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# Friday, 18 August 2017

Of Heaven and Sea and Earth 

Please be suitably impressed by this photo: it has all three of a church, a lighthouse and a commercial heritage building


Five years ago, the Chronicle Herald reported that some of Nova Scotia’s churches were exploring the option of deregistering their buildings’ heritage status under the provincial Heritage Property Act.  Nova Scotia’s churches are often their town’s signature property, featuring architectural details ranging from elaborate stained glass windows to ceilings built by 19th century shipwrights using the same techniques used on the hulls of wooden ships.  But cultural and demographic shifts have reduced demand for churches in the province.  Dwindling congregations mean reduced budgets unable to cope with the high costs of maintaining and operating historic properties.  Deregistration is required for demolition, the only option some congregations saw in the face of financial realities: maintenance requirements outweighed the ability to keep these architectural gems standing.  Recent years have seen other churches amalgamate congregations, keeping and maintaining a single building while selling the rest off for (hopefully sympathetic) redevelopment.

Wolfville United Church as it was

A more literal beacon facing a similar threat of extinction is the Canadian lighthouse.  Changing technologies have rendered redundant their function, if not their cultural attraction.  In May 2008, Parliament passed the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act, a bill to designate and preserve lighthouses of historic significance.  It took effect in May 2010, only to be followed in June by an announcement declaring almost all Canadian lighthouses surplus, no longer to be maintained by the Coast Guard.  Since then, community groups have become the champions of select historic lighthouses, while the rest, presumably, will suffer the same fate as many an unfortunate ship along our rocky coasts.  

Peggy’s Cove lighthouse, a likely survivor

The foregoing each illustrate the perils of functional obsolescence: when a building’s functionality no longer meets market demands only its cultural significance can protect it – and then only if a champion steps up, e.g. government, community group, or passionate property owner.  Urban heritage properties are particularly susceptible to rising functional obsolescence due to the high value of the land on which they sit: the financial rewards of redevelopment contrast starkly with the economic pitfalls of retaining and maintaining them. Demolition is tempting. 

This year we celebrate Canada 150.  With our history and heritage, for better or worse, on prominent display, we decided to turn our attention to the uphill battle faced by commercial heritage properties in Halifax.

Size Matters

Hemlines are the harbinger of stock prices.  Construction of the tallest skyscraper marks the dawn of recession.  Floorplates sound the death knell of heritage properties?  

Open concept office-in-waiting

Downtown heritage buildings in Atlantic Canada are at an inherent disadvantage versus modern construction because they are simply too small.  Even 30-year-old buildings are feeling the strain imposed by their new, more spacious contemporaries, whose design is able to accommodate demand for open concept offices.  In Halifax, total demand has yet to catch up with new supply. Rental rates are restricted and tenants can afford to move into the new buildings, leaving the last generation of Class A office space struggling to stay relevant – and occupied.  The trend is toward larger floorplates as companies are opting for large, open concept offices with collaborative workspaces and few individual offices.  Downtown Halifax doesn’t have a supply of unused historic warehouses with high ceilings and large floorplates ripe for conversion well suited to modern tastes. Instead, our heritage properties are mainly small buildings, 3-6 storeys high and with floor plates between 1,000 and 6,000 square feet (typically at the lower end of this range). 

Halifax has a few examples of what can be done to overcome this drawback.  Barrington Espace and the RBC Waterside Centre both maintained the façades of a number of adjacent heritage properties while completely overhauling their innards, joining the buildings within to allow for larger floorplates (Saint John’s CentreBeam Place is another example of where this technique was used successfully).  If done carefully, this can present a best of both worlds compromise.  If not, the result may be the Disneyfication of heritage: it looks about right, but there’s no soul.  Either way, it is not an option for detached heritage properties: they are left to find occupants happy with the original floorplates size.

Barrington Espace, RBC Waterside Centre, CentreBeam Place…thanks, Google Street View!

Finding a Fit

Heritage properties need a certain tenant.  The predominant competitor of the heritage office building is the home office: to attract a tenant away from this “free” space, a historic building must provide cachet and interest, and must find a tenant who wants (or needs) both as marketing tools for their business.  Heritage tenants are drawn from a pool of largely creative firms represented by public relations and marketing firms, IT companies, and (interestingly) employment recruiting agencies.  Often, these firms are start-ups; there is a symbiotic relationship between the two, with the heritage property providing an inspiring ambiance (and maybe cheap rent: see below), and the company providing income and life to the building.  What the heritage property has more trouble providing is a flexible workspace that can grow with the company.  When they become too large for their space, they must seek a larger floorplate in a more modern building.  There is a happy medium: mid-sized companies who could occupy an entire heritage property as a single tenant.  But in Atlantic Canada, most companies are either large or small, a by-product of provincial regulatory demands which force companies to “get large or go under” (Atlantic Canada is made up of four small provinces each with their own regulatory requirements for businesses: half the population and half the land area of any other province, but four times the regulations…but this is a topic for another day).         

