City may impose historic designations against will of property owners

With Edmonton quickly losing treasured old buildings, the city will consider imposing historic designations against the will of some property owners.

Right now, the city's hands are tied when it comes to protecting historic buildings

The Arthur Davies Residence was owned by the last mayor of Old Strathcona, before it was demolished. Coun. Ben Henderson said there was nothing the city could do to save the building (City of Edmonton)

With Edmonton quickly losing treasured old buildings, the city will consider imposing historic designations against the will of some property owners.

Coun. Ben Henderson said at present the city is all-but powerless to preserve historic landmarks and must find ways to hang on to those that remain.

"I know of a couple of buildings we're going to lose in the next few months, and there's nothing we can do about it," Henderson said.

Right now, owners must volunteer to seek historic designation for their buildings. Once that designation is granted, the buildings can be protected.

But that system is voluntary, and over the last few years several owners have opted to knock their buildings down in favour of new development.

Now council is working on eight new ways to stop the bulldozers, including imposing historic designations against the will of property owners.

In a report to city council, the first option to preserve old buildings suggests that the city: "explore amending city policy C450B and the historic resource management plan to support the designation of Municipal Historic Resources without the agreement of the property owner, where council deems it prudent and necessary to ensure the protection of the historic resource."

That option makes it clear that compensation to property owners would be required.

Henderson said the city has to explore all of its options, before Edmonton loses any more historic gems.

"The one that was the most painful to watch happen was the Arthur Davies building," he said.

The 1905 brick Queen Anne-style home was owned by the last mayor of Old Strathcona, before that city was merged with Edmonton.

Henderson said it was an essential touchstone in the neighbourhood.

"I don't think it ever crossed anybody's mind that we wouldn't be able to save it, and then there was nothing we could do," he said.

Council will consider funding for some preservation options in the fall.

Former Historian Laureate Shirley Lowe said historic neighbourhoods like Old Strathcona can be an economic driver for the city.
Former historian laureate Shirley Lowe applauded councillors for taking a good first step, but said more must be done to preserve the historic character of neighbourhoods as a whole.

"Not only are individual historic resources important, but so are communities," she said. "I think they left communities off the table."

She said there's economic benefit to preserving historic neighbourhoods such as Old Strathcona, citing a 2005 study that found Whyte Avenue cycled $100 million per year back into the local economy.

"Heritage isn't something that costs you money. It's an economic development tool," she said.

Councillors asked city staff to look at ways to use zoning bylaws to preserve historic character in certain areas.

Staff will review their plan to manage historic buildings in 2016.