By Brent Bellamy, Creative Director and Architect
Republished with permission courtesy of the Winnipeg Free Press.
"Building owner opposes heritage designation" has become a regular headline in Winnipeg over the past few years. One by one, buildings are being nominated for designation — the Bay, the Manitoba Club, the University of Manitoba — and, one by one, owners are trying to fight it.
Image: Brent Bellamy
This streetscape in Winnipeg’s Exchange District presents a pretty winter picture, but it also illustrates the value of preserving and protecting heritage buildings.
The genesis of these battles dates back to 2014, when the city passed the historic resources by-law. This transformed heritage designation in Winnipeg from an ambiguous three-tiered grading system to a model in which the specific character-defining elements that are felt to establish the heritage value of individual historic buildings are identified and listed for protection.
For most buildings, key facades are protected, along with important internal elements such as ornate staircases, lobbies or ceiling treatments. Building owners often feel that this will limit development potential, but the system is not intended to freeze a building in time. Once these elements are identified, significant flexibility remains for a building to change and evolve.
Over the past 10 years, more than 30 buildings in Winnipeg’s Exchange District have been significantly altered and given new use while under heritage designation. The latest and most dramatic development is the James Avenue Pumping Station. After sitting empty since 1986, facing demolition several times, the handsome structure with its elegant double-gable roofline has been reborn as a spectacular modern office space, hovering over century-old industrial machinery.
Opposition to heritage designation is often rooted in the North American attitude towards the sanctity of private property — I own it, so I should be able to do what I want with it. The reality is, however, that all buildings face restrictions protecting the interests of the greater community. We have zoning requirements, neighbourhood plans, permit applications, building-code regulations, design review panels and guidelines.
Even without heritage protection, no downtown building can be demolished without an approved design for a new structure to replace it. All these rules set the parameters for development and ensure the collective assets of the city are preserved and enhanced through time. Heritage assets are no different.
The protection of a city’s built heritage is important to its economic development. Historic buildings and districts are the catalysts of urban renewal in city centres across North America. We are naturally attracted to the scale, texture and visual character of old buildings, making them targets for investment. The desirable character of Winnipeg’s Exchange District, as an example, has made it the focus of development in downtown for many years, growing the population from 250 at the turn of this century to almost 3,000 today.
Heritage designation did not hinder this growth, but instead helped to promote it, by protecting investments made by developers and condominium buyers. The value of a property often comes from being part of an historic area or streetscape, or even simple proximity to an important heritage building.
This value relies on maintaining the integrity of the collective, which could be lost through demolition. With a system of protection that identifies the character-defining elements of neighbouring buildings, heritage value becomes a more secure asset for each owner, protecting investment and promoting growth.
A common reason for opposing heritage designation is the perception that, with new restrictions, the resale market will be limited and, in turn, the value of a designated property will be decreased.
The impact of heritage designation on property values is a well-researched economic indicator. The largest study of its kind, titled Heritage Designation and Property Values, was done at the University of Waterloo and appeared in the International Journal of Heritage Studies. The research looked at almost 3,000 properties in 24 Ontario communities, identifying actual selling prices of designated heritage buildings and comparing them with local market trends.
The study concluded that the value of approximately 60 per cent of all heritage-designated properties grew at a rate that was considered better than the average increase, with another 15 per cent comparable to the average. A clear conclusion was reached, showing that heritage designation had no significant negative impact on property value, and a strong correlation was often discovered between heritage designation and an increase in desirability and value.
The study also found that the attraction to designated properties made them more economically resilient, generally resisting downturns in the real-estate market. Almost 50 per cent of the buildings studied increased in value during slower economic times, with another 30 per cent performing no worse than the average.
Robust market demand for designated properties was consistently demonstrated in almost every community studied, and property values within heritage-designated districts were almost always found to be higher than in adjacent areas.
The conclusions in this study are supported by research done across North America, the U.K. and Australia. In 2014, the Oak Bay Heritage Foundation on Vancouver Island compiled literature from more than 20 studies, showing that properties with heritage designation often experience increased rates of sale and assessed property value.
These findings demonstrate that owners of historic buildings in Winnipeg should not fear heritage designation. There is a significant body of evidence to suggest that identifying a building as having special cultural status does not decrease its worth and, when combined with proper upkeep and maintenance, it often makes the property more desirable in the real-estate market.
Winnipeg is fortunate to have so many heritage buildings. When we ensure that they will be protected, current building owners profit. The city as a whole profits as well, as they can be leveraged as a collective asset to drive tourism, investment and growth, not only downtown, but in our city’s many historic neighbourhoods.
Brent Bellamy is chairman of CentreVenture’s board and the creative director at Number Ten Architectural Group.