With weak heritage protections and many unregistered historic buildings, Halifax risks losing a legacy

On April 18, 2019 Seamus McGreal, urban design and heritage planner with the HRM, presented a report to the Community Planning and Economic Development Standing Committee.

The report says since 2009, developers demolished 33 potential heritage buildings. Over the next decade, another 71 could follow. Both the demolished and at-risk properties fall into one of three categories: Late Georgian to Mid-Victorian era (1800–1885), the late-Victorian area (1885–1917), and the Beaux Arts and Deco area (1917–1939).

“It wasn’t a comprehensive exercise,” McGreal said during the April meeting. “They were just properties flagged as properties that should be investigated further for their significance.”

On March 10, 2020 municipal staff presented Birmingham, Queen, and Grafton streetscapes for heritage designation. There were five potential heritage buildings on Birmingham, seven on Queen, and five on Grafton.

“We’re going through a lot of development pressure in the downtown Halifax right now and it’s likely we’re going to lose buildings if they are not protected,” said McGreal in an interview before the March 10 meeting. “This project is just to give council one last chance to see what buildings they’d like protected as redevelopment goes forward. I don’t think we’ll necessarily see them all registered but we are certainly giving will giving council the choice to make that decision.”

On March 10, HRM Council debated which properties it should include. Reasons included current building owners being worried that a heritage designation would curb in-progress developments and a discussion over what the term adjacent meant regarding the properties’ locations.

Council voted down all three streetscapes, 8–5 against Birmingham and 8–7 for both Grafton and Queen.

Elizabeth Cushing

Elizabeth Cushing, a local heritage planner who isn’t employed with the HRM, says while the original numbers are “alarming,” they don’t surprise her. “Halifax has experienced significant growth, which is a good thing,” she says. “However, our policies and plans did not foresee ways to accommodate the growth and did not incorporate strong heritage policies.”

Andrew Murphy, president of the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia, says there are many reasons why these buildings and places are important. “I think it effects the joy in people’s life to have a beautifully, well-designed city,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be heritage but that helps. It makes your city unique and beautiful and a better place to live.”

Despite these issues, HRM has taken steps to improve heritage and protect buildings. These include a heritage-incentive program, which matches grants up to $10,000 for exterior conservation work, such as replacing windows, doors, roofs, and even front porches.

Following legislation more closely is key, Cushing says. She points to Ontario, which has a Heritage Impact Assessment that looks at impacts and migration measures. “Halifax has similar legislation but it doesn’t seem to be enforced to the same extent,” she says. “Heritage conservation also requires creative and innovative design approaches, which do not always thoroughly consider design guidelines and land use bylaws.”

Advocates for historic buildings aren’t against development, says Murphy. “What we would do is we take buildings down and put up something that could be anywhere,” he explains. ”What we don’t do here [much] is adaptive reuse.”

“Adaptive reuse” is the process of giving older building a new purpose like heritage condos or incorporating the older building into a new design. Examples of current or in-progress adaptive reuse developments are The Dillion on the corner of Sackville and Market streets and the Green Lantern building on Barrington Street.

“There’s a difference between an animal in the wild, an animal in a cage and an animal that’s stuffed,” Murphy says. “The animal is the wild is the perfectly restored heritage building but it has a good use and you get the essence of that building.”

Peter Ziobrowski, founder of The Action Group for Better Architecture in Nova Scotia and Built Halifax blog, says age doesn’t always mean something should get heritage protection. “We need to have a conversation about why it’s heritage,” he says. “Just because it’s old, it doesn’t mean it’s important and worth saving.”

Murphy agrees, as a single house with no heritage or cultural significance isn’t as important as a building with historical ties, or a streetscape, which help draw people to an area. He believes tourists come to an area for the “iconic and the [building] patterns.”

“They don’t have a lovely house built in the 1700s and a modern building next to it,” he says. “They have a pattern and that becomes a lovely streetscape that humans like. Tourists choose a specific destination because they have something special to offer. Any building that [developers] propose to build could be built elsewhere and that’s the tragedy.”

Ziobrowski says architectural protection needs to expand beyond buildings from certain eras. Currently, under HRM’s heritage registration process, a building receives a score out of 100. Part of that score is age which makes up makes up 25 points. A building has to receive 50 points for heritage registration eligibility.

“I would argue that there’s a lot of new buildings that far more important that some of these buildings that get no protection what so ever because it’s new,” he says.

He offers the example of the now-demolished Rogue’s Roost  and Bank of Montreal building on Spring Garden Road, which dated back to the twentieth century. “It was pretty new and character-defining to the street but because it was new, no one gave it any thought,” he says. “It was viewed as disposable.”

Still, Cushing is pleased HRM is taking a step. “HRM is working on improving their heritage registration process and providing additional incentives to homeowners,” she says. “I wouldn’t say it is necessarily a lengthy process but there are a lot of public misconceptions about what it means to register a property.”

Although she says other legislation should be looked at if any of this is to make a difference. Currently, under Section 18 of the Heritage Property Act, owners can tear down a building three years after a HRM rejects a demolition permit.  This rule doesn’t apply to heritage conservation districts.

“The major change needs to occur at the provincial level,” says Cushing. “The Heritage Property Act undermines all municipal decisions regarding heritage registration through allowing a property owner to demolish a registered heritage property regardless of Council’s decision.

Ziobrowski agrees. “If we can’t save those, what are we going to do about the unprotected heritage?” he asks

Another streetscape with 11 properties were scheduled for April but that hearing was cancelled due to the pandemic. HRM spokesperson Erin DiCarlo says there won’t be any additional meetings until staff have prepared a financial and land use incentives program for downtown properties outside of Heritage Conservation Districts.

What is heritage?
The heritage registration process has many steps.

  • Under the current HRM heritage property registration project, a building receives a score in five different categories: age, historical or architectural importance, significance of architect or builder, architectural merit, architectural integrity, and relationship to the surrounding area.
  • Before scoring can begin, staff prepare a report for the heritage advisory committee to review.
  • If a building has a score of 50 or more, the application goes to HRM Council for a vote. Council reserves the right to refuse a building heritage status.
  • At the same time, a property’s owner receives a Letter of Intent and they can’t make any alterations for 120 days, as the property is under review.

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