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Does the past have a future in Ottawa?

Early last year, the City of Ottawa began what’s known as the Heritage Inventory Project. The idea was to enable better management of Ottawa’s heritage resources by compiling a list of every building in the city (or as close to it as possible) that could be deemed to have heritage value. Those that do are added to what’s known as the Heritage Register, the goal of which (according to the City’s website) is to “provide the public, developers, City staff, elected officials, and other stakeholders with a clear understanding of heritage assets within our city.”

This is the best news that Ottawa’s heritage community has had in years. Being listed on the Register doesn’t carry anything like the weight of what’s known as ‘Heritage Designation’ (a separate and more rigorous process), but the Register will provide a baseline for assessing heritage value and a database of buildings which may fit the criteria. The only tangible impact on property owners is that if they decide to demolish a building that’s on the register, they must give the City 60 days notice.

This is such a good idea that a group of prominent architects and heritage authorities in Toronto cited Ottawa’s project in a piece in the Toronto Star last spring as an example of how heritage preservation ought to be done. It’s much better, they argued, than ad hoc attempts to save valuable but undocumented buildings – a process that almost never succeeds.

So, even the Centre of the Universe has looked at Ottawa and acknowledged that we are streets ahead of them in this regard. And what has Ottawa’s reaction been? Judging from this past week’s meeting of the City Planning Committee, it’s to run backwards as fast it it can.

At their August 22 meeting, some members of the Planning Committee were clearly hostile to the register, with Committee Chair Jan Harder suggesting that heritage staff looked like they might be “empire building”. Really? What kind of “empire” does Councillor Harder think can be built with a list of heritage buildings?

One of the property owners who came to request removal from the Register was Carleton University, whose representative apparently expressed incomprehension at the notion of Paterson Hall, Dunton Tower, and the School of Architecture’s being added to a heritage register. This is more than a little ironic, since my colleague Michael Windover composed a letter to members of the Campus Master Plan Steering Committee in April of 2016, urging them to stop ignoring heritage considerations in developing their long-term vision for the university. That letter, which singled out Paterson Hall as a valuable but seriously threatened piece of built heritage, was signed by twenty-eight full-time faculty members from the History and Theory of Architecture, Art History, History, Canadian and Indigenous Studies and the School of Architecture. It also received a motion of support from the History Department.

So why are some property owners and some councillors running in horror from the idea of a heritage register? The fear seems to be that the sixty-day notice required before demolition of a registered building might buy the City enough time to get the building designated, which would throw a serious wrench into the plans to demolish. But is this not the point? If a building is deemed to be worthy of full heritage designation, and is threatened with demolition, we are supposed to have a mechanism that will enable us to save it – and such a mechanism requires a bit of time.

So for whom is a heritage register bad news? That’s easy: it’s bad news for anyone who wants to ensure that heritage considerations never, ever have any impact on planning decisions. If they win this battle, then the past has no future in Ottawa.

Peter Coffman