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If you go walking around downtown St. John’s, you may spot the occasional older house with a small plaque on it denoting something special about it: it’s heritage status. A number of different groups can confer their own designation—from the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador (aka Heritage NL) to the City of St. John’s—but how it got that title and how people feel about it can vary greatly.

Heritage NL is a Crown corporation. Executive director and public folklorist Dale Jarvis said the group—which was formed in 1984 under Part IV of the Historic Resources Act—to designate buildings for recognition for historic and architectural importance, as well as provide grants for these buildings.

“In Newfoundland and Labrador, the power for protection of heritage buildings is at the municipal level,” Jarvis told The Independent. “So it’s up to municipalities and cities; they can put stop work orders in and stop demolition and do permits. We don’t do any of that.” 

The City can also designate a building without the owner’s consent, whereas Jarvis said Heritage NL doesn’t do that. As we’ll see, that can lead to conflict between the owners that lands before the courts.

Heritage NL does have a cost-sharing grant program, which Jarvis explained wasn’t to reward these owners but rather help offset costs. For example, if a homeowner needed to get new windows but plastic ones were cheaper, the grant would help cover the additional cost for the wooden windows.

Council lead on the Built Heritage Experts Panel, Cllr Maggie Burton, wasn’t available to speak to The Independent due to other commitments. But City spokesperson Kelly Maguire responded to questions via email on the City’s heritage designation system.

“Anyone can nominate a property for designation. Council would seek the property owner’s consent, though Council does have the authority to designate a property without the owner’s consent,” explained Maguire.

She also wrote that the application process can take several months—though there are currently no buildings waiting for approval. First an application goes to the City’s Built Heritage Experts Panel and if they recommend the designation, the application goes before Council for consideration.

Once a home is designated as a heritage building, any change the owner wants to make to the outside of the building has to be in-line with the City’s Heritage By-Law. But Maguire also noted that “some changes can be reviewed at the staff level, then brought to Council for a decision.  Other changes—especially if they are not in line with the Heritage By-Law—must be brought through the Built Heritage Experts Panel, then to Council for a decision.”

Homeowners can also tap into several heritage grants, accessing up to a maximum of $5,000 per property per year, Maguire added.

In contrast to the City, Jarvis pointed out that with Heritage NL, “We like to work with property owners. So most of our stories are kind of happy stories. A property owner has come to us and said ‘Hey, I’ve got this project, we have this building.’ And we work with the property owner to develop a kind of plan on how they’re going to maintain that building. We would never designate something without the owner’s consent. Municipalities can do that… we just had a court case in St. John’s.”

Although Jarvis didn’t say it by name, it was likely a reference to Bryn Mawr. (We’re going to go there, but sit tight for now.)

Jarvis added municipalities have a different role to play than his organization.

“The City is kind of concerned with maintaining the heritage character of a small area. And what we’re doing is working with property owners to maintain individual buildings.”

Now let’s look at some beautiful old buildings, and how the Heritage process has shaken out:

The Parish Lane Saga

The 40-unit condo development at the old Anglican Parish Hall at 66-68 Queen’s Road in downtown St. John’s has been the focus of heated and vocal opposition that has gone on for years now. Voices from the public raised the issue over losing a heritage building, the loss of green space on the property, and home views being obstructed by this build.

Parish Lane Development—led by CEO Rick Pardy—bought the property back in December 2019, and the process has dragged on since then.

“This is a lot longer than we anticipated by years. We expected a year, we’re into the third year now,” Pardy—from sunny Arizona—told The Independent during a recent interview.

He said it wasn’t just the heritage issue, adding it’s a complex site in part because of the split zoning. (There was a recording error at Municipal Affairs where it had the wrong type of zoning listed—it’s in the ecclestastical district.) There are also issues around how the building would impact the surrounding views.

“It’s a very complex site,” Pardy said. “So it certainly is a lot longer than you would anticipate.”

He bought the former Anglican Parish Hall and the house across the street in December 2019. At the time, the hall was in “very poor” shape. It had a leaky roof, the heating system didn’t work, and the foundation was failing in the eastern side of the building, he said.

His architects came to the conclusion that the house was special and should be maintained. Ultimately, he said working on the house was a far easier affair than its sister site. The house was renovated extensively and they worked to meet the heritage requirements while bringing the house up to standard, said Pardy.

Provisional Design Concept for Parish Lane development. (Source: City Agenda, 9 February 2021.)

