Monday, July 27, 2015

Protecting municipally-owned heritage (part two)

When we looked at the need for policies to protect heritage property owned by the province, we saw that the demolition of the old lunatic asylum in Toronto in 1976 was perhaps a watershed moment (see “Policies for the protection of provincially-owned property (part one)”, from May 31, 2015).

In the case of municipally-owned heritage, there are a couple losses that loom particularly large in the last 50 or so years.  The first was in Kitchener, where the splendid 1920s classical revival-style city hall was demolished in 1973.  The building presided over a great civic square, which was also lost — both replaced with a non-descript mall. (Note 1)

Old city hall and civic square, Kitchener

The other was in Chatham in 1981 when the grand old Harrison Hall, Chatham’s city hall, fell to the wrecker’s ball.  I remember the consternation this caused at the culture ministry in Toronto at the time.  The OHA had been passed in 1975 and the revamped Ontario Heritage Foundation (now Ontario Heritage Trust) had grant money for preservation projects.  But despite provincial and local efforts, council was not persuadable.  Again, a mall rose from the ashes.

Harrison Hall, Chatham

Then there are the famous “they-beat-back-the-philistines” stories from the 1960s and ‘70s — the saving of old city hall in Toronto is the best known.  (In this case another downtown mall, the Eaton Centre, did not end up swallowing the building.)  The 1899 neo-Jacobean (or Picturesque, take your pick) city hall in Stratford, and its triangular civic “square”, also narrowly escaped destruction in this period. (Note 2)

Stratford City Hall from the rear showing part of Market Square

More recently, we have seen notable successes in rescuing civic buildings that were at risk, often as a result of amalgamations.  My favourite is Victoria Jubilee Hall — the fight to save Walkerton’s old town hall gave birth to the local branch of Architectural Conservancy Ontario and ACO now owns the building.

Victoria Jubilee Hall, Walkerton (you can probably guess its date of construction)

What do we learn from all this about how to protect municipally-owned heritage?

First, use of listing and designation is crucial.  Even more so than with private property, as municipalities should be leading by example.  Listing flags a heritage property and provides interim protection.  Designation provides long-term protection.  While it’s true, as we saw last time, that with these powers the municipality ultimately controls the levers, it must still follow the process set out in the OHA.  It must at least consult with, and consider the advice of, its municipal heritage committee.  In the case of de-designation (almost always a bad idea), its actions are also subject to review by the Conservation Review Board if there are objections (which there almost always will be).  While it cannot be appealed, demolition of a designated structure is not something any city, town or township would contemplate lightly.  Even alterations will be subject to sharp scrutiny.  Here in St. Marys the Town proposed removal of a chimney of the designated town hall, creating a big fuss — and hasty back-pedalling.

Heritage district designation can be a powerful way of protecting and enhancing the municipally-owned “public realm” of an area — the streets, sidewalks, verges, etc. that contribute to its unique character.  (Alternatively, or in combination with an HCD, some municipalities, like Kingston, use area-specific Official Plan policies for this purpose.)

Second, the importance of strong heritage policies in the municipality’s Official Plan  deriving from and building on those in the Provincial Policy Statement.  These should include special additional policies that apply to heritage property in municipal ownership and public realm property.  Here are two examples from Toronto’s recently adopted OP heritage policies:

  • When a City-owned property on the Heritage Register is no longer required for its current use, the City will demonstrate excellence in the conservation, maintenance and compatible adaptive reuse of the property.
  • When a City-owned property on the Heritage Register is sold, leased or transferred to another owner, it will be designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.  A Heritage Easement Agreement will be secured and monitored, and public access maintained to its heritage attributes, where feasible. … (Note 3)

Third, don’t expect the province to come to the rescue of civic heritage at risk.  While I would like to believe the old Kitchener City Hall and Chatham’s Harrison Hall would still be standing if the OHA had had the provincial designation and stop order powers it does today… well, that’s hypothetical, but also fanciful.  (That said, a timely provincial stop order should not totally be ruled out, and sometimes all it takes to turn the tide is a little extra time.)

