As long as I’ve lived in Edmonton, the conversation about heritage preservation has been a sad one. Every 18 months or so, news of the demolition of a significant heritage structure would make the papers, and video or photos of smashed brick and piles of rubble would circulate in the news, accompanied by an architectural obituary. Whether it was the Tegler Building, or the Gem Theatre or Edmonton Auto Spring works, the loss of our heritage buildings has been an sore spot for our city.
As someone who loves heritage buildings it's been hard to watch. As a City Councillor, it became very clear that the complexities of preserving heritage buildings go well beyond a simple and noble desire to save our built history. Oftentimes heritage buildings are sold as is, which means costly improvements in bringing the building up to 21st century building standards. Their age also means that sometimes more significant improvements are needed than first meets the eye (as anyone who has ever done a DIY home renovation will know!)
The result is that it’s often more expensive to rehabilitate an existing building than to build a new one. And given that, we end up losing a lot of heritage buildings because the risk of saving them is too high.
Today at Executive Committee, in the midst of a sprawling conversation about tax policy, our heritage buildings got a win. I moved that administration look at the current tools provided to cities to create tax exemptions or deferrals for non-residential heritage sites. By looking at heritage properties as not just heritage sites, but significant redevelopment opportunities, we have a chance to change the upfront value proposition on these properties. We have seen in many communities that these heritage buildings become economic focal points of the neighbourhood and spur on the residential redevelopment. Just look at the Gibbard Block in Highlands, or the Oliver Exchange in Oliver, or the Ritchie Market in Ritchie.
Now a caveat (as is always the case in redevelopment conversations) — this is just a motion. Perhaps the answer comes back that this is not possible given the current tools cities in Alberta have at their disposal. But if we want to change the outcomes with many of our heritage buildings, we have to look at changing our approach to preserving them.
Thank you to City Administration for seeing a creative way to approach this long standing issue and to my colleagues on Executive Committee for supporting this approach to preserving our heritage buildings.
The motion will come back to Executive Committee on March 1, 2021.