The old Parish Hall was built around 1892. But Pardy said it was altered in the 1920s and then extensively damaged in a 1960s fire and it was rebuilt in the 1970s—so by then a lot of its historical features were lost.

He said the first public meeting for the development happened in November 2019.

“There was a lot of comments made at the public meeting and we said ‘Look, some of these have merit,” said Pardy, so they worked with Happy City St. John’s and Heritage NL—then led by Jerry Dick—and went through a three part public engagement process. The first was an online survey, then a focus group to narrow it down, and then engage a third party to do a design charrette. It led to some design changes to the condo plan.

The larger of the two proposed buildings was rotated 90 degrees and more greenspace was preserved. As for the smaller building, what started as a 14-unit apartment building was redesigned into three townhouses.

Parish Hall as it existed on Queen’s Road in 2020 compared with proposed design. Note the preserved archway on the central townhouse. (Source: City Agenda, 9 February 2021.)

Once the front portion was rezoned, they got a demolition permit and undertook an archaeological study. During the demolition process, they documented and saved 97 pieces of sandstone. Pardy said they’re being stored for a public monument about the history of the site.

He still has a few more hurdles until construction can start, but he’s positive it will happen.

“Will it get into the ground this year? I just don’t know,” Pardy said. “We’re optimistic but we’re not going to be investing more in design until we get through the final approval process.”

A jaunt to Queen’s Road will show you the Parish Hall is long gone, with a chain link fence and a stretching blue-painted barrier separating it from the sidewalk. The entire site now looks like a rock quarry.

The Parish Lane construction site on Queen’s Road in downtown St. John’s. Photo by Elizabeth Whitten.

Pardy admitted that this dragged-out process is also raising the cost of the project.

Meanwhile, he said there has been high demand for the homes already and they’ve already gotten deposits on 50% of the units—adding it’s a little tricky because they don’t know the costs of the units yet in part because the cost of materials have been in flux.

Pardy also pitched why this housing development is a big boon to the downtown.

“I think one of the challenges we have in our core is that we need more people downtown,” Pardy explained. “Finding a balance between increasing our density downtown, bringing in more residents to the downtown core, and preserving the architectural and integrity of our downtown—just finding that balance.”

Something to also keep in mind is that the City of St. John’s hasn’t signed off on the development just yet.

In November, Council voted to approve an in-principle rezoning on a section of the Parish Lane Development property, making another step forward for the development.

During that meeting, Mayor Danny Breen also tipped his hat to the level of public engagement the City had done with the proposal.

“I just don’t know how much more engagement we would have to do on these types of projects,” Mayor Breen said at the time. “Because we’ve gotten a whole lot of work done on it. This in my opinion is a good project for the downtown. It’s a good project to get people living downtown.” Breen added this is something the City needs in order to increase and enhance downtown’s vibrancy.

Included in the online agenda was the petition titled “Save the Last Naturalized Green Space in Downtown St. John’s,” which was organized by Matthew Graham soon after the land was sold to Pardy. As of press time, the online petition had 4,127 signatures, though several hundred more people signed a paper petition.

Graham told The Independent that while the front lot on Queen’s Road—where the old Parish Hall was—has been removed, the green space at the back along Harvey Road is still there.

“My hope is still that the Councillors will listen to their constituents and actually pay attention to the 4,600 people who’ve signed a petition and said they don’t want this. That’s what my hope is and that it will remain zoned open space,” said Graham.

He added even as zoned open space, it’s still private land so there’s no guarantee the developer would keep it as a forest. For example, he said it could be turned into a tennis court “and he’d be well within his rights to do that. Or other things like that.”

“Optimally, the green space gives back to the city more than a 10 storey apartment would,” Graham explained. “Unfortunately, it’s not tangible.”

Green space behind the old Parish Hall in downtown St. John’s as seen from The Rooms, circa 2018. (Photo submitted.)

While Graham said Pardy has promised to preserve half of the trees in the green space, that amounts to about six trees or so. Graham said to just count trees is—well, missing the forest for the trees, because the green space also has wildlife and undergrowth. He added that someone recently spotted a weasel in the area.

Moreover, Graham wanted to make it clear: he’s not anti-development, but he’d prefer it be careful development that takes the area into consideration. He doesn’t believe this is a case of NIMBYism, either—which is a criticism leveled at people who don’t want certain new developments popping up in their own neighbourhood. He argued because this is his backyard he’s positioned to see a project’s implications on his life.

