Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/1/2016 (576 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Good intentions and poor execution typify Winnipeg's efforts to preserve its built heritage. It is clear that our community puts as much effort into making sure building owners are not unjustly enriched as it does to ensuring our history is preserved. It is high time we all started to work together.
The commercial real estate world holds no special place aside to honour old structures. It is location and function that determine value. Rarely does the magnificence of a 19th-century façade translate into increased rent. And, as tenants and uses change, the imposition of current building and safety codes diminishes the utility of heritage buildings. Winnipeg has encountered and responded to these realities by adopting equivalencies in building-code rules and offering modest funding for preservation through tax-based programs.
What we should have learned from the recent past is that an old building rarely, if ever, increases in value sufficiently to repay loans from increases in realty taxes. And, what we must start seeing is that if we are to preserve heritage quality streetscapes, the responsibility to do so must be shared.
Honorifics can bolster pride but restrict opportunity. The national historic site designation of the Exchange District could do a lot more if it was attached to easily accessed funding, rather than paternalistic and restrictive preservation concepts. We need ways to compensate private owners for taking away their usual ability to alter, redesign or demolish a building. And, once a balance of obligations is struck, we need methods that are efficient to continue to assist in maintaining heritage buildings.
The most recent headlines concerning the Fortune Building on Main Street typify the confusion that appears when the city is confronted with its lack of preservation tools. We react and respond, but almost never are prepared with answers. We sometimes retroactively impose sanctions on the reuse of a building, seemingly saying: "If we thought you would do that we would have told you can't ..."
It is no wonder Winnipeg continues to be seen as a community poisoned by political risk and inefficient development processes. However, the owner of the Main Street properties seems to be positioned to benefit equally if he sells to hotel developers or to local altruistic neophyte heritage preservers. But, if the white-knight approach fails, he may be left with no deal.
We need improved methods to identify restrictions on existing buildings as much as we need better ways to preserve them.
Two phrases are often heard when these topics are discussed: Demolition by neglect, and expropriation without compensation. Owners sometimes allow a building to deteriorate to a point that demolition is required. But restrictions applied retroactively can diminish the market value of heritage buildings, taking away private property rights for the benefit of the community.
These are dilemmas that could be avoided through vigilant and committed efforts from the city and the province.
We must create methods to require owners to avoid the deterioration of their historically designated buildings, not by way of trusting good intentions, but through enforceable contracts that benefit owners and the community equally.
A change in policy to the use of heritage easements could help make our system of heritage conservation more efficient and fair.
Under such a system, a heritage easement would be recorded on the land title registry and become a matter of public record. Usually the party who benefits from the terms of such an easement pays the other party for the value of the benefit. If conserving the heritage elements of a building is in the public's interest, then the owner should be compensated for the increased costs of maintenance or decrease in value.
A heritage easement would allow the city to appraise the value of the easement and provide a tax-deductible receipt. That at least avoids the charge of expropriation without compensation. It also gives the city defined rights to intervene in the proper maintenance and preservation of designated properties, something it does not have. That right could help avoid the common practice of demolition by neglect.
That type of contract or easement is common in Manitoba for the preservation of natural habitat, and used all over the world as a means to share the burden of heritage preservation between owners and communities. Building owners are compensated either by a one-time cash payment, or ongoing reduction of realty and school taxes, a combination of both or in the case of redevelopment, increased density or other allowances.
The easement is placed on title so prospective purchasers are aware of the restrictions. Indeed, the process clearly identifies the special nature of the property. The result is a greatly valued aspect of commercial real estate transactions: certainty.
That is something Winnipeg lacks in its ongoing struggle to balance private ownership with heritage preservation. We need to say what it is we want, and pay for the privilege of having it.
Hart Mallin is a downtown advocate and developer. He once owned two heritage buildings that were retrofitted with public assistance.