The Champions

There are three classes of champions for heritage properties: passionate owners (hopefully with deep pockets), community groups who recognize the social benefit of maintaining our built heritage, and governments which either have a measure of both these characteristics or are open to the influence of those who do. 

Heritage property owners must appreciate the unique features of old buildings.  To quote one (you’ll never guess who), they “speak to you in a way new buildings don’t.  There is a sense of calm, a personality.  They have been there for centuries, and if the economics can work, they will be there long after you’ve turned to dust.”  Ah, the economics.  Heritage properties in Halifax do not attract a rental premium as they do in some larger cities, such as Toronto’s trendy Distillery District.  There may be a purchase premium, albeit not driven solely by heritage, but location as well, due to the prime situation some heritage properties enjoy by virtue of having gotten there first.  Halifax’s downtown is distinguished by its waterfront; heritage properties with a connection to it in particular may enjoy a purchase premium, provided this connection is maintained (pause now to be thankful for the public outcry that halted “Harbour Drive” before it started…and hopeful that the redevelopment of its first phase, the Cogswell Interchange, will be successful in repairing the fabric of the area). 

 

Toronto’s Distillery District, as modelled by a pair of junior TDPers

There is a social benefit to heritage properties, usually external to the site itself.  A 2011 study by Place Economics highlighted six areas of positive economic impact attributed to heritage preservation: jobs, property values, heritage tourism, environmental impact, social impact and downtown revitalization.  Heritage properties differentiate cities from one another, providing a unique draw to residents, visitors and immigrants alike.  The world’s most successful cities have vibrant heritage architecture, often interspersed with modern buildings.  Community groups recognize this and fight to preserve historic built environments, but it is often the building owners who fund these broader social benefits by bearing the increased costs of renovation and upkeep.  It is here that governments can play a vital role via heritage preservation policies, but they must take care that they get them right.       

Incentivise or incense?

Halifax Regional Municipality recently commissioned a study to investigate heritage incentives.  However structured, these are a means by which society as a whole, via taxes, can help pay for the social benefit of heritage properties.  Two of the largest pitfalls of which governments must be wary when enacting policies to protect heritage properties both involve the risk of (inadvertently) penalizing property owners. 

The first is the more obvious one, wherein the owner of a protected building is prevented from redeveloping a site to a more lucrative density, diminishing the ability to make money from the property and potentially its market value.  One avenue available to the city is to compensate the property owner for the diminished value by purchasing the air rights, i.e. the space above the building in which they would otherwise be allowed to build, but are prevented by heritage preservation policy.  This could be accomplished either directly, with the municipality retaining ownership of the air rights, or by opening the market for air rights trading, allowing heritage property owners to sell their air rights to developers of non-heritage sites to increase the allowable height on their sites.  (Yes, this has the potential to open another can of worms, but it’s a good theory if the policy is well thought out). 

The second potential pitfall lies in supporting some, but not all heritage properties; such as with the creation of a heritage preservation zone.  While those properties (and their owners) located within the zone stand to benefit from financial incentives offered by the municipality, any heritage properties outside the zone are placed at greater disadvantage.  Still competing against larger modern buildings, they are now on an uneven field against their direct (heritage) competition.  The supported properties have the money to modernize without deficit to their owners’ bottom line, while unsupported properties are further penalized physically and financially. 

For more on heritage rights and wrongs, don’t miss our Summer 2017 newsletter, coming soon to a mailbox near you.  If you are not already subscribed to this informative and gutsy publication, please get in touch with us at 902-429-1811 or tdp@turnerdrake.com.

Alexandra Baird Allen is the Manager of our Economic Intelligence Unit, a position which makes surprisingly good use of her liberal arts degree in history & cultural studies, as well as her expertise in GIS.  For more information on our Economic Intelligence Products, visit our website or contact Alex at 902-429-1811 ext. 323 or abairdallen@turnerdrake.com.

Friday, 18 August 2017 12:21:25 (Atlantic Daylight Time, UTC-03:00)  #    -
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