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.