Flemming: Ottawa needs more robust rules to preserve its heritage buildings

Partial demolition was required to stabilize Magee House after its west wall collapsed days earlier. Photo: Wayne Cuddington/Postmedia

Saturday, August 4, 2018

OTTAWA CITIZEN, By David B. Flemming

The recent partial collapse of the late 19th-century Magee House – a heritage designated building on Wellington Street West – raises the question of how effective the city’s effort to combat “demolition by neglect” has been.

Demolition by neglect can be defined as the inadvertent or premeditated neglect of properties, leading to their being so degraded that unless repaired to at least meet minimum property standards, they become subject to a demolition order by the Chief Building Official or Fire Marshall. This malaise is especially threatening to the city’s stock of more than 340 individual properties and an estimated 3,200 properties in 19 Heritage Conservation Districts designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.

In 2007, Heritage Ottawa recommended action by city officials to address those heritage buildings that appeared to be deteriorating due to neglect. Our proposal was to establish an emergency heritage preservation protocol which would establish fast response and cooperation between the responsible municipal departments so that compliance orders could be issued in a timely manner.

We also urged that city officials develop a mechanism and the necessary funding to review minimum maintenance standards for heritage buildings and have them incorporated them into a special bylaw, so that deterioration could be monitored more closely and in a timely matter.

These changes would include the ability of the city to prepare emergency studies, work to protect and stabilize a property if the owner failed to comply and to charge back the cost of these interventions to the taxes due on the property.

We also suggested changes to the taxation regulations which would not “reward’’ owners of buildings left vacant by reducing their taxes, but would instead offer tax incentives which would encourage owners to invest in their historic properties.

In late 2013, city council developed a strategy to address the monitoring and enforcement of property standards for vacant heritage buildings with a special Property Standards for Heritage Properties Bylaw. There are currently 24 buildings on the city’s watch list.

The establishment of the Mayor’s Heritage Matters Task Force in 2016 enabled all parties concerned to provide a regular review of properties at risk and to issue work orders when properties were no longer meeting minimum standards of repair.

Despite these changes and the issuance of numerous work orders, heritage buildings are still suffering from demolition by neglect, as we can see by recent events at Magee House and the ongoing deterioration of the Bradley-Craig barn on Hazeldean Road and what is left of Somerset House on Bank Street and the former Our Lady School in Lowertown.

Progress has been made, but there is still much to do. The destruction at Magee House shows that authorized exterior inspections must be more diligent and interior inspections be initiated when necessary.

When an owner is unwilling or unable to abide by the city’s work orders, the city should have the legal ability to do the work and charge the cost back as a lien on the property.

Increasing funding for the over-subscribed Heritage Grant Program for Building Restoration is also necessary. The current yearly budget of $150,000 for matching maximum grants of $5,000 per property (at the same limit for nearly 20 years) only provides funding for less than  one per cent (30) of the city’s eligible properties.

Implementing a heritage property tax relief program – which has been allowed under the Ontario Municipal Act since 2001 and used successfully by many other municipalities – provides an important tax incentive for owners to invest in their heritage properties. The federal and provincial governments should also be encouraged to reinstate financial support programs for heritage properties.

Enhanced monitoring of heritage properties and financial incentives are already being explored under the auspices of the Mayor’s Heritage Matters Task Force. Any recommendations would be subject to “political’’ approval by the mayor and council. It is up to the voters to join with Heritage Ottawa in encouraging candidates in the upcoming municipal election to support these important initiatives in preserving our built heritage.


David B. Flemming is a former president of Heritage Ottawa and its representative on the Mayor`s Heritage Matters Task Force.