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Hey history nerds: Get your s#!* together!

This week's Market Squared is a message to heritage advocates that If you want to save local heritage, there's no time to lose
20170216 historically guelph
The old Guelph Carnegie Library. Photo courtesy of Guelph Public Library.

Go back in time to the 1960s and downtown Guelph looks like a very different place. First of all, no cannabis shops.

Joking aside though, you would immediately note that a lot of corners in the core had a very different appearance. Although many of the stone buildings built in the previous century had survived two world wars, a global pandemic, the Great Depression, and the Beat Era, they would not survive the 60s, and nearly 70 years later, this is still a stressor for local heritage nerds.

If local appreciators of Guelph heritage are triggered by anything, and they can correct me if I’m wrong, it’s the memory of a giant wrecking ball through the front of the Carnegie Library. Or the old Royal Bank building in St. George’s Square that looked like a sibling of the Wellington Hotel. Or the old Bank of Montreal building with the clock tower across the street…

These were considerable losses, but they may be minor compared to what’s coming. Bill 23 did a lot of re-writing around the typical business of municipal planning and development, but the worst effects may be felt in the years to come, at least if you’re fond of old buildings and the city’s history.

As usual these things are revealed in one-off lines from staff members at the end of meetings.

At this week’s Heritage Guelph meeting, heritage planner Jack Mallon said that the city has started receiving inquiries about demolition permits for properties on the Couling list. Now the Couling list is not the same as the heritage registry, but the message is clear: When it comes to our old buildings, there’s now blood in the water.

The goal for heritage now is to save as many of the 1,700 properties on the registry as they can before Dec. 31, 2024. At that point, anything presently listed on the registry, but not officially designated as a heritage property, will be de-listed and we won’t be able to put them back on the list for five years.

After that, it’s probably safe to say, it’s open season on anything not designated, and that’s where the fun begins. How many buildings might be torn down in the next seven years that we’re going to have hard feelings about in the year 2083?

But the pending disaster on the heritage file is nearly equaled by the current disaster in front of us watching council, staff and advocates try and act before the giant ticking clock hits zero a year from this coming New Year’s Eve. Is this what happened in the 60s? Stone buildings were demolished while people debated what order to save them in?

At February’s Heritage Guelph meeting, the committee was presented a list of 10 heritage properties that should be prioritized for designation. A place to start, in other words. This list was created on the basis of readily available research, co-operation of the property owner and the committee’s own feedback about their own top priorities. In other words, the slam dunks.

It took two meetings over two months to approve this list. At both meetings, the forward momentum was bogged down because committee kept talking about all things that are presently outside their control.

Those old farmhouses in the south end? Those are being reviewed as part of the Ontario Land Tribunal appeal of the Clair-Maltby Secondary Plan. In January. Nothing more can be done till that’s all sorted out.

How about the majority of buildings downtown that are listed on the registry? The city is presently looking for a consultant who can oversee the creation of Heritage Conservation District for the core, thus protecting much of downtown in one stroke, or vote of endorsement, from city council.

And then there’s Catholic Hill. No matter how much affinity secular Guelphites have for the Basilica and the supporting buildings around it, we don’t actually get a lot of say about what happens up there. The city can have a good and cordial relationship with the Diocese of Hamilton, but we can’t make them put those spires back.

These are all obvious targets, but I somehow doubt the entirety of Wilson Street is in danger of demolition. Not in the same way that some of the little houses on Alice Street might be. Or some of the big homes with royal sounding descriptions on Ardmay or Arnold. Or that cute row of homes on Arthur Street North that are classified with the less fancy description of “Neo-Classic Functional”.

Take a scroll through the Municipal Register of Cultural Heritage Properties and try and narrow down 1,700 different properties to just 10. Try limiting yourself to 10 in the alphabetic 'A' list alone. It’s not as easy as you might think even if you’re bitter and cynical about protecting houses and buildings just because they’re really, really old.

And let us keep in mind that here in the real world, bitter and cynical often wins because people think they look like logic and realism, which is why we know what’s coming next. It’s what happened last November when council took the heritage designation from the old Chadwick house on Fife Road: We’re in housing crisis and if heritage is the way then it’s got to go!

If the battle is phrased as “heritage versus homes," heritage is going to lose 10 times out of 10 no matter how childishly simple that argument is. Protecting cultural heritage does not create homelessness any more than protecting wetlands or other greenspaces does, and while most of us understand the need to protect the latter, the heritage crew needs to get on the same page now to protect the former.

Last year, staff updated council about the refurbishment of the old Drill Hall on the other side of tracks from the train station. Staff sought interest from private developers about adaptive reuse, but they came up empty because no one was interested in the building as much as they were interested in the land. Developers know what they value, the question is, do we?

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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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