Heritage Planning in St. John’s

Victoria Street Streetscape

St. John’s unique architectural vernacular is something that must be seen in person to be truly appreciated. No other large Canadian city has the degree or extent of revitalized heritage buildings that central St. John’s has, and the fact that the City of St. John’s fostered huge improvements to its built heritage beginning in a time when the province was at its economic nadir is a testament to the city’s innovative methods of heritage planning.

St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland, home to just under 200,000 people, was one of the first Canadian cities to enact heritage planning legislation. In the 1970s, the city’s downtown core was in a highly deteriorated condition. Buildings were underused, clad in makeshift materials, and seen as a liability for people who wished to develop anew.

Despite the poor economics of the time, the city was not immune to large-scale commercial development: in the late 1960s, the twelve-storey Royal Trust Building took down a stand of traditional buildings on Water Street, and in the early 70s, the similarly-styled Atlantic Place cleared three blocks of St. John’s downtown building stock.

Following the changing values of the era — heritage issues were beginning to appear on the national radar, and Heritage Canada was founded in 1973 — the city issued a study into the creation of a heritage by-law. This by-law was approved in 1977, creating the first major heritage district in the nation and enabling the Heritage Advisory Committee, who still today act as intermediaries to council.

The city also lifted disincentives to homeowners who wished to renovate their older downtown properties and worked with new local heritage foundations to establish design guidelines that would restore the unique architectural character that the city accumulated in the years following the devastating fire of 1892.


An unconventional Queen Anne-style building on Gower Street

Homeowners and businesses alike quickly latched on to the city’s policies and enthusiastically began renovating their residences. The lively colour palette that is typical of traditional Newfoundland homes (colloquially said to be the result of leftover paint for fishing boats) has been restored to the streets of St. John’s and immediately strikes visitors to the city.

Today, St. John’s has one of the most vibrant downtowns of any Canadian city of its size. The Heritage Area has grown to an immense 670 acres, encompassing 6,000 buildings, 126 of which are municipally-designated heritage structures. Tens of millions of dollars of capital have been invested in making the downtown presentable once more, and the area is once again becoming attractive for capital investment. The city believes that the downtown’s existing heritage stock can, with the aid of appropriate infilling and adaptive reuse, house any new Class A office space demanded by new businesses.

The city is currently emphasizing the preservation of strategic streetscapes to ensure that the character of undesignated buildings can be maintained. It is working to formulate neighbourhood heritage studies for the outports of Quidi Vidi Village and the Battery. It is also seeking different avenues for advertising its heritage, employing some of the city’s many talented artists to create large-scale public art displays that relate to St. John’s colourful past.

St. John’s has won many awards for its achievements in restoring and accenting its built character: in 2000, Construct Canada named the city’s turnaround one of the greatest achievements of Canadian construction during the last century. In 2002, the City of St. John’s won an award from the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) for its policy vision, The St. John’s Downtown Strategy for Economic Development and Heritage Preservation, which proclaimed that the expected inflow of new oil capital needn’t sacrifice (indeed, that it can emphasize) built heritage. Most recently, the City was awarded the 2007 Prince of Wales Prize for Municipal Heritage Leadership by the Heritage Canada Foundation.

A vintage-styled mural on Water Street

At any given time, 1.5 percent of buildings in Canada are under construction; meaning that 98.5 percent of Canadian buildings already stand. St. John’s has recognized that true value lies not in speculation of land for new development but in using the 98.5 percent of existing buildings to their fullest potential.

This, I argue, is the true basis behind appropriate heritage planning. By designating the vast majority of the central city as a Heritage Area, the City is not trying to turn itself into a time capsule of the pre-Confederation days to appeal to tourists, but rather to maintain a character that has been crucial to the city’s development and vibrancy for generations. The fact that this character is appealing both to capital investment and to tourists is a positive side-effect of sensible heritage planning.

This entry was written by Ken Gildner , posted on Saturday October 13 2007at 10:10 am , filed under Canada, Heritage and Preservation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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