Heritage Conservation Districts in jeopardy

François Bregha

“The cultural heritage value of Ottawa’s heritage conservation districts is being routinely compromised and eroded.” So starts a report written by Julian Smith, an internationally known heritage architect and scholar, that was released earlier this fall.

Sponsored by seven community associations (including Action Sandy Hill) and Heritage Ottawa, the report argues that the problem is not the lack of government policies and regulations, but rather their faulty application. It notes that, in Ottawa, too often City staff and Council do not base their recommendations on the conservation of identified heritage attributes but rather on meeting the desires of developers. Among the problems Smith identifies are: mandatory cultural heritage impact statements on which decisions are based are paid for by developers, an exaggerated emphasis on “expert” opinion over the views of local residents, a reluctance by the City’s heritage staff to challenge their planning colleagues, and ineffective site inspections once plans are approved. The result is a gradual loss of the character that makes our heritage districts unique as they become replaced by generic urban forms.

Sandy Hill has eight heritage conservation districts so these problems strike at the very core of our identity and the values we want to preserve as a community. We all know of examples of official neglect or ineffective policies leading to the irreversible loss of built heritage.

Smith recommends a significant change in culture, attitudes and practices to correct the situation. He makes seven recommendations, including giving a formal role in the development approval process to the heritage committees of community associations.

The report has been distributed to members of Council, and the community associations involved will seek to meet the new members of the Built Heritage sub-committee early in the new year. We owe a debt of thanks to the Heritage Committee of the Rockcliffe Park Residents Association for spearheading this effort.