Landlords getting the final word on heritage designation won't work

How a process to protect more Halifax buildings was obliterated in one public hearing.

Landlords getting the final word on heritage designation won't work
This Queen Street streetscape was on the list for potential heritage protection this year, but its landlord argued against it and won.

By March 2020, Halifax had lost a full forty percent of its historic buildings in 11 years. Out of 104 buildings inventoried as heritage assets in 2009, 43 had been demolished.

More have tumbled since then. And barring drastic action to save them, the remainder will fall to the wrecker soon.

Halifax Regional Council finally spurred itself to action. To do some preservation, they would use the provincial Heritage Property Act to shape several streetscapes, which would create “a sense of time and place through a grouping of historic buildings within the same vicinity,” according to the 2019 staff report. 

But when Council attempted recently to save 16 of 61 properties in the Spring Garden area—some of the prettiest in the city—the whole exercise fell apart under a panicked pushback by proprietors on Birmingham, Queen and Grafton Streets. A further group of buildings scheduled for later designation was put on hold while heritage planners re-group and re-plan.

You had to see the (pre-covid) March 10 Council meeting to believe it. And actually, you can see it. The video is on the city’s website, where you can watch one by one as the property-owners wring their hands, tell sob stories and plead for council to exempt their properties from the designation. The result was not a single one of the 16 properties on the agenda won a heritage designation.

In my view, the owners’ tropes of travail were remarkably similar and similarly bogus.

There was the suggestion that heritage designation would destroy a property’s value: Owner after owner had the chutzpah to moan that heritage designation would ruin the family nest egg. No matter that some of these properties, worth several million dollars, have grown in value many times over in the last forty years, far beyond the rate of inflation. No matter that a house in neighbouring historically-designated Schmidtville recently sold for close to $1 million, four-and-a-half times the rate of inflation compared to when it was purchased 28 years ago. No property owner is going broke.

It’s just that these north-of-Spring Garden owners were hoping to tear down their properties, or sell to someone who would, and then presumably beg council to alter the height limits under the Centre Plan. So the smashed nest egg argument is pure speculative fiction.

There was the suggestion that the property was falling apart and therefore not worthy of the designation: A common refrain was that their properties were dumps, ordure hardly worth the right to remain standing. Slyly, Councillor Lindell Smith asked them “How long has your family owned this property?” As if to say “And who is responsible for its present run-down state?” Quite a few bashfully responded they had owned the properties over forty years.

A cousin argument was that they couldn’t afford to maintain the junk piles. Which is partly true, since they were purchased to be knocked down. Or as the professionals call it: demolition by neglect. Beyond responsibility for upkeep, this conveniently forgets that the city has funding to assist heritage owners with improvements.

There was the suggestion that there were no heritage character-defining elements in the property: the Heritage Advisory Committee used a standard scoring index to evaluate the buildings on age, historical or architectural importance, significance of architect/builder, architectural merit, architectural integrity, and relationship to the surrounding area. But the owners begged to differ. Some window frames had been replaced with aluminium or vinyl; doorways altered; shingles replaced with siding; some ornamentation removed. See? There’s nothing heritage about this hovel, the owners said. Developer Louie Lawen at least had the honesty to admit, of the list of defects he cited about one of his properties, “I’m a little embarrassed to show these, to be honest with you, because it seems that I’m mocking myself.” True that.

There was the suggestion that "there is no streetscape here." Where the owners argued that the mere presence of any modern building or any parking lot in the neighbourhood destroys the very notion of a streetscape. Nothing to see here, move along. Anything to avoid the dreaded heritage designation.

And the final suggestion when all others had dried up: "This is private property and you have no right to regulate me."

This is the most important and momentous argument, and the way I see it, owner after owner basically claimed that they had the right to use or dispose of their property as they saw fit. And how dare the government try to realize goals in the public interest on their backs. What? Do these people not pay taxes? Do they not enjoy public services? They all said they supported heritage preservation. Except when it comes to them.

But the situation gets worse. Now we have pre-emptive action to actually demolish some of the 61 marked as “potential heritage buildings” before they can be saved. Joe Ramia’s building at 5222 Blowers Street, a fine brick three-storey edifice, that shows up in the 1878 map as part of Robert Ainslie’s Halifax Livery, is, as of a few weeks ago, now just a pile of bricks.

Will this orgy of obliteration of Halifax’s character never stop? Only when it’s over.

Larry Haiven is Professor Emeritus at Saint Mary’s University, a member of Development Options Halifax and a research associate of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Nova Scotia.

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