Not to be overlooked is the Ontario Heritage Trust’s heritage conservation easements program, which further protects many municipally-owned structures such as Stratford City Hall and the Wellington County Courthouse in Guelph. (Note 4)  The province — both the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport and the Ontario Heritage Trust — is of course also a great resource and active promoter for the municipal policies and actions discussed above.  And then… there’s provincial public infrastructure funding!

Finally, and most especially, the role of citizen vigilance and activism, which has effectively preserved so much of our civic (and non-civic) heritage, often through hard-fought battles — whether for the town hall on the square, the bridge on the river or the by-law or policy on the books.

Note 1: Kitchener’s decisions here were approved by public referendum.
Note 2: Architectural historian Douglas Richardson memorably referred to Stratford City Hall fitting into Market Square ”like a hand in a glove.”
Note 3: Policies 8 and 9 under “General Heritage Policies.”
Note 4: The Trust’s easements program is generally a reactive, rather than proactive, one, and because of funding limitations has become over the years less focussed on cultural heritage and more on natural heritage.

Next time: Churches!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Protecting municipally-owned heritage (part one)

How much of our heritage is in municipal ownership?  Think about it — historic city/town halls, libraries, museums, parks, cemeteries (lots!), war memorials.  PUC (public utility commission) and like buildings.  And most bridges.  Don’t forget roads.  What else?

PUC building, now Festival Hydro, Stratford

Some municipally-owned properties have been acquired from other governments or agencies, often because they were redundant — old courthouses, railways stations, and railway rights-of-way are common examples.  Sometimes surplus schools too (schools are owned by school boards).

Junction Station, St. Marys -- one of two stations owned by the Town

Then there are private properties that municipalities acquire, often by expropriation, for various purposes.  The power to acquire property for “community improvement” goals under the Planning Act is well known.  (Believe-it-or-not there is even a power under the Ontario Heritage Act to expropriate property for heritage conservation objectives, but this has been used, to my knowledge, only once, in Amherstburg in the early ‘80s.)  In many cases these are “pass through” properties that are later sold back to the private sector or another broader public sector owner.

In the arsenal of tools to protect cultural heritage resources at risk, public ownership is touted as an important one.  The idea that, relative to an irresponsible private owner, a public owner will be better disposed to recognize the public interest in preserving the property or better able to marshall the resources to do so, or both, is — in general — true.

At the same time we all know that public ownership provides no guarantee of enlightened stewardship of heritage sites — especially in a time of ever greater belt-tightening.  And so there is need for good policies and other measures to provide some assurance this will happen.

For municipally-owned sites, what are these?  Well, first, the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS), issued under section 3 of the Planning Act, which unequivocally directs that “significant” cultural heritage resources be conserved (section 2.6).  As a statement of overarching provincial policy objectives, the PPS is a powerful instrument, and, as intended, can be quite effective in prompting municipalities and other authorities to adopt what might be considered subordinate, implementing policies and actions to protect cultural heritage.  These measures include strong Official Plan policies and the use of tools provided in the Ontario Heritage Act and other legislation.

Reliance on the PPS to protect specific properties, however, would be problematic.  For one thing, it is triggered only with respect to a “planning matter” — arguably how a town, say, preserves (or not) the cultural heritage values of its Carnegie library falls outside its purview. (Note 1)

Designation under the OHA is the usual way of protecting heritage property in municipal hands.  Municipalities are in fact much more likely to designate their own properties than to designate private property, especially where the owner is reluctant.

But in this situation heritage designation is less secure than usual.  Inherent in the (largely) decentralized system created by Ontario Heritage Act is the idea that the decisions about a community’s heritage rest with the local municipal council.  However, where the municipality is also the owner of the heritage property in question… well, you can see how a council might be conflicted.  When faced with a recommendation from its municipal heritage committee to designate a library, for example, the council may choose to designate, or, for self-interested reasons, decide not to.  Or, having designated, the council may decide to approve whatever alteration or demolition the municipality wants to make.  Or even to de-designate.  A cynic might say it looks a little like the fox guarding the hen-house!

