Maggie Burton: “We Need City Council to Take a Leading Role in Preserving Heritage Homes”

"Tear down too many buildings, and we can forget about the cruise ships."

Last week, St. John’s City Council approved a demolition permit for Richmond Cottage, a registered heritage structure that was supposed to be protected from demolition. Let’s take the opportunity to remember why, from a purely economic perspective, we need City Council to take a leading role in preserving heritage homes.

Not that economics is the only reason for preserving heritage, or even the main one! But economics does show why preserving heritage shouldn’t be left up to individual citizens, as the Richmond Cottage deal was. It shows why heritage preservation has to be public policy.

The economic value of heritage homes has always been obvious to me. I grew up in Brigus and spent my childhood summers working in the tourism industry, selling painted rocks, playing fiddle, guiding tours. It was the old buildings that brought people there—not just Hawthorne Cottage but all the beautiful old homes. The buildings create the feel, the atmosphere of the town, and that’s what brings people.

St. John’s is the same. Open a magazine article about St. John’s, watch a tourism ad or a rerun of Republic of Doyle, and you’ll see the same few buildings over and over. We put them on mugs and paintings and knicknacks. Though St. John’s is a big diverse city with many neighbourhoods, a handful of downtown buildings are a big part of the City’s brand.

And that brand is very valuable. It brings tourists despite the distance and the weather. It fills the hotels and sells the knicknacks. It also attracts workers who might never have given the city a chance, helps people fall in love with the City and stay.

We should be aiming to build on what we have, to become a cultural centre that attracts more and more people. But the demolition of Richmond Cottage shows that we can also move backwards. Tear down too many buildings, and we can forget about the cruise ships.

Many of our heritage buildings are owned by private citizens who don’t get to share in the economic value they create. What they get is above-average heating and maintenance costs. Often their private economic incentive is to tear down their building and replace it with something new.

In economic terms, St. John’s heritage homes are a public good. They create enormous value, but their owners can’t collect that value, and so an unregulated market will never create enough of it. Unless the City protects our heritage buildings, they’ll all be torn down in time, and the City will be much poorer.

The rules we have right now are imperfect. They don’t protect enough buildings. They can cause real hardship for the buildings’ owners. They can be stifling, too: Neighbourhoods need some flexibility to grow, and a mandatory stylistic monoculture can drive business and activity away.

One day, hopefully, our current heritage rules will strike a finer balance, preserving more of what we want to preserve and allowing more of what we want to allow. There is room to take two steps forward, even though we just took one step back.

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  • Pingback: Built Heritage
  • Margaret: a few hundred dollars in tax breaks to offset the thousands it costs in heating and lighting costs, approved paint colours, approved doors and windows? Laughable.

    Xx: Locally sourced wood? You’re joking right? That stuff is imported like everything else (from New Brunswick / Irving forestry FYI. NL’s failing lumber industry around here is pulp wood and newsprint only) around here.

    Tax breaks for those owners still mean the rest of us are paying for them. Government needs to back off. I bet those of you clamouring to preserve this throwback garbage don’t pay much tax and rent your homes anyway. Get real!

    • Wrong. Cottle’s Island Lumber near Twillingate is producing local kiln-dried spruce clapboard. Another local company, Newfoundland Wood Siding Co., is using that clapboard to produce factory-painted siding similar to Cape Cod out of Nova Scotia. There are also full-time shops producing wood windows and doors on the island.

      And wrong again, I own an old home and pay taxes on an assessment higher than market value – no tax savings there! Also, you do realize renters pay property tax through their rent, right? Where do you think that money comes from? The kindness of a landlord’s heart?

  • Regarding tourism, the proof is in the pudding. If architectural character wasn’t a draw, it wouldn’t figure so prominently in our international advertising. Tourists certainly aren’t flocking here to see Kenmount Terrace, and a screech-in isn’t quite as folksy wrapped up in vinyl in Galway. Architecture is part of making St. John’s a place.

    It is a very rare occasion where the City imposes designation on a property. In the vast majority of cases, designation is entered into voluntarily so they are hardly saddling those owners with unnecessary cost. The big exception are the Heritage Areas where certain elements are required. Even there complaints about cost are overblown. Traditional building materials often come out cheaper in the long run and are far better for the environment. Most renovations will run less than a new-build. Yet people clamor to install disposable windows and siding. The payback on new vinyl windows in energy savings is longer than the life of the window! Heritage building is also better for the local economy – wood is sourced on the island and labour is the biggest cost in restoration, something that directly benefits local business as opposed to outside suppliers.

    The US (that freedom-loving country) has this figured out far better than we do with tax incentives that have been proven to generate more private investment and tax revenue than the initial “loss.” There is an economic and environmental benefit to preservation that Maggie is bang on about. Unfortunately there is some tenacious misinformation to the contrary. GOVERNMENT BAD is a fine argument, but one I and many others happily disagree with.

  • Well just to dissent, the support to help folks who DO take on the role of Brand Champions in our city may not be all that much. Right now hundreds of heritage home in this city are being restored and lived in with no help from anyone. Maybe a small tax break for these folks could help us all in the end and not drive the city into bankruptcy. If you maintain a home over 100 years old could that person get a few hundred $$ off their municipal taxes?

  • John Doe hits the nail on the head, and thank you for putting Nope’s points into a more eloquent contribution.

    Also, has there ever been any data to back up the assertion that tearing down these old money-pits will destroy the tourism industry, or deter workers from coming to St. John’s? People have been making those arguments for years and it has always struck me as downtown NIMBYism masquerading as economic concern. Not that it really matters, this sort of thing should not and can not be put onto private property owners for any reason.

  • I would agree with most of the points made by nope. This is typical politician/leftwing blather, long on dreams and dreadfully short on the details. Protecting homes that were not purchased as heritage homes by forcing heritage status on them or expecting building owners to maintain them “for the public good” is foolish, and should be challenged in court. Doing so should indebt the city to cover heating/maintance cost, and any politician who doesn’t have the fortitude to be upfront about this and face the public backlash the increased taxes would create isn’t serious about solving the problem for that IS the only way you will preserve these homes. I would also suggest that any homeowner who is considering demolishing an older building in the near future better get busy before they are prevented from doing just that. Wonder if the city could give an estimate of what the best before date is on a home: 50 years?

  • Busy bodies at city Hall are the reason your taxes keep going up. Someone has to pay to maintain these decrepit rot-pits and its your taxes going straight to the administration to pay for a couple new inspectors, and some into the pockets of Sheilagh the nuisance to justify her loudmouth existence. City Hall gets to pat themselves on the back for saddling the rest of us with increased user fees to benefit hardly anyone, and the rest of us still don’t get any tangible benefits. Government breeds more government, and with more government comes more regulations and fewer freedoms. Government will not solve your problems.

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