Ottawa has 20 heritage conservation districts, ranging in size from the enclave of 23 modernist houses in Briarcliffe and small parts of Sandy Hill, to Rockcliffe Park and Centretown, with 600 to 700 properties each. Community associations representing these heritage districts ask Mayor Jim Watson and members of the new city council whether they will work with us to put an end to the steady erosion of the character that defines our designated heritage communities.
This erosion is occurring despite the legal framework in Ontario that declares that “built heritage resources and cultural heritage landscapes shall be conserved.” It does not say “may” be conserved when convenient. We can and must build a future that respects the past.
Over the past few months, representatives of 16 of Ottawa’s heritage districts came together in workshops and shared their despair about the city’s failure to respect the Heritage Plans that they had worked hard with the city to put in place. These individuals are not rabble-rousers. They are not anti-development. They are deeply knowledgeable about and care about their communities and what makes them distinct. But both Ottawa’s heritage staff and its councillors have routinely ignored the expertise they bring to the discussion. Staff and councillors alike have repeatedly supported development that flies in the face of the purpose and straight-forward provisions of their Heritage Plans.
One of Canada’s leading heritage architects and planners, Julian Smith, has written a report based on the workshops. In plain, succinct language, it lays bare how serious is the threat to Ottawa’s heritage districts. It calls for fundamental changes in the culture, attitudes and practices at City Hall.
In short, city staff must see their core role, not as one of negotiating and finding ways to facilitate development applications, but as protecting and enhancing the heritage of Ottawa by supporting heritage communities and their Heritage Plans. The direct voice of Ottawa’s heritage communities, and the unique expertise they embody, must be given the principal role in interpreting their Heritage Plans and advising city council and its committees on proposed development in their heritage districts.
The Julian Smith Report – with seven concrete recommendations – has been sent to the mayor and councillors. It is available on Heritage Ottawa’s website. It is now time for focus, for determination, and for action. We look forward to working with those at City Hall to bring about changes that will preserve Ottawa’s history and rich heritage.
Liz MacKenzie represents the Lowertown Community Association; Gail McEachern represents the New Edinburgh Community Alliance. This article is submitted on behalf of those groups and the Centretown Citizens Community Association, Glebe Community Association, Rockcliffe Park Residents Association and Heritage Committee, Rothwell Heights Property Owners Association (for Briarcliffe), and Action Sandy Hill.