What counts as a heritage building — and how can one be protected?

As Hamilton grows, residents and politicians are questioning how to balance historical preservation with new development
By Justin Chandler - Published on Mar 29, 2021
Old Town Hall in Ancaster was built in 1870. (Justin Chandler)

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HAMILTON — When Bob Maton answered the phone one morning in early April 2020, he was in for a surprise. “Have you seen what's happening on the corner of Rousseaux Street and Wilson Street East? They're bringing down the Brandon House. What's going on?” the concerned caller asked. Maton had no idea. So he rushed over to the historic 19th-century property. “By the time I got around, the building was half down,” he says. “There were only the walls still standing.”

Maton, who’s lived in Ancaster for more than 20 years and leads the Ancaster Village Heritage Community, calls the demolition — which was approved by the City of Hamilton and not opposed by the city’s heritage committee — unfortunate. While the building was on the city’s heritage-inventory list, it had not officially been designated as a historical structure. “The Brandon House, which was built around 1860, was really a sentinel,” he explains. “It was the point of entry to Ancaster for people coming from Hamilton and Dundas; it was the prominent building you first saw.” (Ancaster and Dundas are former towns that amalgamated with Hamilton in 2001.)

old stone house
Brandon House, a 19th-century property, was demolished in 2020. (Courtesy of Shannon Kyles)

Hamilton’s population of around 580,000 is set to grow to about 820,000 by 2051. To accommodate that growth, the city’s leadership is looking to densification and urban expansion — raising issues about how to balance historical preservation with new development.

In Ontario, the Heritage Act gives municipalities and the province the powers to preserve heritage properties and archeological sites. One application of the act is the use of municipal-heritage registers that publicly identify heritage properties. Buildings listed on the register are afforded some protections from development: 60-day notice must be given to city council, for example, before the demolition or removal of the building in question. During that time, a building’s history and value can be assessed, and a council can decide whether a heritage designation — which grants long-term protection against demolition and certain alterations — is appropriate.

Not everyone agrees on a definition of historical importance. “How many farmhouses from the 1880s do we really need to preserve?” says Maria Pearson, the Hamilton city councillor who chairs the municipal-heritage committee, noting that she’s speaking from her own perspective, not that of the committee’s.

And such definitions will necessarily change as time passes, says Michael McClelland, a founding principal at Toronto’s ERA Architects who specializes in heritage conservation and planning. The fact that “a lot of Hamilton's heritage is industrial,” he says, leads to such questions as “What is the heritage value of the Stelco plant and all these other industrial buildings?”

Further complicating matters is that not everyone who champions heritage does so for disinterested reasons. “There are examples where communities say in a very NIMBY voice, ‘No, don't do this development. Keep the old house that's there,’” says McClelland. “And the old house isn't really of any consequence to them. They just think it's less impactful than new development.”

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But, he says, it’s in Hamilton’s best interest both to have more density and to protect heritage buildings: “Significant, interesting heritage buildings and cool streetscapes are part of the attraction of the place — they’re why people like living in Hamilton.”

Being pro-conservation does not mean being anti-development, notes Shannon Kyles, the president of the Hamilton chapter of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario. “Yes, there's going to be development, and development could be a very good thing for a lot of people,” she says. “We have no interest in stopping development. But if there are things worth saving, let's identify them and then save them.”

Will Coukell, chief operating officer of the ACO, agrees that it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation — and says that existing structures can be adapted for new purposes. In a recent ACO presentation, he stated that investments in heritage buildings trigger more economic growth and jobs than do new builds, while also creating affordable housing and conserving resources. “When you walk down the street, the way the streetscape itself speaks to you about a neighbourhood is quite important,” he says. “I think we're losing that in Ontario, particularly in Toronto, and particularly in some of the midsize cities.”

sketch showing historical streetscape
View of James Street, looking south, c. 1870-1890. (Courtesy of Shannon Kyles)

Coukell and Kyles worry, though, that even if municipalities are able to navigate all these complicated factors, things can go awry when the province gets involved. Amendments to the Heritage Act, Coukell notes, have made it easier for property owners to appeal heritage designations, as they can take a council decision to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal. Kyles says that minister’s zoning orders, through which the province can override local planning decisions, are another worry. They’ve been used on heritage properties in Toronto and Hamilton, raising the ire of local heritage advocates.

A spokesperson for the Office of the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing tells TVO.org via email that MZOs are a “critical part of our government’s plan to get shovels in the ground faster on priority projects, including affordable housing and long-term care beds.”

Dakota Brasier, press secretary for the Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries Lisa MacLeod says in a statement that “the Ontario Heritage Act gives primary responsibility to municipalities for identifying and protecting heritage properties that are important in their communities. Municipalities use their powers under the Ontario Heritage Act while approving and encouraging appropriate development. In the large majority of cases municipalities and development proponents work together to achieve a balance of local interests.”

a group of about 20 people standing outside
A group of about 20 volunteers surveyed pre-1867 buildings in Ancaster to update Hamilton’s heritage inventory. (Laurie Brady)

For Maton, the demolition of Brandon House was a tipping point: it inspired him and a group of about 20 volunteers to survey pre-1867 buildings in Ancaster to update Hamilton’s heritage inventory. Over the past year, in collaboration with the city, they identified 105 buildings. About 50 have been put on the city’s heritage-inventory list; eight are set for heritage-designation recommendations. Maton hopes to survey buildings built between 1867 and 1900 this summer. “In Ancaster, we have lost a lot of heritage buildings,” he says. “And I think there's a kind of rising up of people who are really concerned about that and would like to preserve what still exists.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Will Coukell’s position with the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario. TVO.org regrets the error.

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