a design for Old City Hall’s successor.

Matlow’s main objection to the new plan is that it goes against what he says is council’s objective for the century-old building that was named a National Historic Site of Canada in the ‘80s. “Council’s position is that Old City Hall must have unfettered public access,” said Matlow. Private offices and retailers conflict with this, the Ward 22 councillor explained.

“I don’t think anybody’s suggesting that it’s going to become City Hall again, but it should serve the public in a way that contributes to the public interest,” he said.

Matlow believes one way to do this would be to use the space to house a City of Toronto museum. In fact, in 2011 the City reserved the courtyard in the heart of the building for just that purpose. However, the new report recommends the area “be released to analyze potential uses including, but not limited to, museum uses.”

If this happens, Matlow doesn’t think a museum is in the cards. “I think the economics will be the driver if this goes forward,” he said.

BuzzBuzzHome News tried multiple times to reach the Real Estate Services Division for comment this week. Today, a City spokesperson said his understanding was the City wouldn’t be holding any media interviews until after Monday’s committee meeting.

The idea of setting up a museum dedicated to Toronto’s history isn’t “some radical idea,” said Matlow. “Cities like Chicago and Budapest do it, smaller cities like Montreal do it — I think it’s very realistic,” he added

In Toronto, the idea has been kicking around for decades, since at least the mid-’70s when then Mayor David Crombie proposed the establishment of one, said Matlow. “There’s always a reason why we can’t do it. I want toronto to be the kind of city that finds reasons why we can do things that are truly world class,” he said. “I want us to be a world class city in reality rather than just rhetoric.”

Museum or shopping mall, whatever the outcome, Matlow says the approach should include an open dialogue.

“The initial conversation that we should have with the Toronto public is what do you want at old city hall, how do you want to preserve this as a public building rather than go into it with the assumption that shopping malls our preferred choice.”

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