Note: This is a letter I wrote to and was published by The Telegram. Photo copyright Joe Gibbons
It has been a very challenging few weeks for St. John’s built heritage. We lost three buildings for three different reasons: Richmond Cottage despite extensive efforts to save it; Belvedere Orphanage to fire; and Pratt House to it not being on a “heritage watch list.”
While this is very disheartening for those of us who value our heritage, I have been advocating for change since being elected to council and I’d like to share the progress we’ve made in the past four years.
Today, if any developer is allowed to subdivide or otherwise change a property on condition of preserving a heritage structure (as in the case of Richmond Cottage), they have to restore the property prior to doing any other work.
We have created a complete list of properties that are considered of “significant heritage value” and are reaching out to owners to request voluntary designation. Seventeen have already agreed, making the full list of designated properties close to 150 and growing. This proactive approach will help ensure they are not lost in future.
It is often said that it is more costly to maintain a heritage home, so we have put our money where our mouth is and have started a new heritage grants program to help owners offset the cost of maintenance and renovations.
We’re also improving bylaws so developers and owners have more clarity about about our rules so they can make better decisions about their properties and council can do a better job of protecting them.
These bylaw updates, which are currently under review, include: a new Heritage Impact Assessment Report required prior to any work on a heritage property to outline what value could be lost or gained; a deconstruction policy to ensure demolition of a heritage property is done responsibly and sustainably (if at all); and consolidation of all of our heritage policy and bylaws into one document so they can are clearer and more enforceable.
In a very positive move, the City has created a new heritage and urban planner role within its ranks. The person in this full-time position has enabled the above achievements and is doing the significant work to strengthen and clarify our heritage policies and bylaws.
There is a role for the community here. Richmond Cottage was lost despite heavy efforts to find a buyer; a crowdfunding project may have saved the property but it never got off the ground. Pratt House was lost because it wasn’t on our “watch list”; I’m calling on the experts and advocates in our community to help build a more comprehensive list.
It’s difficult to feel hopeful when we seem to be losing so much. But there are a lot of efforts ongoing to protect and celebrate our unique built heritage. If we continue to focus on productive solutions, I believe we can have a city that values and profits from our heritage.