Heritage buildings – a little movement in Québec?

When I arrived in Montreal in the mid 1990s I was taken aback by the haphazard way heritage buildings were protected. Not that I have any particular interest in heritage buildings, but I regularly went by the Sainte-.Justine hospital. In their car park was an old building: the Mount Royal Hunt Lodge.

The Mount Royal Hunt Lodge, to the right of the projected hospital – 1950s. Source: http://www.memorablemontreal.com/print/batiments_menu.php?quartier=6&batiment=165&menu=histoire

By the time I became familiar with it during the 1990s (my daughters were regulars at the children’s hospital), the lodge looked nothing like it does in the photo below. It was bedraggled and deliberately unrepaired. The hospital desperately wanted to demolish it, first to increase the size of their car park, then, I believe, to allow space for the Ronald McDonald convalescence home.

The hunt club as it stood in the early 1960s

From the hospital’s perspective, the building was ill-adapted for hospital use and would have been extremely expensive to rehabilitate. Yet the only choice was to either refurbish it according to heritage criteria (very expensive since it requires the use of orginal materials, respect of architectural details, etc…), or to allow the building to detriorate to such an extent that it becomes unsafe (at which point an emergency demolition order would be granted). This is eventually what happened.

To this day, many heritage buildings suffer this fate in Québec. Faced with the high expense of refurbishing these buildings, which in any case are rather awkward to use, many owners allow them to decay. In other cases, developers strategically purchase heritage buildings (which are cheap, precisely because they are so difficult and expensive to manage), wait for them to crumble, then obtain a demolition permit and build anew.

It is therefore to Premier Legault’s credit that in Bill 69 his government is attempting to strengthen heritage protection and prevent demolition by neglect (whilst raising a variety of issues, notably with respect to the definition of heritage). This bill reinforces municipal powers to compel owners to refurbish heritage buildings, by permitting municipalities to set out stricter regulations and to levy fines if owners do not comply. Crucially, the stick comes with a carrot, by way of increased subsidies to cover (part of) the extra expense of refurbishing the buildings to the exacting standards required. However, as far as I can see the carrot is not written into Bill 69, but is a parallel regulatory measure.

This is excellent news, but I am not sure it will be enough. Setting aside, for the moment, the lower value of heritage buildings caused by constraints on use and renovation, the cost of refurbishment can be astronomical. When I looked at the cost of refurbishing a cottage to architectural standards required for heritage preservation, they went from $40 000 (vinyl sidings, vinyl windows, taking off rotting ornamental decorations…) to well over $100 000 for essentially the same work using original materials and preserving ornamentation. Furthermore, wood siding requires an expensive repaint every 6 years or so.

Thus, even if a subsidy of 40 or 50% of the cost had been provided, refurbishing the cottage to heritage standards would still have cost 25 to 50% above the base price, as well as needing a paint job every 6 years. Admittedly, the cottage would have looked nicer – but most people can’t afford to shell out so much extra money: in this case, had heritage standards been obligatory, the cottage simply would not have been refurbished.

This brings me to the nub of the issue. For Bill 69 to work, it must start from the principle that heritage preservation is a decision made by society to preserve it’s own cultural artefacts, many of which are in private hands. It is unfair for society at large to pass the cost of its desire to preserve heritage onto individuals: hence public subsidies are not only justified, but should cover the totality of the extra cost of heritage renovation. This means that private owners will benefit from living in better renovated houses – but they also pay the cost of not being allowed to renovate or modify their property as they wish, of regulatory compliance, and of lower property values because of these restrictions.

As far as I can see, the subsidy program instituted by the province of Québec only runs until March 2022. After that, subsidies remain possible, but municipalities are responsible (section 151, Loi sur le patrimoine culturel). Municipalities, however, are underfunded in Québec, relying essentially on property taxes to cover all responsibilities. They are already financially stretched, and most don’t have the capacity to meaningfully subsidise the renovation and refurbishment of heritage buildings. Paradoxically, to obtain money to protect heritage buildings, municipalities will need to increase property taxes … maybe by allowing heritage buildings to deteriorate, then replacing them with more valuable real-estate!

The danger of the promising reforms that the Legault government is introducing, is that, in a few years, only the stick will remain. Municipalities will have the power to fine owners who neglect heritage buildings, but not the means to support those compelled to invest for the public good… And it may even be in municipalities’ financial interest to turn a blind eye to the neglect of (low tax generating) heritage buildings…

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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