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New Heritage Policy Working Group

New Heritage Policy Working Group

I’m very excited that the City’s finally formed a Heritage Policy Working Group to develop new heritage regulations! You can see the composition and the terms of reference here, at p. 28. I hope we’ll be able to make progress on a number of areas, including the recent plague of St. John’s built heritage and the focus of this blog post, demolition by neglect.

Demolition By Neglect
The way demolition by neglect works is that you find a historic building that’s theoretically protected from demolition, but would be profitable to demolish. You buy it and stop doing any maintenance, and wait for it to start falling apart. (If you’re really in a hurry, cut off the heat and run the taps, and watch for mold!) Then you announce that it’s unsaveable and has to be demolished for safety reasons. Once it’s demolished you build whatever more profitable structures you have in mind.

I’ve often heard it said that heritage policies and regulations can’t prevent demolition by neglect. The only way to save heritage buildings is to offer owners enough money to convince them to maintain the buildings instead of demolishing them. A particularly good example of this line of thinking is Ed Riche’s Overcast article from a few years ago.

I don’t think that’s quite right. Yesterday I summarized the argument in a meme. Check out my Twitter, @mmburton if you’d like to see that. Here’s the longer bloggy version.

Where Policy Can Help, and Where it Can’t
There are three types of heritage buildings:

1. Buildings that are economically viable as heritage buildings and which have no more profitable use, e.g. Winterholme. These will be maintained regardless of policy.

2. Buildings that are not economically viable as heritage buildings, e.g. Richmond Cottage 2016. No policy can save these. They can only be saved by a large infusion of public money.

3. Buildings that are economically viable as heritage buildings, but which have a more profitable use, e.g. Richmond Cottage 2010. With these buildings heritage regulations make a difference. If policy allows easy and profitable demolition, they will all be destroyed. If policy makes it difficult to profitably demolish heritage structures, they may be maintained or adaptively reused.

What Kinds of Policies Can Help?
Policies that would restrict profitable demolition include:

  • The current heritage regulations, which directly forbid demolition, but allow demolition by neglect.
  • Fallow policies, in which land that contained demolished heritage buildings cannot be reused for some time. Current heritage designations already require permission to develop demolished heritage properties, but in practice it’s always been a rubber stamp. Tighter rules (e.g. any redevelopment within ten or fifteen years of demolition requires a unanimous vote of Council) would reduce the economic incentive to demolish.
  • Affirmative maintenance policies, which can, if enforced, directly prevent demolition by neglect.

Policies that promote maintenance or adaptive reuse also make a difference here. For example, loosening some heritage requirements, e.g. allowing vinyl windows, for structures on the brink could reduce the incentive to demolish. An adaptive reuse policy that allowed innovative developments conditional on repairs could too.

Getting the policy mix right is going to be a real challenge. It’s important to protect built heritage while also respecting the financial interests of owners who have been maintaining our built heritage over many years. But the City does have a lot of tools to work with, and the last few years have showed that there’s lots of room to improve.

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  • cocococo

    Maggie, it is GREAT to see action on heritage. It has been a long time coming, but of course this stuff is cyclical.

    I have to ask though: why on earth is this process not more transparent? It seems so strange to me that a hand-picked membership was revealed at the same time as the TOR (maybe I missed the application process). The TOR also does not mention any engagement outside its membership. There is huge opportunity for broader input here. So much policy is hindered by a top-down, back-room approach. Expecting such a small group to spontaneously generate comprehensive policy seems naive. This is a huge undertaking. We aren’t likely to have such buy-in again for years to come so it only makes sense to be thorough. Talk to building owners, local experts, the front line, and other jurisdictions. People want to share their knowledge. It is so frustrating to see (not from you in particular) such a lack of communication within the City and without. No one is talking to each other and this is a big part of the problem.

    There is a lot of hope for this initiative even from beyond St. John’s so please dedicate the time it badly needs. None of this is to denigrate the selected group or your own efforts. I am just frustrated with the status quo and concerned that the big questions in the TOR will not be fully answered. We need communication, we need education, we need best practices, we need predictable policy, and perhaps most of all we need a Council that votes based on all this and not on their own preconceptions or the whims and threats of property-owners.

    (Two notes: 1) Richmond Cottage was viable in 2016 and that is not hyperbole. The pricetag and restrictions were not viable, by design, for any interested parties. 2) Vinyl windows are already allowed in heritage areas and buildings. If anything our regulations around this are loose and do not reflect best practice or current knowledge.)

    Good luck!

  • cocococo

    Hi Maggie, a comment I posted yesterday was flagged as spam. It was most definitely not and hopefully it still shows up, but I will try to post it again for good measure. I changed it up slightly to hopefully avoid the filter.

    I wanted to say that it is fantastic to see movement on the heritage front. It was one of the reasons I voted for you and it has been a long time coming, but this stuff is cyclical.

    But, I wanted to ask: why is this process not more transparent? It seems so strange to me that membership was revealed at the same time as the terms of reference (maybe I missed the application process). The terms also do not mention any engagement outside its membership. So much policy is hindered by a back-room approach and there is huge opportunity here for broader input. There are building owners, local experts, front line workers, and other jurisdictions who all want to share their knowledge. And there are things this small group will not know. It is frustrating to see (not from you in particular) a lack of communication within the City and between the CIty and outside stakeholders. No one is talking to each other and this is a big part of the problem.

    We will not likely get another kick at this can for years and it is crucial it is done right. I am concerned that the big questions in the terms of reference will not be fully answered. We need communication, we need education, we need best practices, we need predictable policy, and perhaps most of all we need a Council that votes based on this and not on their own preconceptions or the whims and threats of property-owners.

    (A couple notes: 1) Richmond Cottage was viable in 2016, no exaggeration. The pricetag and restrictions were not viable, on purpose, for any interested parties. 2) Vinyl windows are already allowed in heritage areas and buildings and if anything our regulations around this are loose in this regard. Look to other jurisdictions!)