Heritage advocates lobby to save homes
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This article was published 03/10/2022 (239 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
There’s not much conservationists can do to stop fast-tracked demolition of near-century-old homes in the city’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, the executive director of Heritage Winnipeg says.
Many that have historic value don’t have any official heritage designation and can’t be protected on that basis, Cindy Tugwell said in a recent interview.
Seven houses along Wellington Crescent, including one currently vacant, had been earmarked as worthy of heritage protection but were dropped from Winnipeg’s inventory of historic homes in recent years. If owners want to tear down those homes, there’s very little Heritage Winnipeg can do to stop them, Tugwell said, particularly when the city’s urban planning department supports the demolition.
“I worry that the perception from the public is that we’re just not doing anything because we don’t care, as opposed to, our hands are tied. There is no process for us to intervene.”
That’s part of the reason Heritage Winnipeg advocates for certain neighbourhoods, including Crescentwood, to be named heritage districts.
Tugwell spoke to the Free Press after a city committee decided unanimously last week to allow a vacant 93-year-old “problem house” at Wellington Crescent and Niagara Street to be torn down without a permit in place to rebuild on the lot.
The two-storey at 1188 Wellington Cres. wasn’t among the historic homes that had previously been earmarked for protection, according to Tugwell’s list, but she said municipal demolition and building procedures should be stricter, instead of getting more lax.
Squatters, evidence of drug use on the property and repeated calls to police prompted city planners to recommend 1188 Wellington be demolished, even though a building permit that promises to rebuild within a year is typically required under bylaws before a demolition permit can be granted.
The house was sold to Artista Homes Ltd. The developer says it always intended to tear it down and rebuild a brand-new luxury home on the 17,218-square-foot lot. Now, it has until 2024 to do so.
Area residents have said they support the demolition, which faced no official opposition, and some questioned why the city doesn’t amend its bylaws so derelict properties can be removed without waiting for building permits.
A neighbour who lives next to a different vacant home on Wellington Crescent said he’d like to see that bylaw changed and neglectful property owners publicly called out. He said property crime has increased along the street since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and he worries someone is going to get hurt.
“People like to say, ‘Oh, rich people on Wellington Crescent complaining.’ People can ignore the issue, but it’s coming to your doorstep,” the homeowner said. (He asked not to be named so as not to upset his neighbour.)
He said all levels of government need to do more to address the root causes of homelessness in the city and make sure people have a safe place to go. The fact squatting in derelict buildings is happening along Wellington Crescent now means systemic shortcomings are hitting close to home.
“The city’s got to do something. I don’t want to come across as ‘woe is me.’ It’s happening everywhere in the city, and unless people wake up and start making it on the front of their radar the problems that certain areas are seeing, it’s coming to their neighbourhood.”
Tugwell speculated letting a house fall into dereliction may be a tactic to bypass the municipal bylaw and speed up intended demolition.
One experienced developer, however, says that’s not the case. It can take several years from the time of purchase to obtaining a building permit for a custom, luxury home, said Tim Comack, vice-president of development at Ventura Developments, and home builders have to follow municipal processes.
“On a high-end home, there’s a lot of selections to make,” he said. “There’s a lot of design iterations that people go through to get their perfectly customized, beautiful Wellington Crescent house.”
It’s almost always more expensive to renovate century-old homes and deal with hazards such as lead paint and asbestos than to tear down and start from scratch, he said, explaining clients don’t see value in renovating. It’s often seen as a sacrifice instead — spending more money to get less of what the homeowner wants.
“Nine out of 10 people would choose to start fresh,” Comack said.
“There’s been kind of a misnomer put out into the world that somehow there’s a sin associated with starting new and creating new history, and that shouldn’t really be the perspective, in my opinion.”
Needing to have a new building permit in place before tear-down complicates the process. Meanwhile, luxury homes destined for demolition sit vacant.
The real problem, Comack said, is Winnipeg’s lack of resources for people who are homeless and suffering from mental health issues and addiction.
“We’ve taken a hands-off approach to homelessness, and so the result is that people find places to be,” he said.
The City of Winnipeg didn’t grant an interview request with its urban planning department. A city spokesperson said they also couldn’t indicate whether specific properties have been designated as vacant buildings under municipal bylaw due to privacy concerns.
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.