Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bid to preserve the Gates

City's first heritage conservation district may land there

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There's something new about to happen in good old Winnipeg. And I really do mean "good old" Winnipeg.

It's something that's bound to create controversy, and even confusion, among certain good old residents of our good old neighbourhoods.

Winnipeg is on the threshold of finally joining Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver and Victoria by creating heritage conservation districts within our most historically significant character neighbourhoods -- if the neighbourhoods choose to apply for the designation.

What does that mean for the city and those living within those designated neighbourhoods?

That's what a city study on the concept has been trying to both explain and figure out during a series of recent consultation sessions with the residents of Armstrong Point. The last one was held Tuesday evening at Ralph Connor House, a designated national historic site within "the Gates," as the almost exclusively residential area of more than 120 homes is known.

The neighbourhood, like the house, seemed an appropriate place to conduct a study that the project's consultants are expected to have completed within the next three months for eventual presentation to city council.

The horseshoe-shaped peninsula at the bend of the Assiniboine River has it all: a collection of architecturally significant homes, a canopy of magnificent elms and history that goes back to Winnipeg's boom years at the turn of the 20th century.

And the bonus of a residents association already dedicated to the essential principles of heritage conservation districts across the country. That being to protect and preserve the unique character of a neighbourhood.

Of course, not everyone is a believer, not even in the Gates, as evidenced by the expansion of a private school in the area that displayed a jagged divide in the not-so-close-knit neighbourhood.

All of which makes it an ideal case study for a heritage conservation district, doesn't it?

Jennifer Hansell thought so, anyway. She's the city's heritage planner who was at Ralph Connor House Tuesday for the study's last consultation session.

"What we've been trying to get at is how will that look?" she said. "What will the model be in Winnipeg?

"So we found out people are interested, they want it to happen, but they want to know what it will mean to them. What does it mean to my property values? What does it mean to what I can do to my house?"

Even the heritage-friendly folks were curious about that.

The short answer is in other jurisdictions, the designation has helped property values and being a resident within an HCD means there are restrictions on what owners can do on their property and to the outside of their homes. Any changes have to be in keeping with the character of the area. In some cities, grants are given to help homeowners maintain their homes. We'll see if that happens here.

But, as Hansell pointed out, the city already imposes building-materials specifications in new subdivisions.

Getting back to Armstrong Point, I asked Hansell how the heritage-district concept played out in a neighbourhood that's long felt threatened by change; not that HCDs don't make room for change that fits the neighbourhood.

"For the most part," she said, "everybody was in support of having a district in (Armstrong) Point."

Basically, a heritage district is about protecting the unique look and feel of a community.

"And a lot of people really got that here," Hansell said.

Underlying that, though, is a fear.

"There's a fear that as these houses get older, are some of them going to get demolished? And then what happens? We have infill. What does that look like?"

That's where heritage conservation districts come in, ideally in partnerships with zoning regulations that were used to save the Exchange District before anyone in Winnipeg thought of an HCD.

Near the end of our conversation, I mentioned something that resonated with Hansell. I told her my wife and I often walk through the Gates with our golden retriever, just to enjoy the seclusion and look and feel and of the historic neighbourhood.

Hansell said many residents get that.

She recalled one comment in particular from the consultation process.

"One person said, 'We know we're not doing this just for us. We're doing this for the whole city.' "

That, my fellow Winnipeggers, is what heritage conservation districts are really all about. Forward thinking about the past and future. For all of us and all of us to come.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 13, 2014 A2


Updated on Thursday, February 13, 2014 at 4:05 AM CST: Corrected spelling of "Connor"

10:12 AM: Corrects formatting, adds map

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