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This article was published 16/5/2016 (460 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A series of proposed bylaw amendments will make it easier to prevent heritage buildings from collapsing due to neglect, but they leave some big holes and unanswered questions. The same holes and questions, in fact, that have confounded city planners since Winnipeg’s heritage bylaw was introduced in 1977.
Some of the changes are so simple and obvious, it’s hard to understand why they weren’t introduced 40 years ago.
These include amendments that would strengthen existing property standards bylaws, including the vacant buildings bylaw and the neighbourhood livability bylaw. Under the changes, buildings owners would be required to keep their properties dry and pest-free. Doors and windows would have to be in good condition, while basements and crawl spaces would need to be heated. Walls, floors and ceilings would all have maintenance standards.
All of this would apply to heritage buildings, too.
The city says a special enforcement and inspection team would monitor about 30 heritage buildings that are believed to be at risk of structural harm because of neglect. Under the city plan, the owners of neglected buildings would be ordered to make repairs.
If they failed to comply, the city would do the renovations and add the bill to the property taxes of the scofflaw owners. The new bylaws should have strict timelines, otherwise property owners would merely run out the clock.
It all sounds good in theory, but here’s the problem.
The proposed measures won’t rescue buildings that are already beyond saving, and it’s doubtful they will have much impact on owners who have given up trying to sell or renovate their buildings, either because there’s no buyer or no tenant to justify expensive renovations.
The city has become the unhappy proprietor of several downtown heritage buildings over the years because the owners simply stopped paying their property taxes.
Heritage advocates say the proposed bylaw changes will be helpful, but they aren’t enough to halt demolition by neglect. Cindy Tugwell of Heritage Winnipeg has long urged the city and province to provide richer incentives for owners to improve their buildings and attract tenants.
Property tax credits are available, but they aren’t very effective incentives. Some building owners need real money in the form of grants if they are to have any chance of revitalizing their properties.
The city currently taxes empty buildings at a lower rate, which is another incentive for owners to allow their buildings to decay until there is no choice but to demolish them.
Indeed, in some cases, demolition is the only real option for large heritage buildings that have passed the point of no return. It is usually cheaper to demolish an old building and build a new structure from scratch than to bring an old building up to code. Economic viability is an issue that can’t be ignored when considering a building’s future.
The city has also ignored a long-festering issue about property rights with regard to heritage buildings. Owners of these structures have complained about "expropriation without compensation" when their properties are suddenly listed as heritage buildings.
When slapped with a heritage designation, owners lose the right to demolish or to change the exterior and interior elements of their properties, depending on the level of heritage value. This frequently serves as another incentive for demolition, particularly if the building has a long list of complicated needs.
A simple and fair measure would see heritage caveats placed on the buildings, with financial compensation given to the owners in return. That way, when heritage buildings are sold, new owners can’t complain they did not know what they were getting into.
The city’s rich inventory of heritage buildings is an important community asset. Some buildings have already been lost to neglect. We don’t want to lose any more.