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.