Call The Question on St. John’s Built Heritage

"Piling on regulations will discourage people from buying and maintaining the properties, dilly dallying while musing about options will encourage those on the fence to expedite demolition. Call the question."

We’ve been debating the merits and methods of saving St. John’s built heritage for as long as I can remember. It wasn’t such a pressing concern in the worst of times because it wasn’t worthwhile knocking the old stuff down.

Then came the slow semi-gentrification of the downtown and soon after that the fleeting oil boom. Greedy developers urgently needed desirable lots on which to erect flimsy McMansions, structures good for the life of
their mortgage, water tight long enough for the shysters that slapped them together to pull a Nolan and Hall and vamoose.

Now that the boom has gone bust why is there any rush to demolish? The current owner of Bryn Mawr wants it leveled to make way for a new housing development. It’s hard to know which is stupider, destroying a unique and historic structure that was built to standards inconceivable today or getting into the development racket and real estate market as it is about to bottom out. Those proposing the destruction of Bryn Mawr should be sent a
copy of the Provincial budget.

On the heels of Quinnipiac and the bad faith dealings of Richmond Cottage’s current captor the fate of the old Baird place has raised the volume of the concerns being voiced. There’s been a call for more studies, consultation, “engagement” and round tables, in other words steady and continuing avoidance of the core issue, how to make such properties affordable to retain.

If those few edifices left around this old seaport deemed “heritage structures” are of benefit to the larger public, if cultural heritage has a value, if they help brand St. John’s as an attraction, then the wider society has to contribute to their upkeep to a point it is worth more to maintain them than it is to knock them down. People in
Cowan Heights will be on the hook as much as those on Gower Street.

The only realistic tool the city has is to grant tax holidays or a system where the cost of the preservation of features can be deducted against property tax. Piling on regulations will discourage people from buying and maintaining the properties, dilly dallying while musing about options will encourage those on the fence to expedite demolition. Call the question.

Perhaps St. John’s doesn’t value its built heritage enough to provide one group of citizens, the owners of those properties, a break and it can finally be scrubbed from the agenda. But please, please, please decide the fundamental question once and for all. If St. John’s wishes to maintain it they have to pay for it, otherwise it is the business of the deed holder alone. No more meetings. No more half-arsed, mealy mouthed resolutions
before City Council, enough with the f*cking committees. Decide.

I’m as happy with an architecturally adventurous new building as another twee Victorian. But I’ve not seen much of the former and no one is coming here for the Boston Pizza.

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7 Comments

  • I could not agree more with Sean Murray. I too live in a heritage property and bought it knowing it would be more expensive to maintain than a comparably sized new build.

    We need laws which protect these buildings, and a Council who will enforce them so as to discourage developers who speculate that Council will cave and grant demo permits. But the current owner of Bryn Mawr needs a tax break like a fish needs a bicycle,

  • I completely disagree regarding tax holidays for heritage properties. I have owned a heritage property in the past. No one held a gun to my head to purchase it. It was in a designated heritage area, I knew the ground rules going in. I knew it was going to be more expensive to maintain. If the owner was having trouble selling it, she could have lowered the price, but she didn’t have to, because people actually choose to buy heritage properties for a variety of reasons. I bought it for a price that reflected the market at the time. The price of any property is determined by the marketplace and it assumes that owners are aware of the value of the asset as well as any liabilities, including laws and rules around heritage upkeep. Most heritage properties are owned by people who can well afford to maintain them. I strongly disagree with giving these people a tax advantage – do the folks on Kingsbridge Road, Park Place, Circular Road, Bryn Mawr, Richmond Cottage, etc really need a tax break? If they want to sell, there will be buyers, as long as they are willing to price the property according to what the market will bear. The City has the legislative power to unilaterally designate a heritage property, yet has refused to use this tool. Let’s bear in mind that the City already has regulations which restrict all property owners in terms of what they can do with their properties. A well crafted heritage law, properly implemented and consistently applied, would be just one more such regulation, and it would put this issue to bed finally.

    • Sean, Ed responding. I said “… otherwise it is the business of the deed holder alone”. My working assumption, given the conduct of every St. John’s City Council to date, is that your “properly implemented and consistently applied” regulatory regime is the stuff of fantasy.

      • Thanks for your reply Ed. I’m just too stubborn to accept that we can’t elect six people (a majority vote on Council) who understand this issue. I agree their track record is horrible, maybe I’m an optimist. My guess is there are currently 3 or 4 members of Council who might agree with my approach. Heritage advocates need to focus their energy on backing electable candidates for the fall 2017 election who can get behind these reforms. It’s not impossible, and I think it’s the right solution.

  • get rid of the property tax on these structures, and give tax breaks for key repairs and upgrades that keep them standing – but not for anything cosmetic. Money is the only thing that will decide the fate of these buildings, you can give them all the designations you want – but money is all anyone in the real estate game cares about.

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