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Marc Denhez on the future of heritage

The acclaimed planning expert talks to The Coast ahead of this week's Nova Scotia Heritage Conference about what we consider worth saving.


Marc Denhez knows a thing or two about preserving the past. - SUBMITTED
  • Marc Denhez knows a thing or two about preserving the past.

If there's an expert on heritage planning in Canada, it's Marc Denhez. The author and adjudicator has over 30 years experience dealing with historic preservation and planning issues all across the world. He chaired a government-renovation industry task force, and has been honoured by the Canadian Institute of Planners, Ontario's Ministry of Culture and received a National Heritage Award from the government of Canada.

Denhez will be in Halifax this week as the keynote speaker for the 2017 Nova Scotia Heritage Conference. He spoke with The Coast ahead of that event (and for this past issue's cover feature) on heritage preservation in Halifax and across the country. The full interview is presented below, lightly edited for clarity and style.


The Coast: You say that creating heritage destinations has been long talked about, but setting them up on an industrial basis is “where it gets interesting.” What do you mean by that?

Marc Denhez: So many of these projects in the past have been one-offs. People would assemble, they'd say, “Ah yes, this is a wonderful heritage building; the only problem being no one can recognize it under all the grime, and all the deterioration...Why don't we treat this as a diamond in the rough, and fix this up?”

They would discover, number one, that it's very difficult to try and sell the public on a diamond in the rough because it's hard very often to recognize there's something underneath there that's worth showing off. And secondly, trying to fix these things up is easier said than done. They very often have knob and tube wiring, some of them have mould, some of them have asbestos.

The largest single problem is even if you or I am sold on the idea of fixing up the old place, and fixing up the dilapidated porch and making sure the chimney points up instead of sideways, you reach for the phone, who you gonna call? That's where the whole system begins to break down. You have an immense industry of fly-by-night renovation contractors who may or may not know what they're doing. That's where the challenge lies. If you're going to put this on an industrial footing, instead of saying we'll do an elite one-off here, then you have to address all the reasons why it's been difficult to do this in the past. Part of the reason is that there's been a lack of know-how on how you fix up these things. It hasn't been disseminated very well.

Does that mean encoding that know-how in current heritage laws, or looking towards the community?
One of the things you have to do is develop know-how. There's a lot of know-how out there. It's getting at it that's part of the problem. Another part of the problem is trying to put the business of getting rehab contractors out to your place on some kind of methodical footing instead of being lost in this realm of fly-by-nighters in their stealth pickup trucks.

Another part is, what does your official plan say? It amazes me that in countless municipalities across Canada—and I can include the largest 10 cities in Canada—even though the improvement of existing building produces about 40 percent more GDP than the construction of new ones, it's not in their official plans. I could rattle off a whole pile of major planning documents across Canada that do not recognize Canadians spend $1.40 on improving existing dwelling for every dollar that they spend on building new ones. Canadians spend over $5 billion a year on century homes. Where is that recognized in our planning documents? Nadda. Zero. Nowhere.

We'll have a number of people come forward and say “If it has the right pedigree; if it has the right vintage; maybe we can look at it then.” Do you know how many heritage-designated properties there are in Canada? There's one-half of one percent of the building stock. How do you stand up in front of the city council like Halifax, how do you stand up in front of a provincial government and say this is a mainstream economic priority when you're ambit is one-half of one percent of anything?

There doesn't seem to be a lot of incentive for a private landowner to preserve a historic property that hasn’t been given that rubber stamp of heritage approval.
That's right. From time immemorial people have been fixing buildings. We've been doing that since the Sumerians. People didn't fix buildings because there was a government policy to do it. They fixed buildings for the elementary reason that it cost less to do it that way than it cost to start over. That all changed in World War II. There was a change in government policy. A bunch of people came in who said, “No, no, no. We have to redevelop. We're going to create modernist cities according to a politically correct architectural motif, and we're going to do that everywhere. Everything else gets blown out of the way.”

What we wound up with was a whole layer cake of various government programs, all designed to build new and get rid of the old. There were even quotes from the journal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. There was one magnificent quotation where they were discussing the merits of the Luftwaffe coming to bomb Halifax. And so it goes. There was an entire systematic approach devoted to getting rid of the old and replacing it with modernist—to the point that until the 1990s, approximately one-third of all landfill deposits in Canada was comprised of used construction material. Today we're down to one-fifth, largely thanks to higher tipping fees, but it's still mountainous.

To play devil's advocate; is it terrible to tear down? There's a romantic notion of preserving history and heritage, but it is just a building.
It should be an intelligent decision. Sustainability implies you take whatever you invested in and you try to extend its economic life expectancy as far as it can. So, at a certain point, yes, one may reach an executive decision that says this particular investment has fizzled out. It has gone as far as it can go and that's it.

