Urban Form: You Can Directly Help Protect Our Dwindling Built Heritage

Many folks who love heritage still aren’t designating because they don’t understand what it means, it seems too tough, or it may decrease their property value.

When I first moved to St. John’s in 2014, I was in awe of a number of things: Some positive, like how beautiful this place is, or how close we are to wicked hiking trails. Other things less so, like how our access to the water is limited by steep cliffs or an unfriendly fence.

I am also deeply saddened and disappointed by the fate that so many historic buildings face. Important built heritage is frequently demolished or else disfigured.

Most of us who read The Overcast believe in the value of built heritage. Our own homes have been (or are being) carefully restored or maintained, and when the Historic Trust lets us know that yet another historic building has or will come down, I usually react with a crying emoticon on Facebook.

If you own a historic building and want to protect it, you can designate it. Designation legally protects aspects of the built heritage by attaching an easement to the property’s deed. Many folks who love heritage still aren’t designating because they don’t understand what it means, it seems too tough, or it may decrease their property value.

Most people who are buying old homes are aware of the challenges, and value the character.  While realtors tell me property value is subjective, all that I spoke with thought that intact heritage elements, or a heritage district, adds to the value of a home. While the city’s heritage program is new, the province’s is well established and well funded.  If your home is deemed of significance on the provincial scale (unlikely for most within the city) then pretty hefty restoration grants and resources are available to you.

Both the municipal and provincial programs cover a portion of the renovation (25% or 30% accordingly) with a larger grant upfront, or small grants for maintenance. This funding is intended to offset the cost premium to do things the “heritage way.”

However, many argue that this doesn’t quite cover the cost. When the provincial foundation started monitoring the state of the homes recently, they found that only 1/3 to 1/2 of homes were in compliance with the rules. That is, a homeowner may have done a renovation or maintained the home in a way that is not in fitting with the Standards and Guidelines For the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada.

These guidelines are open to interpretation, and the people who administer them are flexible.  They understand that a historic home has to work for today’s lifestyles and building technology.  Yes it’s a bit more hassle, but you can renovate a designated historic home.

While controversial, even the Liebeskind designed extension to the Royal Ontario Museum complies with the guidelines.  The biggest thing though, is that heritage designation adds another layer of due diligence, another check point that will help to protect and preserve our built heritage.

In the new year, I’ll be holding an information session to help folks decide whether or not to designate their homes, so keep an eye out.

Trained in architecture, Emily Campbell has her hands in many things, from making candles, to setting up temporary installations and designing buildings. She’s on instagram as @yorabode.

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