Note: The views expressed below are my own.
Gail R. Pool
I got involved in heritage restoration because I had retired and had the opportunity to fix up a 100-year-old house and needed information on how to do so properly. The previous owner had photos of the house and so it was a great opportunity to do it right. I was able to do the work with advice from various heritage practitioners and groups.
However, as an advocate for social justice, it seemed that there were many buildings going up near me that did not serve the working people of our city. So, while I advocated for heritage preservation, it was difficult to hear people say that heritage conservation was contrary to housing needs. So, when the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region conducted a study of social displacement, it was clear that many of the properties also involved the demolition of heritage properties. Some people have suggested that heritage preservation got in the way of affordable housing. So, the question is: does heritage conflict with our responsibility to provide housing? Does it conflict with our need to have more density in the urban area and preserve farmland?
The short answer is No. Heritage advocacy does not conflict with affordable housing. Some have said that high rise buildings provide housing. True, but for whom? When heritage is demolished for a highrise, it does not lead to any additional affordable housing. There are jurisdictions where affordability is a condition before development is approved. In many jurisdictions, a certain percentage of any new builds must be a certain percentage below market value. Fortunately, the City of Kitchener is planning on making affordability more of a reality to people on a lower income.
In reflecting on the question of heritage vs affordability, there have been a number of developments where affordable housing was lost. The lowrise heritage buildings on Mill Street housed as many as 20 households. Yet, when the developer wanted to build a 12 storey building, they did not intend to provide affordable housing until they were challenged by the neighbours and heritage advocates. The home of Jacob Baetz, an important figure in Kitchener’s history was lost. He built as many as fifty homes a year in the early part of the 20th century. He built the old Kitchener market, St Andrews Presbyterian Church, St. Matthews Presbyterian and the Victoria Public School. Although he is a member of the Regional Hall of Fame, we do not even have a street named after him. The home he build on Mill street could have been incorporated into the development but the developers refused. In fact, that development now will provide much need town houses for families who cannot afford a detached home. Even though heritage was lost, the current development is preferable to the condo units initially proposed.
There is another issue that concerns me, however. That is the idea that heritage does not mean very much to the wider community. In trying to preserve heritage, I am seen as being someone who hangs on to the past and anti modern. Many people think that heritage advocates are elites who feel that the past overrides the housing needs of today and the future. In short, heritage advocates are elitist.
When I think about it, it seems that if anybody is elitist, it is those behind the real estate investment trusts (REITS). REITS frequently demolish heritage in the name of more housing and even affordable housing but what do they really provide? Other elites buy condos and do not live in them. Rather, they rent the condos out at a cost which is profitable for them. The city has no mechanism to enforce low-cost units nor can it require a development be rentals rather than condos. The very idea of an affordable condo is a false one. The very cheapest one-bedroom unit of about 600 square feet costs $300,000 and then there are monthly condo fees and taxes that put these developments out of the reach of low-income people. I am not sure that a person on minimum wage could even afford the fees and taxes, much less the cost of the initial investment.
But let me address the question in another way. Heritage can and has in the past work hand in hand with affordable living in this city. Here are some examples.
1) The Registry Theatre on Frederick Street, originally the region’s registry office, was converted over a number of years and now is a venue for live events attractive to a wide variety of audiences that include plays, dance, folk music, jazz and community events. Prices are low for events, often at $20 per ticket. The Registry Theatre is available for children’s groups, presentations, conferences, recitals, literary readings and anything else for $350 per night. There are few venues which provide a space like the Registry Theatre for such a small amount.
2) The Victoria Public School was at risk of demolition in the 1980s. Many people were opposed to the demolition because it had quality architecture but also because they had memories of attending school. There were interventions from prominent politicians as well as mass demonstrations to oppose the demolition. It was built in 1910 and opened as a school. The City of Kitchener bought the building in 1989 and renovated it, also adding new buildings on the site to create 116 affordable rental units. Many original interior elements were retained, including the stairwells and terrazzo floors. The heritage exterior has survived largely intact, from the foundations to the original slate roofs.
3) St Mark’s Lutheran Church at 825 King Street near Grand River Hospital is an example that deserves praise for combining significant heritage architecture with affordable housing. In that case, the charity Indwell plans to work within the building’s footprint by adding several floors above the church hall to create 40 rental units. The sanctuary, a spectacular space with significant architectural value, is to be repurposed as community space, something that is not present in the immediate area. A community space at this location is much needed for local arts and cultural events, a drop-in space or anything else that residents may wish to have.
Investors can still make money and preserve heritage. Allied Properties Real Estate Investment Trust owns the Lang Tannery and has kept that building intact and have improved it. A number of tenants, including startup companies at Communitech, now occupy downtown spaces to do their innovative work. The same real estate trust owns the Google building on Breithaupt, which has a modern portion and a large older section. Allied Real Estate Investment Trust also owns the former Interior Hardwood Company factory – one of the first brick-and-beam factory conversions in downtown Kitchener factory at Victoria and Joseph. All of these buildings are on Kitchener’s municipal heritage register. These are multimillion-dollar investments and the buildings have been modified so they can be used by companies to create new technologies that create wealth for our community… and taxes for keeping our community a good place to live. In short, heritage, innovation and a dynamic economy can co-exist. It is not a choice between the past and the present and allowing a good mix will serve us well into the future.