Toronto laneway sparks historical real estate drama

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A forgotten sliver of land owned by a long-dead prominent Upper Canadian throws wrench in developer’s plans

Published Mar 24, 2023  •  Last updated 10 hours ago  •  8 minute read

The laneway behind 185 King Street East in Toronto turned out to be owned by Henry John Boulton, a prominent lawyer, politician and well-established member of the Upper Canadian elite who died 150 years ago. The laneway behind 185 King Street East in Toronto turned out to be owned by Henry John Boulton, a prominent lawyer, politician and well-established member of the Upper Canadian elite who died 150 years ago. Photo by Peter J. Thompson/National Post

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Harry Mitz was an elementary school dropout, but a streetwise, wheeling-and-dealing entrepreneur who could make “money out of crap,” according to his son, Lewis.

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That “crap” might have been an old beater of a car that he would buy, say, for $100 and repair with some strategically placed wire coat hangers and tinfoil prior to selling for double what he had paid. The handshake deal would go down at his office in the building he owned at 185 King St. East in downtown Toronto.

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But Mitz’s true bread and butter was dealing in quality heavy machinery: punch presses, metalworking lathes, shears and other industrial gizmos that helped make the workshops and factories of yesteryear Toronto hum.

He earned a fair penny at it, too, more than enough to buy a Cadillac for his wife that, given his humble beginnings, he was too embarrassed to drive himself. Instead, he preferred the mid-range Buick that he parked in the narrow laneway directly behind 185 King, securing access to the spot with a lock and chain.

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Mitz passed away in 2000, whereupon his son, who spent Saturday mornings in his father’s machine shop as a child but grew up to be a real estate lawyer with a thriving practice in the building his father paid $4,500 for in 1941, started parking his Chevy Suburban in the laneway. He would move his vehicle, as Harry had before him, when the neighbours to the west, the Lazareks, asked for permission to access the rear of their furniture store.

A street view of 185 King Street East in Toronto, where a developer planned to build a 33-storey, mixed-use tower. A street view of 185 King Street East in Toronto, where a developer plans to build a 33-storey, mixed-use tower. Photo by Peter J. Thompson/National Post

Strange discovery

Such was life, and commerce, until the younger Mitz sold his property for about $4 million to developer Steve Gupta, who subsequently bought the Lazareks out for several millions more and proposed to build a 33-storey, mixed-use tower on the site — with parking for 33 cars.

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That’s when Mitz learned the laneway he and his father had collectively been parking in since 1941 was not their laneway at all, but a forgotten sliver of land owned by Henry John Boulton, a prominent lawyer, politician and well-established member of the Upper Canadian elite who died 150 years ago.

“This was strange,” he said.

What transpired next was a most unusual Toronto real estate drama, featuring a professional genealogist, some lawyers and, ultimately, a courtroom tiff where some of Boulton’s great-great-great-grandchildren — who may or may not have heard of the man prior to the summer of 2022 — argued that the lane, and presumably whatever monetary value could be attached to it, was theirs.

“The lane was a critical part to Gupta’s future,” Mitz said. “Gupta didn’t have a future without it.”

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If Gupta and his company, Easton’s Group of Hotels, didn’t own the lane, they simply couldn’t build a 33-storey tower on top of it.

Hidden gems

Canadians have a particular enthusiasm for residential real estate, given both its intrinsic and financial value to those lucky enough to be homeowners. But not a lot of attention is paid to the thousands of small property chunks sprinkled about the urban landscape, sometimes in laneways, and Toronto has more than 3,000 of them alone, sometimes not. And sometimes these parcels are so inconsequential that their owners, like Boulton, die without leaving them to an heir.

Known as “orphaned” land in the industry, these properties tend not to attract much notice from anyone — assuming they have been noticed at all — until someone comes along to build something upon them, such as a condominium.

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A developer, or even the guy next door, requires absolute title — a.k.a. ownership — over the land they are building upon. Should some 19th-century ghost pop up in the paperwork to put a wrench in the plan, the builder is legally obligated to try to track down any living descendants to ensure that anyone with ownership rights on the property has an opportunity to claim it before the shovels dig in.

The stakes are high. A hypothetical heir emerging from the woodwork waving a will, or other legal document, that proves the lone-gone relative bequeathed the land to their great grand-dad who, in turn, left it to their grand-dad and so on would put that heir in position for a major payday, particularly in Toronto or Vancouver, where prime downtown real estate doesn’t come cheap.

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“If somebody had shown up and said, ‘I can prove title,’ I would have had to have said to the client — had that happened — ‘Well, you know, you have found the owner now, and now you have to buy it, you have got to negotiate a deal,’” Sanj Sood, the lawyer for Gupta’s group said.

A pedestrian walks past the laneway behind 185 King Street East in Toronto that became the focus of a legal battle. A pedestrian walks past the laneway behind 185 King Street East in Toronto that became the focus of a legal battle. Photo by Peter J. Thompson/National Post

That explains the friendly voicemail Vanessa Grafi received last summer from Jeff Stewart, a forensic genealogist and a generally polite, soft-spoken man, who earns a living rooting around in the past for clients, including Sood and his colleagues, at Aird and Berlis LLP.

