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The Masonic Temple and Upper Storey Development in the Downtown

I’m concerned that today’s CBC story about the Masonic Temple creates a misleading impression about the cost of heritage designations. The story is about the regulations that make it difficult for Spirit of Newfoundland to develop the upper storey of the building.

None of the regulations in question have anything to do with the heritage status of the building. Heritage rules only apply to the exterior of buildings. The regulations that make upper storey development difficult are building code regulations designed to ensure life safety and promote accessibility.

The CBC story was written as if there is a question about whether heritage policies are the obstacle or building codes. That’s a question with a simple answer: it’s building codes that apply modern standards to heritage buildings.

There’s a legitimate and interesting policy issue at the bottom of this, which I’ll get to later in this post.

Why This False Narrative Is Dangerous

At the moment there are only 144 designated heritage structures in the City. We have so many more vulnerable buildings that should be designated! People are understandably concerned that getting their home designated will come with onerous costs, and incorrect information about the effects of designation is not helpful to anyone.

Getting your home designated will not make upper storeys less usable—if anything, one day it may make it more usable. We are hoping for a more holistic and strengthened approach to heritage and I intend to look at it more broadly during conversations around changes to heritage policies and creating a new bylaw.

The Complexity of Downtown Upper Storeys

Many historic multistorey buildings were built before modern life safety and accessibility rules. The upper storeys are, by modern standards, unsafe and inaccessible.

There’s a very delicate balance crafting rules around these historic upper storeys. On the one hand, we want to make it financially viable to redevelop them and put them to use. That’d help the downtown thrive and make it easier to preserve heritage buildings.

On the other hand, it’s hard to compromise safety or accessibility. We don’t want to go back to the days when big parts of the city were inaccessible to those who can’t climb narrow staircases or when fires threatened lives on a regular basis.

I’m not saying we’ve got the current balance right, but it’s going to take real resources to study this issue properly. The adequacy of the upper storey regulations is a legitimate conversation that I’m pleased to see and participate in.

Is the City Reviewing Heritage Policies?

The City is reviewing its heritage policies as part of Envision St. John’s – the review of the City’s Municipal Plan and Development Regulations. As part of the review, we will be proposing that heritage policies remain in the Municipal Plan, but that heritage regulations be moved from the Development Regulations to a new Heritage By-Law. Council has appointed a Heritage Lead for the first time, and regular conversations are happening around the Committee and Council tables about heritage. There is reason to be optimistic about the future of heritage in the City.

At the same time, we have a small legal staff and only 3 planners. Changing rules requires consulting with a wide net of stakeholders and bringing together legal, planning, heritage, and inspections expertise. Right now, we have a lot of projects that involve regulatory change combined with the single largest development project in the City’s history, which takes significant resources from staff.

With committed, coordinated action from the City and the public we can figure this out. We have all agreed that this should be a priority so let’s keep the conversation going.

A Little More Detail About This Proposal

The upper floor of the building (2nd floor) cannot currently be occupied for anything other than storage due to lack of safe exits and required fire ratings. The City, back in 2010, in conjunction with the architect and SJRFD provided the owner at the time with alternate solutions in lieu of a sprinkler system which was given to them then. The solutions as discussed were not accepted and a new plan was submitted 22 months later different from what was originally submitted. A meeting was held in December 2011 with the owner to discuss and nothing has happened since.

I  am happy to meet with anyone who is concerned about the viability of their heritage structure, whether it’s a commercial or residential property.

 

Edited to change the word “interior” to “exterior” in the second paragraph

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  • J. Paul Walsh

    Good post Maggie, and I’m happy to hear someone like you who promotes heritage say that we can’t compromise on either safety or accessibility. I will point out that it’s not just the upper floor of that building which inaccessible. The only accessible entrance is segregated from the regular entrance, and there’s no washroom on the main floor. In fact, I don’t believe the building in its current state should have an occupancy permit which allow it to be used for public gatherings of any kind. All over the world heritage structures (many much older than this building) can incorporate these basic accessibility features. Why can’t this one? Indeed, until they do so I encourage everyone not to attend events held in that building.