Note: This article was originally published in The Overcast.
Several years ago, I helped organize a public response to a downtown proposal that would see the demolition of several heritage buildings to make room for a 15-storey office building.
The outcry was intense, and the developer withdrew its proposal. Many cheered “victory” but the “pro-heritage vs pro-development” tone of the debate led several of us to create an organization called Happy City that would enable more robust dialogue to avoid these battles in the future.
Around this time I also joined the board of the Newfoundland Historic Trust and learned about the Richmond Cottage issue: the failure of the City and developer to complete an agreed plan to save an historic property.
Essentially the developer felt it was too costly to restore the structure and was proposing to tear it down and build a “replica” of plans approved by our Heritage Advisory Committee and Council. The heritage community was having none of that: a replica is not heritage preservation.
As with the dreaded office tower, I realized that those of us who advocate the preservation of our built heritage often blame developers for “not getting it,” expecting them to do whatever it takes to protect heritage properties. We want the City to force developers to maintain properties at any cost.
But there are so many other factors that developers must consider, and it’s my belief that in order for them to join us in celebrating our heritage, we have to incorporate these factors into our expectations and requirements of them.
So as I joined Council, it was becoming clear that our policies and approaches were simply no longer working, and we needed a change in the way the City protects our built heritage.
With this in mind, several changes have been taking place over my first three years, and much of it has been driven by our efforts to save Richmond Cottage.
First, as a co-chair of the Heritage Advisory Committee, I dealt with a recurring complaint that the committee was constantly caught up in “one-off” issues (like approving window or siding replacements) and unable to deal with fundamental policy improvements.
To that end, we confirmed four key policy initiatives in our final meeting before a restructuring of the committee to a non-politicized Built Heritage Experts Panel.
They included: listing properties worthy of protection from demolition; possible financial incentives to support maintenance of these properties; impact assessment reports to clarify what the potential impact of changes to heritage properties could be; and a responsible process to be followed if demolition was ultimately allowed to happen.
We assigned these to our newly hired Heritage Planner, and the first three of these policies have already been drafted and approved by Council.
Meantime, we explored all options to save Richmond Cottage, and ultimately decided to sign an agreement with the owner enabling the heritage community to help find a buyer willing to restore the property.
Since then we’ve created a committee who is working with the owner to promote the property. The committee’s experts will help the next owner access tens of thousands of grant dollars, have permit fees waived, and develop a cost-effective renovation plan.
It’s not a perfect solution, but it hopefully represents a new approach that involves us all working with, rather than against each other to preserve and celebrate our important built heritage. Won’t you join us?