It turns out, Henry John Boulton originally bought a chunk of land known as Lot 21 at the corner of King and George Street in 1824. This was prime, practically waterfront Toronto land. At the time, Boulton, a barrister’s son and grandson of Sir John Strange, a “master of the rolls,” was just a few years shy of being appointed attorney general of Upper Canada. In other words, he was an extremely well-connected bigwig.

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In dealing with Lot 21, Boulton subdivided the property into 185, 183 and 181 King Street East. He sold 185 King in 1833, but kept the narrow strip of laneway behind it, just wide enough for a horse and buggy to squeeze through. He later sold the other two properties, but the strip remained.

There is no mention of the laneway in his last will and testament dated Dec. 17, 1869, and when he died the following year, he left the “balance arising” from the sales of his property to be divided among three of his children, Sophia (Boulton) Forlong, Clara Louise (Boulton) Cayley and George D’Arcy Boulton, all of whom were dead by 1898. (Adding to the mystery of the laneway is why Boulton cut five of his kids out of his will, but we digress.)

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George D’Arcy Boulton had a daughter named Florence, whose great-granddaughter is a York University administrator. Grafi and her relatives have a few “knick-knacks” from the Boultons of old knocking around: a brooch with a lock of Florence’s hair inside and an oil painting.

Grafi’s mother was an enthusiastic amateur historian and enjoyed stories of the past, but there was never any talk about an orphaned laneway until a genealogist called to fill Grafi in.

“It was a fun find,” she said. “And it happens: a long-lost lot looking for relatives, for plans to develop.”

Alas, there was no smoking will in a safety deposit box indicating Grafi had, by way of her ancestors, inherited the lane. Learning more of her family’s history was payment enough, she said, and she left it at that.

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“I had no interest in pursuing it further,” she said.

But not every Boulton descendant was willing to let go of the lane, or the past, so easily.

Document relating to the death and property of lawyer and politician Henry John Boulton, who died in 1870. Document relating to the death and property of lawyer and politician Henry John Boulton, who died in 1870.

Courtroom drama

Patricia Hertzberg, an artist, and a handful of other members from the Boulton bloodline several generations removed, went to court to oppose the developer’s application seeking a declaration that they owned the laneway behind 185 King.

It did not go well for the descendants, none of whom could produce a will, or any paper evidence, proving they had any legal right to the lane.

“The land does not belong to them as a group or individually because they trace roots to an owner 200 years ago,” Ontario Superior Court Justice Fred Myers said in a December 2022 decision. “This is not a close call.”

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Hertzberg initially agreed to be interviewed, but later begged off, explaining it was a family story without a best before date, and that story would just “have to wait” since she was the only one who truly knew it.

But in court filings, she more fully articulated her motivation to fight for ownership.

“When we learned there was property in downtown Toronto, belonging to our ancestor, where a high-rise development was planned, we were expecting potential compensation,” she said. “However, when we received an application asking the court to simply grant the developer full title to the land, with no compensation to the descendants, we were offended. It felt like an egregious affront to our family.”

Squatter’s rights

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What clinched the deal for Gupta was Harry and Lewis Mitz and the ancient concept of squatter’s rights, formally known in modern jurisprudence as “adverse possession.”

An entrepreneur with a keen eye for action, but apparently not for the fine print, Harry mistakenly believed he had bought the lane behind 185 King when he bought the property. Lewis believed the same. They parked in the lane for 75 years to the exclusion of anyone else, save for those occasions when they gave a neighbour, contractor, friend or anyone else express permission to park in the spot.

The chain securing the lane appeared in the early 1970s. Claiming, however mistakenly, the lane as their own, and occupying it as such for a decade (and more) “shows that they exercised the rights of an owner,” Myers said in his decision.

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The Mitzes took adverse possession of the land, did so peacefully and not a single Boulton appeared over the years to say, “Guys, you can’t park there. That’s our lane.”

In March, Lewis Mitz stood across the street from the lane that caused the whole kerfuffle. There were three orange construction pylons set in front of it. The chain he and his father put there was still in place.

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The 77-year-old was tanned, having recently returned home from a trip to the Bahamas. He wore a brown leather jacket, scarf and stylish glasses, and carried an old leather briefcase that you could imagine a practicing lawyer with more than 50 years’ experience lugging around.

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Mitz takes a wholly unsentimental view of the building he grew up around.

“It is inventory,” he said. “You carry the memories with you.”

His recollections of the Boulton descendants who surfaced in court after the genealogist had done the legwork of finding them were unsentimental, too.

“I am going to be 78 soon, I’ve been around, it is not my first rodeo, and when it comes to money I don’t have to say anymore: they were looking for a payoff,” he said. “They couldn’t prove anything. They thought, ‘Aha, this is my opportunity.’”

Tacked onto the front of 185 King today is a City of Toronto development proposal depicting a tower rising on the land Henry John Boulton purchased in 1824.

The notice makes no mention of the laneway out back.

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