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By Altus Group | November 13, 2017

Earlier this year I was asked to take part in a heritage forum in St. John’s, organized by the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland & Labrador. The idea of the forum was to bring together City officials, heritage advocates, architects, appraisers and property developers in order to talk about how planning and heritage policies and by-laws affect the risk and profitability associated with historic building re-purposing projects; the purpose being to consider how changes should take place to ensure the viability of re-purposing heritage structures into the future.

The process of taking a historic building which has reached the end of its economic life (and which invariably has suffered much physical and functional depreciation), converting it to a new viable use, meeting all building code and provincial/municipal regulations whilst at the same time retaining key heritage features, is quite a daunting task both for developers, owner-occupiers and non-profits alike.

Not all developers want to take the risk involved in such heritage building conversions. It is a safer bet to build new – fewer design limitations, modern materials throughout, easier budgeting and easier to meet construction schedules. The key elements for a successful heritage building refurbishment and re-purpose project include some time-honoured factors:

  • Location: Many classic heritage buildings occupied prominent locations, which are still prominent and sought-after for living and as places of work.
  • End-User Demand: The heritage architecture and design is usually attractive and creates interest and a feeling of permanence. A good quality conversion and refurbishment will draw demand.
  • Architectural Detail: There is a limited supply of heritage buildings, especially ones with good architectural detail and built of quality materials that would be cost-prohibitive in new buildings.
  • Heritage Look: Even historic buildings that are built of more basic materials can have a design that represents a period in history, enhances a sense of community and attracts interest.

In preparing my paper for the forum, I was asked to consider the future of re-purposing heritage structures, specifically in the St. John’s context. To do this, I began by looking at the past and present. My research led me to the following observations:

  • Changing economic conditions have not had a large effect on heritage re-purposing projects. Some important projects such as the Murray Premises office/retail conversion, Chapel Hill condos, The Spencarian apartments and Yellow Belly Brewery took place in soft markets. Good market conditions are obviously a benefit, but are not crucial.
  • The most important factor has been simply the availability of a suitable heritage building hitting the market. If the location and building shape and structure were good, a developer stepped up to the plate.
  • There has been no predominant end-user. There has been a good mix of projects for residential condo/rental, restaurant, office, retail and hotel.
  • Not all buildings with historic significance have been suitable for re-purposing. Factors such as location, size, layout and poor physical condition have made refurbishment unfeasible resulting in the demolition of two old hospitals, a Salvation Army hostel and several houses.
  • Heritage buildings left unoccupied for long periods of time are susceptible to arson and to “demolition through neglect”.
  • Grants and other incentives provided by various levels of government are becoming increasingly ineffective.
  • The majority of heritage buildings with good conversion prospects have already been successfully re-purposed. The future may not be as rosy for remaining heritage conversion as in the past.
  • Religious buildings, especially churches, are treasured features of downtown areas and older neighbourhoods, but in many cases the prospect for adaptive re-use looks bleak taking into consideration high ongoing maintenance / capex costs, lack of conversion possibilities and the speed with which religious groups can adapt to change.

I am hoping that the Heritage Foundation forum will act as the start of a process whereby provincial and municipal governments gain a better understanding of what drives heritage conservation and then make changes that encourage preservation in the years to come.

In my opinion, a multi-pronged holistic approach is needed, one that makes zoning flexible enough to make heritage conservation feasible, sets rules for restoration of heritage structures that restrain knee-jerk political interference in the planning process, recognizes that not all heritage structures can be saved, and one that provides meaningful grants or other types of bridge incentives to make non-viable projects viable.

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