The City of Winnipeg's heritage conservation bylaw has been a source of bitter controversy since it was introduced in 1977 following the demolition of some key historic structures downtown.
The bylaw has preserved hundreds of invaluable structures since then, despite the cries of building owners that their property rights had been expropriated without compensation.
Over the years, however, the bylaw was abused in several ways, including the designation of marginal properties so their owners could capitalize on tax credits and other grants, regardless of whether the structure had any historic value. Such a practice made a mockery of heritage preservation, as did the equally common habit of allowing owners to neglect their properties until there was no option but to demolish.
After nearly 40 years of controversy, however, the city has introduced a new conservation bylaw that strikes a more reasonable balance between preservation of authentic heritage and the legitimate interests of property owners. It also recognizes there may be circumstances when a new idea is better alternative than an old building. In such cases, where the net benefit outweighs the value of heritage preservation, demolition could be considered. The landmark Eaton's building on Portage Avenue is arguably such an example.
At one time, more than 1,000 properties were on the heritage inventory, which meant they weren't necessarily protected from demolition, but weren't necessarily excluded either.
If the owner of such a property decided to sell, demolish or alter his property, however, a heritage review process was triggered. The building was assessed and a report was sent to a civic committee, which could allow the demolition or recommend it be placed on the list of designated heritage buildings.
Depending on the building's level of importance, the owner could lose the right to demolish his property or make major alterations, a decision that could lead to a significant downgrade in the value of the asset.
The city has since whittled down the inventory to 127 properties that are awaiting an assessment. Another 336 that were on the inventory have been commemorated with historic certificates, which offer no protection.
The bylaw does not protect heritage buildings from demolition by neglect, but the city intends to update its vacant and derelict buildings bylaw to deal with this problem. There are no details yet, but a new bylaw should compel owners to pay their heating bills and undertake repairs to prevent the building from falling into irreversible decline.
Early intervention is also critical. The Shanghai Restaurant in old Chinatown, for example, was in the process of decline for decades before anyone realized it was beyond redemption.
Nor does the bylaw respond to the complaint that building owners suffer a potential economic loss when a caveat is registered against their property because it has been designated a heritage structure.
The city says generous municipal tax credits are available to owners of such buildings, but such amounts are frequently inadequate to compensate for the potential loss. At a minimum, the education portion of those taxes should also be included in the equation.
A heritage fund should also be established to help rejuvenate worthy buildings.
The city still has some work to do to ensure heritage conservation is effective and fair, but the new bylaw is reasonably clear with set time frames for decisions and notifications, as well as rights of appeal.
Despite any flaws in the old legislation, it is hard to imagine Winnipeg without its rich supply of heritage resources, particularly the Exchange District, a national historic site, but also the hundreds of other structures that contribute to the city's character and charm.