Ottawa City Hall, where decisions that affect our heritage are made.

I addressed the City’s Planning Committee today (Tuesday), as it met to vote on additions to the Heritage Register recommended last month by City staff. I blogged about their last meeting a couple of weeks ago, and given the apparently feeble level of support for the Register on Council, decided to speak directly to the Planning Committee about why the Heritage Register is a positive thing.

Here, cobbled together from my notes and my recollection of what actually came out of my mouth, is my presentation:

Like several others who have addressed you, I am a homeowner with a mortgage. So I understand the desire to maximize property values. I am also an architectural historian; I teach in Carleton University’s History & Theory of Architecture program, and I’m a Past President of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada. So I also understand the desire to protect our built heritage.

First and foremost, I want to make the point that from my perspectives, contrary to much of what has been said in the media, the Heritage Register is a good news story. It is nothing more or less than a collection of facts compiled for future use. Having these facts available is just sound management of our heritage resources. We should not recoil in horror at the gathering of facts – the compilation of facts is not a subversive activity. Having a thorough Heritage Register means that if a potentially valuable building were threatened with demolition in the future, there would be a file on it. The city could then consult that file and decide, after due process as mandated by the Ontario Heritage Act, whether or not it meets the standard for heritage designation and protection. And that decision would be based on facts, gathered objectively and dispassionately, before there was a gun at anybody’s head. That’s how good decisions are made.

I know that some see the Register as bad news, because they fear it will reduce their property values. That is highly hypothetical – since most people who buy houses plan to live in them rather than demolish them, it’s just as easy to imagine cases where it could increase property values. But in a way, both scenarios are beside the point. If I resist having my house on a Register because it may affect the value, what I’m saying is that even if my house has outstanding heritage value, I want that information suppressed, because suppressing it might be to my financial advantage. That’s how bad decisions are made: based on short-term gain rather than facts, on vested interests rather than the public good.

I also realize that to some, ownership is sacrosanct, and that no process that could ever, even hypothetically, prevent an owner from demolishing, is acceptable. But if we embrace that view – if we decide that ownership entails no social responsibility whatsoever – then we will never be able to protect any historic building. If those are the values we hold, then our built heritage doesn’t stand a chance.

Please allow the Heritage Inventory to do its job. Please allow facts and analysis to guide future decisions.

In the end, the Committee passed a motion to accept the recommendations for inclusion on the Register, excluding those whose owners had objected, which will be referred back to staff for further consultation with the owners. Not a bad outcome, but one that has some problematic implications that I’ll explore in my next blog.

Peter Coffman