1. If a building is designated as a Municipal Historic Resource, it is protected forever, unless there is an exceptional circumstance.
Municipal Historic Resource designation does prohibit demolition of the resource and requires that it be maintained in a fair condition. The only exception is if City Council repeals the protective Bylaw or if the building is completely destroyed by fire or other disaster.
2. Historic designation normally increases property value.
Studies nationally and internationally have shown that historic designation and the creation of historic districts actually increases property values. The status gives the individual building or neighbourhood a cachet that sets it apart from ordinary properties. Many buyers actually seek out the unique qualities and ambience of a historic property, with Westmount or Whyte Avenue exemplifying this case.
Historic designation gives potential purchasers two rare and economically valuable assurances; that the very qualities that attracted them to the building/neighbourhood will actually endure over time, and that they can safely reinvest in sensitive improvements to their building without fear that their building will be destroyed in the future or in historic areas that neighbouring properties will not be inappropriately developed therefore undermining their investment.
3. You can still make some changes to a historical building so it doesn’t have to be like a stagnant museum artifact
While the resource may not be demolished, it can be added to or altered if done without undermining its heritage value by respecting its character defining elements. The Preservation Bylaw is put in place in essence to manage change, and these are guided by the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada.
The Standards do not require that every element of a historic site remain intact, and modern adaptations can easily be accommodated. After all, no one expects people to retain and use outdoor bathrooms or older kitchen facilities, or single glazed windows if the windows are beyond repair.
New additions are allowed but should be contextually appropriate with the site's historic architecture. The bylaw identifies "character-defining elements" that should be retained and included in any changes. The priority naturally is to keep original elements and favour their restoration rather than replacement. Where replacement of any character defining elements needs to occur, replication is desired.
4. Preservation is for high style buildings, simpler structures, and everything in between.
Historic preservation is not just about house museums anymore. The Edmonton Register of Historic Resources includes a broad cross section of Edmonton’s built heritage ranging from the McLeod Building to a simple farm house in the rural NE of Edmonton.
Preservation focuses not just on grandiose architecture, but also more modest sites of social and cultural significance. Efforts are underway to protect some of the early modest farm houses and rural Agricultural barns, which were a crucial part of the settlement pattern of the prairies and lands around Edmonton. Many of the builder or catalogue design homes in Westmount, for example, were typical of the time, with no significant architect association, but are equally important to the City’s rapid growth prior to WWI.
5. Historic Preservation is good for business.
Historic Preservation is fundamental to many of our nation’s most vibrant economic development and business attraction programs. Gastown in Vancouver, the Forks in Winnipeg, the Historic Waterfront in Halifax or Old Montreal, have seen explosions in growth, all of which are "heritage" related. The heritage character is valued as an "edge" when competing with other areas or businesses. Many retailers and businesses desire to be located in notable buildings or heritage areas.
Whyte Avenue’s success is partially owed to the efforts of the Old Strathcona Heritage Association, which ensured that the historic character was retained and saved, and is one of the key attractions of the area. Many of the older restored heritage buildings are now fully occupied, no longer vacant as they are attractive and full of character.
Alberta Main Street, a program that uses historic preservation to revitalize main streets and town centres through out Alberta, has proven to be a very successful economic generator. The American Main Street program is also extremely successful.
6. Restoration is also more labour intensive by far, as less new material is used.
The benefit here is money stays within the local economy as materials usually are brought in, which leaks money out of the local economy. There is also the benefit of having trades develop more skills pertaining to restoration methodology, thus becoming more marketable in and around the City.
7. If I buy a historic property, there may be government money available to help repair it.
While it doesn’t necessarily cost more to renovate a historic building than to build new, some of the older properties can access government incentives that help reduce capital or maintenance costs in any project.
Buildings on the City’s Inventory are eligible for Municipal grants and other incentives, and those who choose to designate can also access Provincial funding for initial restoration or ongoing maintenance.
8. Old buildings may need retrofits to enhance safety.
Although old buildings do sometimes require structural retrofits or the addition of fire sprinklers and other equipment to enhance their safety, many are still perfectly structurally sound and were built well to begin with. It is not age, but the quality of construction that matters: many older buildings are of significantly better construction than some more contemporary ones.
Building codes obviously cause concern, and naturally owners are always encouraged to meet code where possible. Where some cannot be done, this does not make the building unsafe as some design features such as open staircases, slightly lower handrails, etc. are "grandfathered" in.
9. Historic buildings, no different than all types of properties, have development restrictions.
Preservation regulations and laws do not infringe on property rights more than many other development laws and regulations that have been generally accepted for ages. Though most people like to think "my home is my castle, and I can do whatever I want," this is not a reality.
All development is governed by zoning and development regulations, to protect public interest and prevent inappropriate development, such as large condominium blocks in single family neighbourhoods. Many new housing estates or condo boards have architectural restrictions that are more onerous than historic preservation laws! Protecting heritage is also encouraged for the benefit of the greater good and public, so everyone in the future can experience our historic resources.
10. Preservationists fight to keep great buildings, not just anything old.
Preservationists do care about the past, to ensure that we have a way to anchor ourselves as we move forward confidently into the future. Preservation is not about preventing change or squeezing out creative and new exciting architecture and development.
Preservation allows us to retain the best of shared heritage to preserve sites of unique quality and beauty, revitalize neighbourhoods, spur economic revitalization and quite simply create better communities.
Not everything old is worth keeping, and it is always desirable that when heritage buildings are lost that the new replacement is equal or better. This has not always been the case in Edmonton and as a result the heritage program was developed to identify and save what is worth keeping and hope that today’s new development is tomorrows heritage.
Extract adapted from Ken Bernstein’s and the Los Angeles Conservancy’s top ten myths about historic preservation article