A triage process for heritage


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Today, all three levels of government will announce a project to transform an old West End church into a mixed-use block with affordable housing. Meanwhile, Winnipeg's "Historic Exchange District" is listed as a "top attraction" in Tourism Winnipeg brochures.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/01/2011 (4446 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Today, all three levels of government will announce a project to transform an old West End church into a mixed-use block with affordable housing. Meanwhile, Winnipeg’s “Historic Exchange District” is listed as a “top attraction” in Tourism Winnipeg brochures.

Yet two heritage structures inside its boundaries were recently demolished. A third was rebuilt into a multi-level parking lot. Just outside the district in Chinatown, a fourth heritage building is now facing demolition.

Why do historic buildings downtown die while a West End church lives? In part because civic leaders are simply too lazy to plan ahead, just as in so many other areas. So “renewal policy” — an obsession in other cities — has become an exercise in waiting for the next surprise.

Too cynical? Hardly. The St. Charles Hotel project hasn’t budged an inch years after it was touted as the neighbourhood’s tipping point. Red River College still needs private contributions to fully finance its work on the Union Bank Tower. In other cities, the mayor would be on the phone raising money; not in Winnipeg.

Just outside the Exchange, a million-dollar subsidy for the Avenue Building did sterling pre-election work in 2010, safely hiding the fact it was repeatedly written up as “sold” in years past without one closed sale. No one bothered to ask if CentreVenture took a loss on its original investment to make the final sale happen.

Waterfront Drive is a series of new buildings meant to create spinoff benefits for the old, but it still hasn’t hit the critical mass hoped for when subsidies flowed almost a decade ago. The nearby Alexander Docks remain undocked.

Stop calling it Waterfront Drive; to city politicians, it’s really Announcement Avenue.

Judged against city hall’s own rhetoric, the Exchange is still a policy disaster. That’s why city hall should steal a policy from the world of disaster management. When first responders treat multiple patients with limited resources, they use triage procedures to decide who urgently needs treatment, who can’t be saved, and who can safely be left waiting.

A heritage triage would conduct a building-by-building census of the specific needs of individual buildings and structures. Start from the Exchange District, and work your way out. If you’re worried this will require another “mayor’s commission,” don’t. Council’s downtown development committee members have lots of spare time on their hands.

A triage process would engage heritage activists, tenants, owners and developers to ask tough questions, block by block.

What condition is the building in? What are the owner’s long-term plans? What’s fixable? What regulations limit renewal alternatives? Can the city pre-approve permits to reduce renewal uncertainties? What could change on adjoining streetscapes to make it more viable? What would it take to attract private investment? If this sounds like the sort of thing CentreVenture should have been doing five years ago, well, exactly.

Given enough time, council should be able to start assigning numbers. Heritage building ‘A’ is priority No. 8 — it’s easy to sell, it’s cheap to fix, and it’s an important part of the streetscape.

Heritage building ‘B’, on the other hand? If it’s already doomed, be honest and assign it priority No. 299. You get the idea.

This idea won’t be popular because heritage purists see every heritage asset as a priority for total preservation. Rankings infer compromises. It suddenly becomes easier to pick off buildings at the bottom of the list — developer X can apply to knock down building Y, and councillor Z can justify voting for it more easily if building Y is only ranked No. 299.

But that’s happening now without detailed prioritization. Even worse: The absence of priorities means structures that can’t be preserved — like Upper Fort Garry, which doesn’t actually exist anymore — are siphoning millions of “heritage” dollars while free-standing historic structures crumble for lack of investment.

So triage should include financial triage, too. Perhaps the province would agree to tie a development fee to the existing heritage list.

Any new development on an existing heritage list site would be conditional on payment of a substantial penalty. Make the necessary legal changes to guarantee these funds will automatically finance renewal of top-priority buildings, in order of priority.

If someone knocks down heritage building No. 299, resources will now be available to save heritage building No. 1. And so on.

Had such a system been in place, even in the last year, we’d now have a pot of money to fix the fixable. At a minimum, that’s more than what anyone has now.

Brian F. Kelcey previously served as a senior political adviser with the Ontario government and in the mayor’s office in Winnipeg. He blogs at


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