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Council will now make you feel the heritage!

This week's Market Squared talks about the overreaction so predictable it could have spewed from the MacBook of the laziest Hollywood hack
20211010 239 Elizabeth Street RV
Rather than approve a demolition permit for 239 Elizabeth St., city council decided Tuesday to begin the process of having the property recognized as a designated heritage building.

You know, Local Heritage Month is supposed to be in May.

I was prepared to write about something else this week, but recent events at city council have forced me to come back right around to local heritage, its protection, and how sometimes, around the horseshoe, one mistake is paid for in drastic overreaction. 

Council spent the better part of an hour this week debating the approval to demolish a small house on Elizabeth Street. It isn’t a designated heritage property, but now it might be because recently another not-designated heritage property had to be knocked down due to the increased chances it would be lit up like a Roman candle.

There was no such danger to the Elizabeth Street property. Pictures of the interior in the staff report present a house that has not been lived in for a while, and the property owner wants to tear it down and build a new, modern three-storey home.

Is it sad to watch this cute little house get the business end of an industrial construction vehicle? Yes. Is it City of Guelph business if it’s demolished? Debatable.

The property is on the Couling (pronounced “Cooling”) registry, which is a list of all buildings in Guelph constructed before 1927. Given Guelph’s feelings about tearing down old stuff you can imagine it’s not a small list, but it’s a wholly necessary one. If you’re looking for buildings in Guelph worth saving, you need to start somewhere.

So is this little house on Elizabeth Street worth saving? Heritage Guelph said ‘yes’, but staff said ‘no’ with a caveat: the house alone is not worth saving, but its value is enhanced when you look at the streetscape and surrounding neighbourhood in its totality.

I'm not an architectural expert, but it does look like a lot of the houses around that intersection at Elizabeth and Stevenson are of the same era albeit with some alternation like a new porch or a paint job. Still, would you argue that this area has had a singular, unbroken look for the last 100 years?

On a similar note, isn’t the demolition of one structure and its replacement with a new one part of the normal organic evolution of a neighbourhood?

Not anymore apparently.

No one will argue that the recent events concerning the Shortreed farmstead on Victoria Road are not tragic. Demolition by neglect is a terrible way for decades and decades of life in a home to end, and the procedural screw ups at council have not fostered a lot of trust.

But this, the situation on Elizabeth Street, is not that.

Events at Tuesday’s planning meeting show that council doesn’t seem to understand the problem with the Shortreed demolition. They believe that the problem is that the building shouldn’t have been demolished to begin with and they’ve now gone completely the other way. In other words, no building should be demolished.

Of course, there have been times in this City where we have not been precious with our history – the old Carnegie Library, several old stone buildings on Wyndham, the big metal crown that was unceremoniously dumped in the Eastview landfill – but is there a greater community relevance in treating this house like those old landmarks?

I hardly think so. It’s a nice little house, but most of us barely notice it when we walk or drive by, and I doubt we would pay any mind to its potential replacement.

A warning bell’s been sent out to all homeowners whos property has reached the century mark, your house may not be designated, but you’re now on notice that it might be. There used to be a name for this kind of micromanagement, “the Guelph Factor”, and people hated it with a capital ‘H’.

But you know who predicted this very scenario? Councillor Bob Bell, who railed great guns earlier this year during the debate of the Cultural Heritage Action Plan about that undue burden being placed on homeowners by expanding the heritage registry.

You know which councillor surprisingly voted to put an undue burden on the homeowners of 239 Elizabeth St. on Tuesday? I won’t say, but their initials are B.B.

Look, I like old things too, and I get sad when something old and esthetically interesting gets torn down, but I have to say that I can’t get weepy about one old house in a neighbourhood full of old houses.

The whiplash effect by council this week might just as easily be met with an opposite but equally strong whiplash effect. Why are people going to invest in properties in the built-up area if the decisions they’re making are being nitpicked by the political arm who only know your house is old but still want to tell you what to do with it?

Council, by its overreaction, might be promoting more demolition by neglect because everyone wants to be the king or queen of their own castle, and that means getting to decide what kind of castle it is.


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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