There is no doubt Ottawans value their heritage buildings. The long-running debate over an addition to the Chateau Laurier and the even-longer-running discussion about redevelopment of a former convent in Westboro are evidence of that.
Although many of Ottawa’s older buildings have been torn down, we still have 340 individual heritage properties and a further 3,200 in 19 heritage conservation districts.
Designation alone, unfortunately, does not preserve a building. That became evident when a wall of one of Hintonburg’s oldest buildings collapsed in July. The convent property, a much more important heritage structure, is also threatened by years of delay in deciding on an appropriate future use.
When a heritage building falls into disrepair the property owner is typically accused of demolition by neglect. That is, allowing the building to crumble so he can bypass heritage protection and put up something else.
That’s clearly not the case in Hintonburg, where the owner was living in the building. Curiously, the city was unaware of that and had included his house on a list of 24 vacant heritage buildings it monitors.
It’s good that the city monitors such buildings, but the Hintonburg collapse raises questions about how effective the process is. Since 2017, the city has conducted inspections and issued work orders on the 144-year-old house, but it somehow missed the fact that it had become little more than a pile of stones waiting to fall down.
Now, the city is promising more staff training and has contracted an engineer to review the empty structures. That would have seemed a good place to start.
Aside from the designating, limited monitoring and a tiny repair grant, the city leaves preserving our heritage mostly up to property owners. It’s easy to blame those property owners when something goes wrong, but it’s time we re-examined the role the city plays. The purpose of heritage designation is to save a building for future generations, not to benefit the owner of today. That implies a better balance between public and private responsibility.
The city can try to keep heritage properties up to minimum standards by enforcing property standards orders, but that’s a punitive approach. There are alternatives. One is a heritage property tax relief program that can reduce a building’s property taxes by up to 40 per cent in exchange for proper maintenance of the building. Another would be to enhance the cost-sharing repair fund the city already has. It provides only $150,000 for the entire city.
These ideas are being considered by the mayor’s heritage task force. The city should act before more buildings fall down.
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