The Smith Report: Hope for Ottawa’s Heritage Conservation Districts?

Ottawa is going through a difficult time. There is a structural flaw in its management and how it listens to its citizens, especially when it comes to protecting its heritage conservation districts (HCDs). Yesterday, the Smith Report was released, outlining the state of crisis in preserving and protecting Ottawa’s HCDs. There are key insights in the report that everyone should be aware of.

The present situation is not surprising since most governments are ‘amber organizations’: highly structured hierarchies of power, with few opportunities for staff to engage with communities in a meaningful way and often lacking in transparency. They are out of date and likely part of the cause of such polarity in politics today.

Because Ottawa is driven mostly by federal government institutions and employment, there’s little room to advance how we can have a better and more engaged polity. We imagine ourselves to be humane and leaders in progressive urbanism , but sadly this is lost on a Council that has inherent structural flaws – thanks mostly to the Mike Harris government of the 1990s. Ottawa is not known for its bottom-up innovation, though there are sometimes glimmers of change.

There are many actions the City could easily take, but a key one that I have heard mention is it should be more transparent. Politicians and senior executives always have a difficult time being open in these old-fashioned organizations. When they don’t truly listen to citizens, there is the reason why we have such consistent frustration and dissatisfaction by the public. Many citizens have experienced this first hand when attending and/or speaking at committees (which also have low public turn-out).

There are many innovations the City could adopt: free public transportation, better bike infrastructure, low-carbon incentives (imagine free full-electric car parking), develop real public space etc. But, an easy step in the right direction would be for the City to take heritage conservation seriously.

Place only has meaning when it is cared for through passion, intimacy and immediacy. This was understood in Ottawa a century ago when the City Beautiful movement was influencing the transformation of the City from a lumber town into a capital.

Heritage conservation at its heart is sustainable and the only option for our future. Why? Because it works within its means. Yes, there are disastrous abuses of heritage, such as the Chateau Laurier addition, though this debacle was avoidable if there was better independent leadership by the City. Where there was once a strong sense of how Ottawa could be a livable city, this is being challenged, particularly by certain developers wishing for short-term gain.

Heritage can be a loaded term. It can be manipulated to benefit different stakeholders, but ultimately, the goal is to maintain unique and distinctive qualities of a space that imparts connection between each other and rootedness in place, time and history.

In many ways heritage districts were born out of a need to counter the modernist project of the past century. It speaks to the local, which many people lack in their lives (especially by globalised people).

Beauty, love and social fabric should be in your backyard, and those social values are part of preserving the architecture, design and sense of place of neighbourhoods and districts. Tower landscapes may be the lollipops of councillors, but the sweetness of Ottawa will not be found in the proposed Lebreton Flats developments, instead it is found on main streets and in small mixed neighbourhoods.

What Ottawa must better understand is the natural and cultural capital of its 20 heritage districts and improve on their protection. They are being compromised and eroded, to the disappointment and frustration of citizens who live within them. Personally, we were attracted to our neighbourhood because our house was within a heritage district. This is a good quality to preserve.

A very important report has been circulated addressing the crisis of heritage conservation districts in Ottawa. Written by architect, planner and heritage advocate, Julian Smith, it was spearheaded by the Rockcilffe Park Residents Association, with support of other Ottawa community associations.

It succinctly outlines why protection of heritage conservation districts is not being supported by the City and constructive suggestions on how to improve this situation. Read it here:

The Smith Report

 

I want a livable and unique city. One that is healthy and related to both the human and natural world. That is Ottawa’s identity, and yet, the tendency for our leaders is a wish-fulfillment for being Toronto or Vancouver instead of seeing the love of our place for what it is. Let us hope this report will bring about a better council and a better commitment to protect our heritage conservation districts.

Incentive for Historic Places

Years have passed since there has been attention to federal legislation for historic places in Canada. As Canada marks its 150th year, it may be the year to make a difference that would bring Canada to an equal footing with most G20 countries.

A new private members bill has been tabled by Parliament: Bill C-323, an act to amend the Income Tax Act (rehabilitation of historic property) . Introduced by York-Simcoe MP Peter Van Loan, he stated in the House:

Mr. Speaker, this bill creates a tax credit for the rehabilitation of historic buildings in Canada. It is designed to help those who invest in our cultural heritage.

