Today is an interesting and complicated day for advocates of built heritage in St. John's.
Council agreed last night to a memorandum of understanding (or "MOU") with the owners of Richmond Cottage, an impressive 167-year-old property just off of Old Topsail Road. It has an interesting history and is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful homes in the City.
Its history is indeed long and storied, but the most convoluted aspects occurred in the past few years. Basically Council approved the land around Richmond Cottage to be subdivided, allowing several homes to be built. The catch was that the developer had to restore the property, which has a heritage designation.
A couple of years in, the developer returned to say that the house was falling apart and that they would like to demolish it. Our Heritage Advisory Committee (HAC) pushed back, citing the agreement, and the demolition request was rescinded.
That's when things got hairy. First off, we realized that we should have required the developer restore the property first, before building other homes. Council has since made a directive that any future situation like this would have that requirement.
Over the course of the next couple of years the developer and the HAC had several discussions about how the property could be restored. It was the developer's view that any meaningful restoration would require taking apart everything but "the foundation and the joists" which would be a massive cost and be no different, in their mind, than building a new, identical home (which they were willing to do).
Replacing with a new home is not the same as restoration, so we kept pushing. One of the HAC members was an experienced heritage restoration professional and took a couple of walk-throughs of the house. He felt the building was in excellent condition and suggested an approach to subdivide and restore the home in a cost effective manner.
This approach was going well until the developer did their own analysis and determined that, as a company that does new builds, taking on this restoration would be an "undue risk" (my words) and noted that the original agreement did not stipulate "restoration." In fact it only refers to a property built with "heritage elements."
Therein lies the rub. Council is in a position whereby the intent of the agreement was misinterpreted and unable to enforce effectively. As well, time is passing and the building is slowly deteriorating. And, to be frank, it was obvious that the developer did not want to restore and would likely request another demolition request and this time lobby to see it through. That would mean another nasty public battle that the City has a very weak history of winning.
It was at that point that I picked up on a comment the developer had made throughout the process that he would be "very happy to sell it" to someone willing to restore the property.
We made the proposal to the developer that if their efforts to sell the property weren't working, then perhaps the heritage community could come together with its international network and promote the property in a meaningful way to find someone who was able and willing to restore.
To that end, our legal department stepped in to help craft an MOU that gave clarity to the situation and our option to sell. The developer specified the price and lot size and the City ensured that any new purchaser would be required to restore the home.
The media has been headlining their stories with the most dire aspect of the agreement which is that the building will be demolished if a buyer is not found by May 1, 2017. Yes - that is true. But that gives us over a year to come together and strategically promote the property and find someone who is actually willing to save this important structure.
I agree the MOU is imperfect, and come May 1 2017 if there is not a buyer I will be sorely disappointed.
But this approach affords us several opportunities:
- to rally the heritage and heritage-supporting community around a common cause to realistically save an important structure
- to strike a small task force that would oversee effective promotional efforts
- to consider a community approach to saving and restoring the building (see the "This Place Matters" initiative)
- to, in this sense, "put our money where our mouth is" and pull together the necessary parties and funds to protect our heritage
- to raise awareness of what it possible in St. John's with respect to our built heritage
- to take some control over the fate of this structure, which is currently in the hands of a developer and Council
Ultimately this MOU puts the promotion of the property in the hands of the community; it gives us a rallying point to celebrate heritage restoration; and it can very well mark the end of our long history of a disordered, acrimonious relationship between developers and heritage advocates.
Our new heritage planner at City Hall is working on some very comprehensive policies (at the direction of our erstwhile HAC) that will finally provide developers, councillors, staff, and the public clarity and comfort in how to deal with these issues.
In the meantime, and in lieu of said policies, we have to take advantage of this opportunity to take control of an at-risk heritage property and begin the process of finding a buyer in partnership with those in our community who advocate its saving.
That's what we're trying to achieve here, and I will shortly be convening our heritage groups for an information session to discuss our next steps.