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Niagara Falls
Friday, March 31, 2023
Arch-i-text: Change the road forward and adopt design guidelines
Brian Marshall

In the Oct. 13 edition of this newspaper, Evan Loree reported on an action taken by town council to have staff “assess the old Cobbler’s House” at 329 Victoria St. for “historical significance” and report back to council as soon as possible. 

This action was motivated by the real estate listing for the property, which suggested the house might be a candidate for demolition to make way for a “dream home.”

The property was listed for sale, with the dream home suggestion, on Aug. 20, 2022, and came to the attention of council the following week.

But, given the date the assessment direction was issued, it must have been clearly understood by council that, even should a staff report and municipal heritage committee recommendation be completed in record time, no action would be taken until after the new council was sworn in.

And, should that report and recommendation suggest the house was of historic significance, council’s only option would be to initiate the process of forced designation on the property.

And what is “forced designation”?

In short, it is a unilateral undertaking by the town to have a building or property (or both) designated under the Ontario Heritage Act in order to provide local municipal authority significantly greater controls and oversight on what, if anything, can be done to and/or with the property.

In action, this undertaking (if successful) severely curtails the rights of current and future owners of the property in terms of changing or altering the building(s) and/or landscape as it existed when a designation is granted.

Rather draconian … don’t you think?

Still, and despite my firmly held belief that the rights of property owners should not be arbitrarily curtailed, there are rare occasions when this dire undertaking should and must be used.

When a demonstrably threatened building and/or property that has significant ties to the warp and weave of the history of a community or is of national significance is in question, then this method of last resort should be actioned.

For example, based on my research, the house at 240 Centre St. represents the oldest surviving unaltered two-storey cubic-form Regency build in Canada and, when the Ure estate offered it on the open market, the town was fully justified to action forced designation to ensure its survival.

However, should we compare and contrast this against the forced designation of the Ontario Gothic Cottage at 27 Prideaux?

It is a common form, both locally and provincewide, that had been subject to at least five intensive renovations that had no significant identifiable social ties to any NOTL community history. So one wonders why the town would underwrite the associated upfront costs and ongoing litigation expenses of such an action.

The is particularly questionable when this undertaking was largely based on a conceptually imagined aesthetic streetscape opinion by the serving municipal heritage committee and council.

The first undertaking on 240 Centre, I might sugges,t is completely understandable, while the past and current drain on the town’s finances inflicted by litigation associated with the second, at 27 Prideaux, must remain in question.

That brings us back to 329 Victoria which, like 27 Prideaux, has a historically added front dormer to present as common Ontario Gothic Cottage with a low or undetermined relationship to the historic milieu of the town.

Further, this property both sold and closed during the month of October so it is on to a new owner who may or may not be amenable to designating the property. If the latter is the case, the town once again faces the potential expense of litigation.

While I believe it important to save our shared built heritage, it is becoming ever increasingly clear that this is not possible (or practical) working within the existing procedural framework and wielding forced designation as the method.

It is long past time to change the methodology by which development in Niagara-on-the-Lake is managed.

It is vital that our new council move without delay to direct the generation of a comprehensive set of design guidelines that will preserve the character of the town’s streetscapes.

Such guidelines could and should include proscriptive direction relative to the treatment of existing historic facades on buildings that are not heritage designated.    

It seems only fair that folks should know what to expect prior to making a real estate investment. No?

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