It is a meaningful measure to strengthen heritage infrastructure. By maintaining historic buildings and undertaking costly heritage renovations, citizens undertake a considerable private burden from which we all benefit through the preservation of our past and the places that have made our country. This bill seeks, in a small way, to provide some support for them for the considerable investment they make on behalf of all of us.

With the 150th anniversary of Confederation nearing, this bill is an opportunity for all members of the House to show their support for preserving Canada’s built heritage. These changes will help save our most important historical structures for our children and grandchildren to enjoy for generations to come.

This bill introduces:

  • a 20% tax credit on eligible costs for rehabilitation work done to designated historic places (commercial & owner-occupied residential); and
  • an accelerated Capital Cost Allowance (25%/50%/25%) for eligible capitalized costs incurred under the same conditions of the tax credit (commercial only).

It would apply to private and non-profit historic places, but not to federally owned sites since the government does not tax itself.

Recently I was told that few countries actually have legislation in place at the federal level – a surprise to me. If we were to compare apples to apples, our legislative environment is on par with continental Europe, the UK, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and perhaps Singapore. Most of these countries have comprehensive legislation that is more than commemorative in nature. In the case of the USA, their tax incentives have created billions of financial wealth while retaining many of their historic places.

In Canada, national historic sites are governed by the Historic Sites and Monuments Act (updated in 1985), the National Parks Act and the Parks Canada Agency Act. The Minister of the Environment and Climate Change may:

(a) by means of plaques or other signs or in any other suitable manner mark or otherwise commemorate historic places;

(b) make agreements with any persons for marking or commemorating historic places pursuant to this Act and for the care and preservation of any places so marked or commemorated;

(c) with the approval of the Governor in Council, establish historic museums;

(d) with the approval of the Treasury Board, acquire on behalf of Her Majesty in right of Canada any historic places, or lands for historic museums, or any interest therein, by purchase, lease or otherwise; and 

(e) provide for the administration, preservation and maintenance of any historic places acquired or historic museums established pursuant to this Act.

The weakness of this process is that it is commemorative in nature and does not protect or create an incentive to save a historic place beyond mounting a plaque. An all too common pattern was to demolish the place and then erect a plaque to mark what once was there. As in this case, it is clear that Canada remains behind much of the world in terms of understanding and protecting its historic places at the federal level.

There is strength at the provincial and municipal levels, but they too have their own obstacles to overcome.

In 1999, the federal Liberal government of the day developed the Historic Places Initiative (HPI). It would build a national register of historic places, create national standards for conservation of historic places, develop a tax incentive, and propose new legislation which would create in law protection of historic places at the federal level (rather than commemorative and administrative protection). Only parts of this initiative were fulfilled.

The passage of a private members bill can be challenging. All-party support is a must, committee reviews need to be collaborative, readings require good amendments and a non-partisan Senate review is best. Finally, the bill may pass royal ascent. It is a long and arduous process.

The passing of Bill C-323 is the beginning of a return to the Historic Places Initiative – which oddly was not supported by the Harper Government yet this bill is supported by two members of the former government’s cabinet!

The other initiative (a separate Historic Places Act) may be the next step. For now, Bill C-323 is a start.

For more information:

RAIC support for Bill C-323

National Trust’s Financial Arguments for Bill C-323

Ottawa’s Suburban Heritage

Ottawa is transforming from a suburban city into a denser and more urban one. Light Rail Transit is coming, densification has brought more condominium towers to the city core and the post-war generation of baby boomers are beginning to downsize their living spaces. But what will become of the vast tracts of once sought-after suburban houses stretching from Carp to Cumberland?

Half a century ago, Ottawa was a very different city. Ottawa’s population grew by 60% after the Second World War as a cadre of public servants supported the transformation of Canada’s post-war economy and the building of the welfare state.

Ottawa experienced a feverish pace of construction. Government campuses and suburban developments appeared overnight. Developers could begin as small-town builders one day and become wealthy financiers the next. They built custom homes, tract housing, townhomes – whatever the market dictated as veterans and public servants could now realistically own a piece of private property, albeit in 25 years’ time. One could buy a home in “Alta Vista”, at “Crystal Beach”, or in “Lynwood Village” – all pleasant places on offer to nuclear families. A suburban home was the “key to better living” according to developer Robert Campeau.