I personally am not one of these people who say why don't we go back to this romanticized, sanitized vision of the past, where everything is creepy cutesy-poo and we have all of these people running around like Anne of Green Gables. That's not what this is about. What this is about is taking an existing investment, making an intelligent decision about how to prolong its usefulness, and then doing it on a methodical basis. This, I would apply to the entirety of everything Canada has ever built. We've got $2.2 trillion worth of structures in this country—trillion. It seems to me as a rational economic decision, we should be trying to get the most bang for our buck out of that $2.2 trillion investment as we can. Unfortunately, we haven't been doing that, and the reason why is there were various systemic obstacles—landmines—that were planted in the system quite intentionally over the course of the mid-20th century.

I believe, however, if we get some kind of cooperative approach—this is where the heritage community has a bit of a problem. People kind of look at contractors funny and people look at developers real funny. But the truth is if we are ever going to do this on an industrial basis, we have to make life so easy for contractors and developers to do the right thing in fixing up an older building intelligently and making that competitive with the other alternatives. If we're not capable of doing that, then we might as well pack our tent and go home.

So you're appealing to an economic argument—not just historical—that we've already invested in these structures...
Absolutely. We've got them there. We owe it to ourselves to see if we can get more bang for our buck out of those investments.

I don't know if you're familiar with the old Elmwood hotel here in Halifax. Last year the owners announced it would be torn down. There's some push-back, but there's also a view from some in the public that the building is in poor shape. It seems to be the case almost that it's OK to lose this one.
You can say that of every major historic area in the country. I wrote part of a book on Gastown in Vancouver; I was brought up in Old Montreal—if you want to call a place creepy, Old Montreal fit that description until very recently. Same thing with central Quebec; same thing with the Byward Market area here in Ottawa. If you took all of the heritage districts in Canada, you would probably conclude that almost all of them started as slums. I would argue as well that the overwhelming majority of buildings that are on our postcards today, were at one point in their history great candidates for demolition and redevelopment. So, you don't judge a book by its cover. The problem is, that's easier said than done.

It seems in a lot of discussions about what we want to preserve it's more about aesthetics than it is the history.
Very often it is, very often it is. In the case of Nova Scotia, there's that extra dimension where tourism is such an important part of Nova Scotia's GDP. Of all the provinces in Canada, Nova Scotia's probably had one of the most advanced policies in this area. Nova Scotia has known for a very long time that there are some collections of buildings that are more significant from a tourism standpoint. People don't sit around the breakfast table saying, “Hey Martha, let's go see where Nova Scotians buy burgers and have their mufflers fixed.” You go to a place like Peggy's Cove and a number of other areas, which are iconic. If you look at the individual buildings there's no Taj Mahal there. There's no Buckingham Palace there. The overwhelming majority of stuff that people actually travel to see in Nova Scotia, the individual buildings are relatively modest. What counts is the way they all fit together. That's what makes it really tough. How do you assess the importance of something which is just a part of a larger whole? That's not an easy thing to do. A lot of people, I think, have a tendency to underestimate the potential of places like that. I compare it to a smile. It's not the individual molar or bicuspid that counts. It's the way they all fit together that makes the smile work.

Is good city-planning, and good development, possible alongside preserving these heritage sites?
I think they're part and parcel of the same thing. A good city plan should, in my opinion, allow for the fact that most of your real estate investment is going to be coming in the form of existing buildings and the improvement of existing buildings. The improvement of existing dwellings passed new construction in 1982. We're now at 35 years where year-after-year Canadians spend more on fixing existing buildings than they do on building new ones. Try to find that in an official plan.

Let's remember, in a municipality, if you decide that what you're going to do is a redevelopment project—yes, that's going to add to the municipal tax base, obviously. The assessment rolls are going to go way up, yadda, yadda, yadda. That's absolutely true. And of course, it preoccupies municipal councils because they have to worry about where the money is coming from. The thing is, if you're going to build something that's five times bigger or 10 times bigger than what's there already, you also have to plan for water lines; you have to plan for traffic; you have to plan a bunch of other things which are also going to be five or 10 times larger than what they were before. So you're net increase in your tax base may or may not be the same as your gross increase. You might have to actually improve some of your infrastructure to accommodate the new development. You don't have to do that when you fix existing properties. Whatever you're putting into the older building, it's going to increase your tax base and that's all going to be net.

How does what we as a society choose to preserve show what we value as a culture?
You can look at it several ways. If you want to look at it from the strict aesthetics standpoint, which quite candidly some of our friends in the heritage community have a tendency to do, yeah you're going to be looking at things depending on what their vintage is and their pedigree is. If you're going to look at it purely from an economic standpoint, which I think is an alternative...I'm not saying we replace one with the other, but I think you have to look at it from more than one perspective.

What we should be looking at is extending the life of investments and doing it on an economically scientific basis. I think that's doable. Where we have a problem in this country is we're just barely starting to develop the expertise on how to do that on a budget. I'm immensely optimistic that with the level of interest that's now starting to percolate through universities, and starting to percolate through places like the development industry, people are starting to realize there's an information gap that's been plaguing this area for a very long time. But that information is findable. If we can just find a way of updating that information and getting it into the right hands, we could transform the economics of this altogether.

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