Renaming famous Toronto landmarks no easy feat

Union Station entrance on Bremner Street next to the Air Canada Cantre on a cloudy day. November 9, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Dominic Chan

TORONTO – Whether it’s to raise money or honour remarkable individuals, changing the names of famous landmarks in Toronto is no easy feat.

It will be months before city council decides whether to rename Union Station after Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, but the proposal by Coun. Denzil Minnan-Wong has stirred mixed emotions.

After all, this is a city where people continue to refer to iconic properties by their original name. For many, Rogers Centre is still known as SkyDome, nine years after its name change.

Older generations still remember the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, formerly the Hummingbird Centre, as the 1960s O’Keefe Centre, a name kept until 1996.

Phyllis Berck, director of the partnerships office, said the city balances what is commercialized and what is not.

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“Sponsorship for commercial benefit is not forever,” Berck said, “but honorific naming is permanent.”

Toronto city council has agreed to study Minnan-Wong’s proposal, consult with the public and release a report in July.

“I think Canadians don’t recognize our historical figures as much as we could,” Minnan-Wong said.

But Stephen Young, president of the Toronto Public Space Initiative (TPSI), said the city should consider other venues to honour Macdonald.

“Union Station has history, the name itself has history. I don’t think renaming the station is going to achieve much.”

Coun. Josh Matlow shares that view, saying some names are not easy to change.

“Highway 401 is already named after him as the Macdonald Cartier Freeway, but it never caught on.”

Watch: Feb. 5 – Councillor wants Union Station renamed.

When one thinks of Casa Loma, High Park and Yonge Street, they think of Toronto, Matlow said.

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“The names transcend the one destination. They represent Toronto. Most Torontonians would like to see their names retained because of their historical and iconic value.”

The city has, however, changed the names of some properties to help raise money.

Maple Leaf Gardens – a historic arena in downtown Toronto – reopened as the Mattamy Athletic Centre in 2012, offering more than double the amount of athletic and recreational facilities for students at Ryerson University, one of five sponsors. Their contribution was $20 million in student fees.

Naming rights also extend to city events. When the Ontario Superior Court ruled the Toronto Caribbean Carnival trademark belonged to one of the festival’s former organizers – the Caribana Arts Group – Scotiabank came to its aid. The festival, formerly known as Caribana, was renamed “Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival Toronto.”

The bank also sponsors Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, a free all-night contemporary art event, held every year in the fall.

Some corporate requests for naming rights, however, amount to little more than a publicity stunt.

Alex Haditaghi, CEO and founder of Inc. – a mobile- and points-based loyalty platform – has offered the city $10 million to have Yonge Street renamed after his company.

The 39-year-old entrepreneur says the city should sell naming rights to 15 or 20 locations that could generate the most amount of money.

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“It would not hurt the tradition and history of the city,” Haditaghi said.

“It doesn’t matter if a taxpayer or someone like myself drives on RE/MAX Parkway instead of Don Valley Parkway.”

But Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam says the request is not serious and Toronto is not in a dire enough financial situation to warrant such action.

“In my opinion, that would also say this is clearly a city that does not value its own history,” she said. “And I know that is not Toronto.”

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