Some jurisdictions have a body separate from municipal council — usually a preservation board like the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission — that decides on designations and approves changes to protected property.  (Over the years there have been suggestions that municipal heritage committees, which are advisory only, should be beefed up and assume similar powers.)

Enough for today… more next time.

Note 1: The PPS has other limitations: the qualifier “significant” in the section 2.6 policies is problematic; and there is also the “read it as a whole” injunction which in practice may have the effect of weakening any one specific policy.  For another day.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Carnegie libraries, our communities' public buildings ... and Alice Munro?

This rambling “policy story” begins in my hometown of Milverton, Ontario, north of Stratford — on the edge, as I now like to say, of Alice Munro Country.  And speaking of things literary, like many small and not-so-small towns Milverton has a Carnegie library.

Former Milverton library

Built in 1909 this stately structure saw a century of service from 1910 until it closed in 2011.  I loved the old library as a kid — it was the grandest public building in town (village actually, population about 1100). That impressive flight of stairs, from the top of which which you looked down and across Main Street and further down a street that ran up to the library.  (I didn’t know what an axial view was then, just that it was special.)  The comforting, almost reverential feeling inside — the high-ceilinged rooms with all those books and, of course, the pervasive quiet.  I can still see the shelf where the Oz books resided, and the one with the Hardy Boys books too… but I digress.

The library was also the town hall — the village council met for decades in the lower storey of the building.  In the amalgamation wave that swept the province in the late 1990s Milverton joined with four neighbouring townships to become the Township of Perth East.  The new township needed a new municipal building (I know, doesn’t sound as good as town hall, does it?), and later a new library.

But let’s go back a ways to get the bigger picture — and this brings more public buildings, namely schools, into the mix.  In a tale of dominoes all too common in our communities, here is what happened in Milverton.  The late 1960s-early 1970s saw an earlier amalgamation tide hit Ontario schools, and the Milverton high school was closed (and students bussed to Stratford and Listowel).  But the building was at least re-used as the area public school, although that resulted in the closure of smaller schools round about.  The old, handsome but decrepit Milverton public school became for a while the village/township hall and the council met there instead of the library.  Then the new municipality demolished the old school and built its new municipal offices, which of course also meant that the four former township halls were made surplus.  And then the library was replaced with a new one on a different site, leaving the old building intact but surplus, its fate uncertain too.

Now many municipalities have done a great job of keeping their Carnegie libraries and adapting them to meet current needs.  (Bear with me, I’ll get to the point of all this, eventually).  For example — Brussels, Ontario, in the present Township of Huron East (and the heart of Alice Munro Country), recently enlarged and renovated its Carnegie library, which is the same age as Milverton’s and has some stylistic similarities.  Local architect John Rutledge designed a sympathetic addition while sensitively refurbishing the original building.  When I visited it last month the librarian said that Alice Munro had toured the library the week before and really liked it.  Reminds me that the Wingham library, also a heritage building, was just renamed to honour our Nobel Prize winner… but getting sidetracked again.

Old postcard -- sorry don't have pic after major renewal 

But the Brussels approach would not have worked in Milverton.  More space was needed and, as the photo shows, the site was confined, with houses on either side.  And all those steps — wonderful for views, yes; for accessibility, not so much.  Parking also in short supply.  The new library solved these issues.

It seemed for a while like the old library was at risk.  Our local Architectural Conservancy Ontario branch was concerned.  But fortunately it was purchased by an individual who uses it as a residence and office and is maintaining it nicely.  From public library to private home... but apparently a good example of adaptive re-use.

Did I mention that none of the public (in one case now private) buildings I’ve mentioned is designated under the Ontario Heritage Act?

Next week: protecting municipally-owned heritage