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City rushes to grant heritage status to 'most critical' buildings as deadline looms

The W.C. Edwards and Company building on City Centre Avenue was one of five buildings council's built heritage committee recommended designating on Tuesday. (Giacomo Panico/CBC - image credit)
The W.C. Edwards and Company building on City Centre Avenue was one of five buildings council's built heritage committee recommended designating on Tuesday. (Giacomo Panico/CBC - image credit)

The city has sped up efforts to designate heritage properties as it works its way through a bloated list under a tight provincial deadline.

On Tuesday, council's built-heritage committee recommended that a Bible house, a Masonic temple, two churches and an old lumber mill office get heritage designation.

That's five down, roughly 4,600 left to consider.

All those properties have enough historical interest to get a spot on the city's heritage register, a kind of holding list that requires owners to notify the city before demolishing them. Ottawa's is the longest in the province.

The provincial government's Bill 23, passed as the More Homes Built Faster Act in 2022, gave cities until the end of this year to announce which of those properties they intend to designate under the Ontario Heritage Act, a status that offers a much higher level of protection.

Any that miss the deadline will disappear from the registry, and can't come back for five years. Properties that aren't on the registry become harder to designate, according to another provision in the Act.

That's forcing the city to act fast to comb through the list and see what's worth saving.

Court Curry is manager of heritage services at the City of Ottawa.
Court Curry is manager of heritage services at the City of Ottawa.

Court Curry, the city's manager of right of way, heritage and urban design services, says his team is aiming to recommend diverse styles of buildings across the city for heritage designation. (Laurie Fagan/CBC )

"We've definitely got the pedal to the metal," said Court Curry, the city's manager of right of way, heritage and urban design services.

His staff brought forward six properties to committee on Tuesday, about as many as they usually submit over a whole year, according to Curry. One was held back, while five others will go forward to council.

Even at that rate, there isn't enough time to make more than a dent in the register, and staff have to triage. Curry said they've whittled it down to 700 of the "most critical" buildings.

"Will we get through the entire list by the end of the year? No," he said.

More brutalist and suburban buildings could get protection

Still, heritage advocates are satisfied with the properties Curry's team is bringing forward. David Jeanes, a board member of Heritage Ottawa, said staff are "picking the winners" in the limited time they have left.

"There was almost no question about the heritage value of the buildings that came forward today," Jeanes said. "They're picking buildings that are worthy of designation. They're doing good research and they're spreading it across the city."

Curry said his team is aiming for diversity in its choices: diverse styles, diverse stories and diverse neighbourhoods.

The Westboro Masonic Hall in Ottawa's west end.
The Westboro Masonic Hall in Ottawa's west end.

Working under a tight provincial deadline, the Westboro Masonic Hall was one of five buildings city council's built heritage committee recommended to get heritage designation. ( Émilien Juteau/Radio-Canada)

"We're going to start to see properties in our suburban areas, in our rural areas and those that may not be intuitive, always, in terms of their architectural style: maybe brutalist, maybe modernist, maybe mid-century modern," he said.

"Ones that may be a bit of a head-scratcher for some folks, but I think that will be interesting once folks hear about the history, the architectural style or the cultural significance," Curry added.

Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Rawlson King, chair of the built heritage committee, said the pace could get even faster as the city looks to designate dozens of buildings at once, instead of pitching them one at a time.

"Council will ultimately look at thematic reports," King said. "So you will see a wide number of properties being potentially brought up for designation within one specific report, and those themes might be by architecture, by neighbourhood."

The rush to designate isn't pleasing everyone. Heritage protection limits what owners can do to alter or demolish their properties.

Unfortunately, with the timelines that we have, we are moving faster, and in some cases we are not able to always achieve that consensus.- Court Curry, city's manager of right of way, heritage and urban design services

Lawyer Michael Polowin was at committee on Tuesday to ask for a one-month delay on designating one building, the W.C. Edwards and Company building on City Centre Avenue.

Committee members voted against him. Polowin suspects they are "certainly feeling the pressure from the timelines," and worries the city isn't properly selecting properties for designation.

Curry said all designation projects are "thoroughly researched." But he acknowledged that consultation with property owners has fallen through under the tight provincial timeline.

In previous years, his team could spend up to a year looking to get owners on board, but not now.

"Unfortunately, with the timelines that we have, we are moving faster, and in some cases we are not able to always achieve that consensus," he said. "But that's just the nature of the clock that is ticking."