Downtown is the heart of our city. It’s a mix of history and progress. It’s a destination and a bustling hub of business.
As our City deals with an influx of growth, it’s important that we plan for what we want our city to look like in the future. The City recently adopted a new Official Plan. Now, the City is looking into creating a Downtown Heritage Conservation District to guide the future of what our downtown core will look and feel like.
For now, City staff are just looking for support to make sure council is on the same page in terms of doing more research on what will be involved in a heritage conservation district designation for the downtown. It’s still in the early stages, with research and consultations likely to be conducted in 2023.
What a heritage district will mean is far from decided.
All too often the historic building preservation process is triggered by applications from developers to renovate, expand, or demolish buildings. A heritage district should lay out the rules ahead of time. Taking out some of the uncertainty and risk should lead to increased investment.
A big part of the charm of doing business downtown is the historic architecture. It’s not something that can be replicated in other areas. It’s also not something that can be replaced when it’s gone.
It’s hard to image the downtown without icons like Market Hall, the Hunter Street Café District, and The Commerce Building at the corner of Water and Hunter streets. There’s something quaint about shopping and dining at a literal bricks and mortar building. There’s no question this atmosphere is an important cultural element for the community and local businesses.
A heritage district shouldn’t mean nothing changes. We’ve seen some amazing redevelopments of historic anchor buildings like the Y Lofts (former YMCA) and Venture North (former Promenade building) as well as up-scale offices like Lett Architects, Outpost 379, and Unicity. With the right vision and ambition, development of historic buildings can enhance our community.
The plan should also lay out the rules for what it takes for a new building to fit into the downtown vibe. Not every building downtown needs to be preserved as it currently sits. Ideally, the district will lay out the design elements ahead of time so developers know what they can build. Many are eagerly awaiting the replacement of the eyesore at 385 George Street North with a new building that will host local businesses and create needed housing.
There are a lot of challenges when it comes to renovating old buildings, but it’s important that any plan for the downtown include modern accessibility needs in its design criteria. Many of the buildings downtown were built at a time when accessibility wasn’t a consideration. Some buildings are easier to bring up to modern standards than others, but sometimes making buildings more accessible creates conflict with preserving history.
Similarly, fire codes add additional challenges to development of historic buildings.
At a time when our community is desperate for housing, we have a significant stock of apartments downtown that are current unoccupied due to challenges in meeting all the historic, accessibility, and fire code legislation. As a Chamber, we currently have a resolution on the books of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce called Maximizing Growth in Built Areas which essentially calls for all parties to work together to find solutions to making these residential units safe, accessible, and economically feasible — making them livable again.
A plan for the downtown has to be careful not to price out current tenants through increased rents, insurance costs, and other factors. We need continued investment, but not at the expense of losing the character and charm of the current businesses downtown.
There are concerns that too many rules regarding heritage preservation will drive away investment. Hopefully the business community is actively engaged in the process of defining these rules to help minimize this impact.
Similarly, the status quo has driven away investment. Some developers are intimidated to invest downtown because the rules aren’t straight forward. They often have a fair bit of money invested before finding out the details of what they can and cannot do with their property.
It’s important that the community, developers, business owners, and building officials are all engaged as part of the process to ensure that our plan for the downtown has the intended effect of both preserving what we cherish and spurring redevelopment. Done right, a Downtown Heritage Conservation District is an opportunity to create new investment and build a stronger downtown core.