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Letter: Right idea, wrong approach on St. John's heritage buildings

I was surprised and pleased to see that Andy Wells has included the importance of heritage conservation in his platform for election as mayor. In years gone by, Andy was often a vocal opponent of initiatives to protect the city’s built heritage.

But that was then and this is now, and I am grateful for the change of heart. In his brochure Andy says,  “As we develop our downtown we need to make sure we are preserving our heritage and the character of our city for future generations.” Bravo Andy!

Most smart politicians today recognize the economic and social value of heritage and culture, and Andy is an astute politician. Our rich heritage and vibrant culture are a major economic asset for St. John’s, and a huge part of the growing attractiveness of our capital city for residents and as a nationally recognised tourist destination.

Many people who call St. John’s home take great pride in what has been accomplished over the past four decades to protect and enhance the unique character of the older neighborhoods of our capital city. Many of these neighbourhoods and their stock of older buildings were in slack shape and had a very uncertain future when Andy and I first ran for council in 1977.

Today is a very different story.

Many millions of dollars of private and public investment have made these older neighbourhoods among the most sought after areas to live and work in the city.

The downtown is vibrant and nationally recognised as a special place. People care about the future of our historic downtown and our older neighbourhoods. And when people care, politicians tend to pay attention.

Andy’s proposed heritage platform is “to establish a St. John’s Historic Trust Charitable Foundation, financed by government and private donations which would be mandated to match the legitimate offers made to owners of historic properties, if their proposed redevelopment leads to demolition of property.”

As a lifelong advocate of heritage conservation, I have my concerns with the limitations of this approach, however well intended, which I believe will be financially unfeasible and of value to a limited number of private property owners who are bent on demolition of heritage properties.

It would cost millions of dollars to use this route to save a handful of threatened properties, and raising that kind of money would be next to impossible.

This approach has long been abandoned by charitable trusts across the country dedicated to heritage conservation. It has been replaced by the more proactive, effective, comprehensive and community-led approaches to the protection of the heritage character of our cities and towns.

I would urge all candidates in this municipal election to talk to the many local people who have experience and knowledge in protecting and enhancing the heritage areas of our city who have a genuine interest in working with the City of St. John’s on heritage conservation.  

Best practice in heritage conservation in urban areas starts with political will, demonstrated by strong, supportive heritage policies in the municipal plan, and by municipal development regulations that are fairly and consistently applied.

The relationship between municipal land use planning, the protection of the built heritage and the heritage character of historic areas in a community is fundamentally important. Uncertainty about the intent and application of planning policies is a major disincentive to essential investment in these areas. New and strengthened heritage legislation is a priority in achieving these goals and should be tied to the Municipal Plan Vision.

Of course, planning alone is not the whole story. There are many examples of other well-accepted municipal supports, including financial incentives for heritage conservation, some of which are already in use by the City of St. John’s. There are knowledgeable people who can provide support and advice to council on current best practices. There are property owners and developers who have demonstrated a real commitment to heritage conservation by personal investment in heritage-sensitive rehabilitation of their properties and deserve to have this investment protected.

In 2003, the City of St. John’s was acknowledged as a national municipal leader in heritage conservation and presented with the Prince of Wales Award by the Heritage Canada Foundation. Future councils will need to build on what has been accomplished in the past and commit to supporting heritage-sensitive municipal policies that will ensure that the physical legacy of our history, which is embodied in the historic downtown and its adjacent neighbourhoods, will be protected for future generations.

We do not own our heritage, we only rent it from our children.


Shannie Duff

St. John’s

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