A Chat with Historic Trust on The City’s Heritage Demolition Spree

“Heritage regulations are only as strong as the city councilors who enforce them [and] developers favour demolition as a quick and easy path to greater short-term profit.”

Wrecking balls and bulldozers have been busy tearing down parts of history in St.John’s. 

A 130 year-old heritage property on Winter Avenue is now a gravel pit, the architecturally unique Salvation Army buildings downtown are now parking spaces, the clock is ticking on the mid-1800s Richmond Cottage, and the fate of a 109 year-old heritage structure in the east end lies in the hands of city council.

According to Historic Trust, a demolition permit has been requested for Bryn Mawr as a condition of sale to a developer and the organization believes there are more historic buildings at risk.

Cory Thorne is the Vice-President of Historic Trust and the head of the Folklore Department at Memorial University. He says heritage regulations are only as strong as the city councilors who vote on them and enforce them.

Here in St.John’s, it seems properties are slipping through and history is getting lost.  Thorne says the biggest threat comes from developers looking to cash in on large historic properties like Quinnipiac, Richmond Cottage, and Bryn Mawr. “Developers in these cases favour demolition as a quick and easy path to greater short-term profit.”

The city needs money and new developments bring in more tax dollars. But Thorne says there is a way to cash in on it all…new and old.

“In each case, the owners have the options of adaptive-reuse, where they can work to transform, even do new builds, which connect to the existing properties. In many communities, these types of developments use the historic homes to increase value and desirability of surrounding new-builds.”

Thorne says this could work to save Richmond Cottage but the developers don’t seem interested. Instead, he says the developer is intentionally damaging the property. ”They were given permission to develop the property on the condition that they restore Richmond Cottage. They attempted to get out of this agreement by using demolition by neglect,” Thorne says.

“They have the means to restore this if desired, however the city has signed a new agreement with them that allows them to escape their responsibilities while putting the property at greater risk. The developer is certainly not facing hard times in this project, nor can he argue that he didn’t know the value of this property when he purchased it.”

Thorne says the situation is similar with Bryn Mawr. “The owner has been shown to have significant financial means to maintain the property, which her family requested, in 1993, to have provincially designated. The owner has not listed the property for public sale nor, as far as we can tell, has she allowed exploration of options other than demolition.”

Thorne says, “there could very well be a buyer out there, if she were to list it for sale, who is interested in adaptive re-use of the home, however she has went straight to a demolition permit.”

Thorne says if the historic regulations were tighter, structures like Bryan Mawr and Richmond Cottage wouldn’t be at risk of demolition. “They would be forced into redevelopment that would be more appropriate to the neighbourhood and more respectful of the historical value.”

He says protecting the city’s heritage is not anti-development — it’s smart development. ”In a democratic society, everyone deserves a right to a voice. Because these decisions affect our community as a whole, we all have the right to voice our opinions. We cannot allow the 1% in our community to fully control the development of our city, as what is built, saved, restored has an influence on all of us.”

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