It is positive that we have an elected municipal official willing to publicly promote the value of our built heritage, however, city residents need the committed support of his council colleagues to succeed in this pursuit.
A cornerstone of the Envision St. John’s Draft Municipal Plan, residents indicated that their vision included “A home where citizens have a strong sense of identity embodied in their understanding and appreciation for their cultural, natural and built heritage…” To entrench “value appreciation,” council needs to espouse the benefits of heritage preservation on the local economy, beyond the typical cultural discussion. Consider five key factors:
1. Past studies demonstrate that the rehabilitation of heritage properties is more labour intensive than new construction, having a positive impact on local jobs and household income. Labour costs account for as much as 70 per cent of the overall project costs. Tradespeople, plumbers, electricians and carpenters employed in such projects spend their paycheques on local goods and services to the community’s advantage. The local renovation economy is currently more active than new construction.
2. Sustained success in heritage preservation occurs with downtown revitalization. Projects downtown involving the destruction of historic buildings have often resulted in expensive failures. Downtown revitalization through the reuse of older heritage properties is the most cost-effective form of community economic development. We need an innovative and action-oriented mechanism, supported by city council to facilitate these opportunities.
3. In the realm of heritage tourism, cultural tourists stay longer, spend more per day and have a significantly greater economic impact on the host community. St. John’s visitors thirst for this kind of unique experience, while residents benefit from building on our heritage authenticity strengths year round.
4. The fourth benefit involving property values is typically misunderstood by elected officials. Properties in historical districts appreciate at a greater value than the local market, including surrounding neighbourhoods, and are not affected by cyclical downturns in real estate value. Council must dispel local myths about heritage designation in St. John’s and exemplify the fact that the legislative protection is value added to an individual’s property.
5. Finally, historic buildings have been undervalued as small business incubators. There are 1.14 million small businesses in Canada representing 97.9 per cent of the Canadian total, employing 70.5 per cent of the private labour force. Startup businesses in historic buildings are successful when locating in lower rent spaces.
Given these strong endorsements of significant community economic, social and cultural benefits, city council is not pursuing heritage preservation with the full vigour and support that it should. Regardless of the reasons, heritage preservation advancement over the last four years has been underwhelming. If we are to succeed as a livable community, city council needs to: enable the heritage bylaw legislation overhaul for better community outcomes to reduce embarrassing entanglements; explore heritage tax incentives; encourage more property designations through a targeted campaign by the city’s Public Engagement Office; consider new heritage precincts (Waterford Bridge Road, Circular Road, etc.); expand existing heritage precincts; and, replace and retain a professional heritage planner as a registered planner (as a member of the Canadian Institute of Planners) or architect. The current heritage planner has done commendable work for over the past 20 months, but is leaving in the coming weeks. This position needs to be filled without delay.
It is time for city council to recognize that heritage preservation is an integral contributor to our economic, social and cultural well-being, and not merely a “nice to have” societal embellishment. Demonstrable actions are well overdue.
In the face of globalization, St. John’s needs to meet future economic challenges but recognize and preserve its heritage buildings to mitigate cultural globalization here. Our historic built environment will play a critical role in our future development as a truly desirable place. Council needs to be reminded how economic globalization events in oil and gas have impacted St. John’s, a city which is the cultural envy of many assimilated cities where heritage has been long forgotten.
More public discourse is required before the September municipal election.
Tom Horrocks, member
Canadian Institute of Planners