This past week has been an intense and emotional one for those in St. John's who are passionate about heritage and culture, and who appreciate the history that shapes it.
On Monday, the new owner of a 130-year-old property called the "Quinnipiac" at 25 Winter Avenue was torn down. It had a fairly significant history and a very distinct architectural design. Many people were in shock and dismay as it was unceremoniously torn down.
As a co-chair of our City's Heritage Advisory Committee, I have a unique perspective on the issue and I'd like to explain, from a Council perspective, how this came to be. And (more importantly) I'd like to discuss the lessons learned and the way forward.
How did this happen?
Last fall, the (now previous) owner came to see the City of St. John's Heritage Advisory Committee (HAC). They were concerned about the potential influence of Committee and Council in the imminent sale of the property.
The City had just received a demolition permit application from a potential purchaser of the property. While invalid without the owner's signature, the application alerted the HAC, who wanted to protect the property from demolition. This meant officially designating it as a structure of significant heritage value.
However, the owner had been trying to sell the home for some time. There was finally a potential buyer, but this person had an important condition: they wanted assurance that they could demolish the building. The owner knew designation would prevent the sale.
When the HAC brought its recommendation of designation to Council, the potential of interfering with an ongoing sale of private property made most Councillors feel uncomfortable, and the recommendation was voted down. There would be no designation.
Fast forward to the Council agenda of March 17, where it was listed that a demolition permit for 25 Winter Avenue had been granted. The sale had gone through and the new owner was proceeding as planned to remove the building.
As soon as this was noticed, a flurry of emails between HAC members were exchanged and suggestions made about what to do. Councillor Hickman and I called a meeting with staff to understand what happened and discuss what to do next.
As a matter of course, staff -- understanding that Council had already determined the property would not be designated -- had followed regular process and ensured the applicant met all the requirements of a standard demolition. This new owner did, and the permit was granted.
At this point, we began trying to contact the developer to learn what their plans were, and to ask if the committee or others could at least take photos of the interior before it is destroyed.
Some people were hoping to perhaps salvage some of the unique interior elements and woodwork, and others began discussion plausible options to retrofit and modernize the house or provide other incentives to leave the structure standing.
No response came.
On Monday morning, just one week after we learned the news of the permit, someone noticed an excavator on the property. They knew right away what was happening.
Social media was alerted, and a crowd gathered around the property. The NL Historic Trust attempted a last minute appeal of the permit, but unfortunately that's not an appealable action.
The demolition took place in front of the crowd and several cameras. The images were beamed over the internet and played on local news. The reaction has been one of shock, dismay, and, hopefully, resolve.
How do we prevent this from happening again?
At this point I should take a moment to acknowledge that much has been done in the past few decades to save, restore, and celebrate our City's incredible built heritage. Many historic properties like homes, churches, and entire "heritage areas" have been protected thanks to proactive hard work of many passionate residents.
Indeed, our downtown row houses were not always so colourful and appealing. Grants secured and actions taken by past councils and heritage advocates helped to restore them, and now they are iconic to the City and draw tourists to our shores every year.
However I believe this could have been avoided had circumstances been different and had there been a more proactive approach to protecting and supporting our built heritage. Some have suggested that we have become "complacent" in our efforts.
Well, it's now time to renew and redouble our efforts. If there is one positive aspect of this recent tragedy, it's that an entire community has been mobilized with a shared concern. We're fired up and ready to take action.
Here's what your Heritage Advisory Committee is doing.
First, we are acknowledging that Council is often put in a difficult position of considering reactionary, "eleventh hour" decisions on the fate of important buildings. The public's perception of Council's concern for our heritage is shaped by decisions made in complicated situations that could in many cases be avoided.
The key, I believe, is to take action through heritage designation when the stakes are low and the resistance is minimal. I see a roadmap to achieving this:
- Get a clear picture of city's built heritage
- Council has approved staff to outline a plan to do a full inventory of all properties of historical significance; this has to happen as soon as possible
- Approach property owners to gauge interest in designation
- There are many benefits to designation. It gives the City an enhanced ability to support the owner, and in many cases enhances the property's value
- Develop a set of recommended supports - financial or otherwise - that the City can give owners to maintain and preserve their properties
- Many heritage properties are not well maintained because the cost of doing so is higher than modern structures. We should help owners offset these costs
- Celebrate our successes
- We have so much to be thankful for, and our entire city reaps major benefits from a rich, well-maintained heritage landscape. The more we celebrate and discuss these benefits, the more likely we'll all be to continue to support (and protect) our built heritage for generations to come
What you can do
First and foremost, continue to express your appreciation of our built heritage. Attend events, visit our attractions, and take walking tours. Let the world -- and your Council -- know that this is important to you, and let us know why.
I also encourage you to become a member of the Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Trust. They are the advocacy group that in many ways "started it all" back in the 60s when there was a real movement to protect and enhance our heritage assets. We would not have the unique city we do today without this group, and they remain active and "current."
Sign up for a membership here, and be sure to follow them on Twitter and like them on Facebook.
And finally, stay in touch. Council has to hear from you, and not just when there's a crisis like there was this week. Share interesting stories with us; send articles that help us to understand how valuable our heritage is to all of us; reiterate that you, as a voter, appreciate when your representatives express an awareness of these values and takes appropriate action to protect them.
If you'd like to stay in touch with me, please contact me and sign up for my email newsletter.