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At council, the house doesn't always win

This week's Market Squared explains why even if you don't care about that heritage house on Fife Road, you should care about the policy.
Screenshot 2022-07-13 5.23.25 PM
City council approved the removal of this three-storey tower, though some heritage features are to be preserved.

Let me make this clear: I don’t care about the house. The house at 50-60 Fife Road, as a heritage artifact, is meaningless to me. I don’t know a lot about former Guelph businessman and mayor F.J. Chadwick, but I know he’s gone and he’s not coming back.

To quote the Bloodhound Gang… Well, actually I won’t quote the Bloodhound Gang. This is a family publication.

So long story short, am I saying that I agree with council’s decision in a special meeting on Tuesday to withdraw the heritage designation for the Chadwick house so that it might be demolished and replaced by a new building with 18 units of rent-geared-to-income housing? I do not, because it’s not about the house, it’s about the policy.

Back in July, when the heritage designation first came to council, the president of UpBuilding! non-profit homes Howard Kennedy was asked point blank if the wording in the designation to save key elements of the house’s tower was the motion they wanted and a motion they could work with.

Kennedy said it was and he even phrased it as a “compromise” considering that Heritage Guelph wanted the whole tower saved. Of course, the word “compromise” was doing a lot of work because the “compromise” was never presented to Heritage Guelph or City staff in advanced of that July meeting.

A good five minutes of council time was spent litigating if the recommendation presented meant what everyone thought it did: That three key heritage attributes at the top of the tower would be saved, whether that was as a whole tower, or just the elements on their own in an adaptive reuse. This was everyone’s reading, and it’s what (almost) everyone, even UpBuilding!, wanted.

The sticking point was how cost prohibitive it would be to save the whole building; Kennedy said that more than $1 million would be spent on securing the foundation alone, which would be about 30 per cent of the project’s proposed budget. You can’t get everything you want in this life, so sometimes you just have to take what you can get.

Now the tricky part.

At the July meeting, Kennedy said that preserving the elements – which, again, is what he said he wanted – would cost between “$50 or $100,000”, not an insignificant amount of money, but comfortably affordable in the scope of the whole project. Still, UpBuilding! had yet to make a formal budget on preserving and reusing the heritage attributes.

On Tuesday, Kennedy told council that UpBuilding! had now done some of that costing work, and with the rising price of construction and inflationary pressures, saving those attributes is now priced at the near exorbitant cost of $100,000.

I know a lot can change in four months, but this project went from affordable to unaffordable even though the estimated costs never changed. It’s also unclear if these are even formal numbers or just some so-called “back of the napkin” math. For me, there’s only one takeaway from this week’s events at council…

UpBuilding! was never seriously committed to saving any potion of the Chadwick house in the first place.

Worse than that, they played some members of council in a way that’s going to have big implications in the future because they provided a path for other developers to circumvent bylaw and policy to get exactly what they want.

You see, you go to city council and tell them that you want to build affordable housing, but there’s some impediment in the way like a heritage listing or a zoning condition. You offer a bare minimum solution that essentially follows the letter of the law, and when council agrees, you come back later and say your own solution didn’t actually solve the problem.

Now you’ve used those words “affordable housing” and media savvy populist politicians don’t want to be on the wrong side of headlines about council voting to stymie needed housing options. And what’s been lost? Some old house you probably never knew existed in the first place.

You may agree with that sentiment because this town is full of people who are only pro-density, and frankly pro-social housing, so long as it’s not happening on their street. You may not care about the tearing down of some old house on the edge of town, but that’s the thing about laws and policy, they’re not in place to protect *only* the things and places you care about.

The cosmic irony is that the majority of Guelph council this week put into practice what the More Homes, Build Faster Act merely proposed last week. Although everyone, even the property owner’s own consultant, agreed that 50-60 Fife Road met at least one requirement to make it protected under the Heritage Act, it was stripped of all protections in the name of more housing.

And yes, it is rent-geared-to-income housing, but 18 units are not going to make an immediate difference in our housing crisis, not like 1,800 would.

Except no one is proposing that number RGI units, and that’s the bigger problem, because simply giving people a place to live without making a profit is a non-starter for almost all private developers. In other words, we have to take what we can get, which sets up false choices that are bigger that housing versus heritage.

If these shadows remain unchanged, if we recklessly disregard heritage rules or conservation rules or whatever, it’s only a matter of time before our mad scramble for more housing creates unanticipated problems that those policies are meant to prevent.

In other words, though we’ve not yet started the next term, council has set a dangerous tone. Even if you don’t care about the house.


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Adam A. Donaldson

About the Author: Adam A. Donaldson

In addition to writing his weekly political column for GuelphToday, Adam A. Donaldson writes and manages Guelph Politico, frequently writes for Nerd Bastards and sometimes has to do less cool things for a paycheque.
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