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Heritage designation: blessing or curse?

In the question period after my recent presentation to the City Planning Committee, I had a spirited exchange with Councillor Rick Chiarelli, who represents College Ward. I had referred to fears that inclusion on the Register would decrease property values as “hypothetical” (you can read my presentation here). How, he challenged me, could I consider them hypothetical when a speaker just a few minutes earlier (Robert Lee) had said that his property’s value would be reduced by $250,000 if it were included on the Register? Our conclusions, insisted Councillor Chiarelli, have to be based on research.

They do indeed. The problem is, what Mr. Lee offered was not ‘research’. It was speculation by one individual, backed not by evidence, but by the opinions of people he had spoken to. In short, it was anecdote. Anecdote tells one story, from one perspective. Research gathers a wide range of evidence, subjects it to scrutiny, analyzes it, and looks for patterns. The difference is important.

I don’t point this out in order to be dismissive of Mr. Lee’s concerns. But those who form public policy have an obligation to listen to anecdote with a critical ear, and to evaluate it in the context of proper research. Mr. Lee maintains that inclusion in a heritage register will drive down property values. The assumption is that, as surely as dancing leads to you-know-what, the Register leads to heritage designation, and designation leads to real-estate pauperdom. The former is demonstrably false; the number of buildings on the Register (and its predecessor) that have taken the next step to heritage designation in the past five years is precisely zero. During that same period, twelve listed buildings have been demolished.

But when buildings do acquire designation, what happens to their market value? Fortunately, we have some research that gives us hard data. In The International Journal of Heritage Studies (Volume 6 Number 1, 2000), Professor Robert Shipley of the University of Waterloo’s School of Planning published an article called “Heritage Designation and Property Values: Is there an Effect?” In this study, Shipley investigated almost three thousand properties in twenty-four Ontario communities in order to determine whether or not heritage designation had an impact on property values. His conclusion:

It was found that heritage designation could not be shown to have a negative impact. In fact there appears to be a distinct and generally robust market in designated heritage properties. They generally perform well in the market with 74% doing average or better than average. The rate of sale among designated properties is as good or better than the ambient market trends and the values of heritage properties tend to be resistant to down-turns in the general market.

That is what research – not anecdote, not opinion, not fear-mongering, but rigorous, peer-reviewed academic research – tells us.

Councillor Chiarelli is right about one thing. We need to base our positions and our policies on research. The problem is, he is ignoring research that discredits his position on the Heritage Register, and taking refuge in anecdote instead. I think the current term for that is ‘alternative facts’.

All this raises an intriguing question. If my house fails to meet the standard required for listing on the Register, but I believe that being listed will increase my property value, will the Planning Committee bow to my demand to be added to the Register simply because I reckon that exclusion decreases my property value? Logically, after the motion they passed last week, they may have no choice.

Peter Coffman