Today, interest in suburban history and heritage has lagged behind other areas of heritage protection and management. Tangible elements of ‘suburbia’ are a challenge to conserve when there has been such a strong social stigma attached to the idea of the suburbs. Even in the 1950s, the ‘Organization Man’ in the ‘grey flannel suit’ or the kaffeklatsch of housewives brought stereotypes to suburban life that remain ingrained in North American perceptions of suburbia, ironically even by the people who enjoyed the suburban lifestyle.

To high-style architects, and especially to critics who were examining the North America’s urban blight in the wake of the flight to the suburbs, uniform places were anathema to their ideals of community, and these opinions continue today as the environmental impact of the suburban landscape may be unsustainable into the future.

Our city’s version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City now causes us to questions of what value are these neighbourhoods. Are they important to the identity of the city? Are they spaces that may be transformed yet retain their pastoral landscape qualities?

The trees have matured, the 60-year old split-levels, the CMHC 1,000-square-foot model homes, and the Victory Houses are now at an age that the history of suburbs is up for discussion as large grassy lots become attractive potential for infill. Aside from Lindenlea and a few Garden City imaginations, Ottawa’s post-war suburbs are a touchpoint for discussion on how these places will evolve in the coming decades.

Suburbs emerged beyond towns and cities and their evolution follow different patterns, shaped by modern planning and stricter zoning. Places of worship, schools and plazas were well planned around the mobility of the automobile. Yet Ottawa’s suburbs are probably more layered and complex than what is imagined.

A unique feature of Ottawa’s suburbs are its federal campuses developed after the 1950 Gréber Plan. Tunney’s Pasture, a low-rise semi-secure campus for federal departments which may soon be transformed into a high-density urban hub, or Confederation Heights, a spread-out campus gradually transforming, or the high-tech campus of the National Research Council were experiments in public-sector pastoralism. Of course these campuses have evolved since the 1950s, yet they remain overlooked monumental modern complexes. Even today similar suburban headquarters continue to be built for well-funded government agencies, such as the $1.2 billion “spy palace” on Ogilvie Road for the Communications Security Establishment Canada Agency.

Other places are unfortunately neglected. The abandoned former Federal Study Centre on Heron Road – once a religious campus – holds a wealth of modern artistry and planning that could potentially be an adaptively reused signature site for the city’s Guildwood Estates neighbourhood.

The first steps to envisioning a sustainable future for the suburbs is to recognize its diversity and evolution. The home designs in Qualicum, the evolution of Westgate or Billings Bridge shopping plazas, or the intact veteran homes of Viscount Avenue, each possess potential value that may bridge mid-century modernism with the ecological age that is today.

A rare architect-designed neighbourhood, Briarcliffe, has been protected, but what of the model homes of Manor Park, or the experimental cooperative of Fairhaven Way? As Millennials seek out smaller more affordable homes, the Victory Home may be reinvented as sustainable and restored homes that their great-grandparents enjoyed in 1946.

Facadism Redux?

For about 20-30 years, facadism has been a compromise between two competing views within architectural conservation. Facadism seems appropriate sometimes, at other times it appears as a false skin or veneer that hides the ‘dirty’ work of a redevelopment and destroys the place’s value. Where is facadism found? On urban streets and on campuses. Rarely is it an issue with major landmarks or monuments.

Naturally, facadism is a compromise between heritage values and the competing interests of larger floor plates, higher number of stories, modern amenities and health and safety requirements. Sometimes, facadism works well, but most of the time it fails.

Perhaps the debate on facadism is too binary – too dialectical. What are the degrees of facadism? Do you save one bay? Two? There are degrees of facadist interventions, from piecemeal saving of parts of buildings, to infilling a building and preserving most of its massing. There are projects which give the illusion that the buildings remain intact through step backs. There are other projects which dismantle the facades and rebuild them later into the new structure.

What are the tools available today to manage facadism? For a time, it was heresy to suggest that we could only keep a facade, yet as more and more projects are being proposed as urban infill and intensification,  there are increasing pressures on intact historic streetscapes. What could be the compromise for facadism to enjoy the protection of heritage character and value while integrating new use into the project?

Perhaps it is in a contextual architecture or a discreet architecture that we can find balance between facadism and protecting places holistically. There should be an integrated solution, which shifts the debate away from whether to save the facade or not. In relative terms, a facade of certain types of buildings, which were concerned about their skin over the frame or interior. In other cases, the mass is more significant than the facade. I continue to search for successful projects where there is a balance of change, preservation and sustainability.