Preserving heritage can be a tangly issue for proponents of downtown St. John’s property development, particularly when a demolition crew is waiting for the go-ahead. In cases of municipal heritage, the old and the new are often seen to be at odds — history and headway contradicting each other again and again.
Undoubtedly, buildings in downtown St. John’s have a unique character worthy of preservation. But good luck finding public unanimity on the issue of how, to what extent, and under which circumstances historic structures in St. John’s should be preserved.
Despite the motivation behind downtown heritage preservation, municipal government initiatives are often considered factors hampering development. When a structure is given heritage status, for instance, property development is seen to become a minefield of costly regulations and City Hall-manufactured hurdles that stymie the potential for progress.
But the public’s perception of heritage properties often presupposes a “preserve or forget” dichotomy.
In truth, that doesn’t have to be the case. Take last week, for example, when the great heritage debate was revived at St. John’s City Hall. At issue: the Harbour Light building and the New Hope Community Centre, two Salvation Army properties on Springdale Street in St. John’s slated for demolition.
Both Salvation Army structures are architecturally and historically important to the city’s heritage. But both are also outdated and in disrepair.
The Harbour Light building, completed in 1908, has been left unused for the past 10 years. And the New Hope Community Centre, which until recently served upwards of 500 people, is currently also out of commission due to a busted pipe, which burst and flooded the building following a spate of bad weather this winter. Since then, the Salvation Army’s programs have been accommodated at George Street United Church.
Last Monday, the issue reached city council chambers. The city’s heritage advisory committee recommended both of the Salvation Army’s Springdale Street buildings to be granted heritage status, giving the city a greater say in plans for the property. In the end, however, the proposal was voted down 8-2.
There was undoubtedly a moral imperative involved in city council’s decision — the implication being that without the new buildings the work the Salvation Army does in
the community could be hindered unnecessarily. According to the Salvation Army, demolishing the buildings would make way for improved facilities, better parking and higher quality services and programs for the people it serves.
The fact the Salvation Army has a March 31 deadline to spend a $250,000 federal government grant to demolish the Springdale Street structures further complicated the plot, as a decision that would affect that timeline could have stalled the organization’s development plans indefinitely.
City council’s ultimate decision meant the structures wouldn’t be granted heritage status, paving the way for demolition. But it doesn’t mean the old structures are finished.
However, read the comments section on any of the online news stories about last Monday’s city council vote and you’d say the buildings were already kaput.
No heritage status? Well, get ready for concrete and steel.
People need to understand that preserving heritage, at least when it comes to downtown development, isn’t a choice between complete demolition and complete restoration.
Other modernized downtown buildings like the Bluedrop building on Prescott Street, which incorporated traditional clapboard siding into its exterior design, show the capacity for redeveloped downtown buildings to harmonize the new and the old St. John’s.
The new Salvation Army buildings could very well incorporate parts of the old ones, such as external walls, while still hosting newer, better facilities.
Following the vote, city councillors, including heritage advisory committee co-chair Dave Lane, look to now be attempting to push the project in that direction.
Where downtown properties are concerned, building development and heritage protection can work in tandem. Old and new can co-exist, and very well should.
In a city as historic and as vibrant as St. John’s, preservation and progress are never mutually exclusive.
Patrick Butler, who’s from Conception Bay South, is studying journalism at Carleton University. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.