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The Next Phase of St. John’s Heritage Preservation

St. John's from Signal Hill

 Note: This article was originally published in The Overcast.

Two recent demolitions of impressive historic properties — the Salvation Army buildings on Springdale Street and the Quinnipiac on Winter Place — have shocked and distressed heritage advocates.

They have called into question whether we have the right policies in place to identify and properly protect these important assets. It’s a great question, and the answer is actually closer to “no” than “yes.”

Fortunately, there is one property in the city that has been driving us to tighten and improve our policies. That property is “Richmond Cottage” on McLea Place near Old Topsail Road.

This large home was built in 1848 by architect Gilbert Browning for the Honorable Kenneth McLea. McLea was a merchant whose declaration to run for government in 1861 caused a riot that led to three people being shot on Water Street!

Several years ago, a developer received Council approval to subdivide the large plot of land around the property under the condition they restore the property. Unfortunately the restoration has not taken place in spite of the housing subdivision proceeding.

Due to the wording of the agreement of Council, challenges faced by the owner to undertake the restoration, and a healthy dose of political reality, efforts by the Heritage Advisory Committee and its volunteers to see the building restored have not borne fruit.

But the efforts have led to some very positive policy development at City Hall. One has already been adopted: when a developer is given approval to develop pending a heritage restoration, the restoration must happen first.

Last year, the City created and filled a new, long-awaited position in the Planning and Development department for a Heritage Officer. In the final meeting of the City’s Heritage Advisory Committee we were able to set four priorities for the position that will help us protect our built heritage.

First, we are compiling an up-to-date list of properties of historic significance within our boundaries. The owners will be asked if they would like official heritage designation, providing some benefits and giving the City the ability to protect it from demolition.

Second, we are exploring possible financial incentives or support the City can give to owners of heritage properties to incentivize upkeep and maintenance.

Third, we’re writing a “deconstruction” policy that would ensure any demolition of a heritage property is well documented and its interesting elements salvaged responsibly.

Finally, we are developing a “heritage impact assessments” process which requires developers to identify how they will preserve, protect, or remediate impacts on a heritage property.

These efforts will lead to more certainty for both developers and heritage advocates, and will lead to a sustainable mix of unique structures throughout the city.

As for Richmond Cottage, we are finalizing an agreement with the owner that will enable the City and the heritage community to spread the word about the property and find an owner who has the passion and wherewithal to save and restore the building.

This is an important step because it gives some control back to those who understand and love built heritage. Usually we simply rely on Council to force an owner to invest in their property whether they want to or not.

And while we will be given just over a year to find a buyer before it is otherwise allowed to be demolished, I’m confident that if we work together we can save this iconic building and change the way we celebrate and support our city’s heritage.

Will you join us?

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Written by Dave Lane at 10:40

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