Trouble on the Big Hill

There are times when heritage and development have an easy relationship, like with the West End Fire station.

On December 13, 2021 City Council signed off on making the West End Fire Station the second modernist heritage building designation in the City—a move the buyer had asked for.

At the council meeting, lead on the Built Heritage Experts Panel Cllr Maggie Burton said: “We have a lot of Second Empire, Victorian sort of saltbox house-type of heritage in Newfoundland and Labrador and St. John’s is no exception. But people don’t think about modernist buildings when they think about heritage designation and I think that they should.”

However, there are instances when the City and property owners clash.

Bryn Mawr—which is Welsh for “big hill,” though it’s also known as Baird’s Cottage—at 154 New Cove Road was in the news for several years. Its fate hung in the balance before the courts, as a developer wanted to tear it down.

Bryn Mawr on New Cove Road in St. John’s. Photo by Elizabeth Whitten.

I’ll admit, this property was imprinted on me at a young age. Whenever I’d drive by it in the family station wagon I’d crane my neck to watch it go by. This lone green house with white trim and what looked like a castle’s turret, separate from other homes, stands out in my mind to this day.

For a little bit of history, the Queen Anne country house was designed by architect William F. Butler and built in 1907 for the Scottish-born James C. Baird, who had become a prominent local businessman in Newfoundland. It remained in the family until sometime in the 1970s, when it was sold to Jim Steinhauer. 

The home was sold by Mildred Steinhauer for $2 million to the KMK-affiliated company New Cove Road Holdings in 2016. KMK had planned to build a 28-home development on the land.

Around the same time, there was a Change.org petition to save the home by giving it a City heritage designation, which worked and happened in May 2016—much to the displeasure of the Steinhauers and its new owner. The heritage designation prevents the owner from tearing down the property.

It was reported by the CBC that Mildred’s son Fred Steinhauer said that they’d sue if the City went ahead with a heritage designation. Ultimately, the Steinhauer’s and KMK did sue the City for $1.5 million and $7.2 million, respectively.

In October of 2021, the case was before the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador, where it was dismissed—with the judge ruling in favour of the City’s heritage designation of the property.

The developer had argued the heritage designation ruled out “all reasonable uses of the property.”

In her decision, Justice Sandra Chaytor wrote: “Although the heritage designation restricts certain development of 154 New Cove Road insofar as it prevents Bryn Mawr from being demolished or the exterior altered without the approval of City council, it does not prohibit the use of 154 New Cove Road as a residential property or other development.”

When contacted to see if they had any new plans for the property, KMK did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

I recently walked by the property on a sunny winter day to see how the old mansion was faring. There are stone steps that lead to a wooden gate that was slightly open but the trees and shrubs leading up the path are heavily grown in. There are also surveillance signs and you can see the windows and doors have been barred up. If the house falls into disrepair, it may need to be torn down as a threat to safety.

As a side note, the most recent City of St. John’s property assessment pegged 154 New Cove Road’s total property value at $414,300.

Making the Case for Heritage

Heritage NL’s Dale Jarvis made a multi-pronged case for preserving heritage buildings.

“I think it matters on a number of levels and I think first, I think there is kind of an intrinsic value in understanding and knowing your history and culture. I think that’s a good thing,” Jarvis chuckled. “So understanding and knowing where we come from, that’s kind of a ‘soft’ reason but I think it is valid. It’s good to live in a place that has history and history is important to local people.”

There is a proven economic benefit to the province in having heritage properties, he noted, pointing out a lot of local tourism and ads are centred around these older properties. Many people want to stay at historic inns, for example.

There is also an environmental benefit to maintaining these places, arguing that when you tear down an old wooden home, most of that is destined to be thrown in the dump. When that old wooden home was built, it took time, energy and money—but if you build something new and you have to spend all those resources again.

As well, keeping these homes means we can maintain traditional skills and knowledge, because old homes aren’t always made in the same way newer ones are. Old things were also built to last, Jarvis said, pointing out many older features like tile roof and wooden window frames have lasted more than a century. There’s also the benefit of using local materials like wood over importing something plastic from the U.S.

He pointed out we’re in a period of change right now and a lot of smaller communities are worrying about what will happen to certain buildings in their communities—like churches and lodges—that are emptying, and some of the vacant buildings are being sold.

Jarvis said these kinds of community buildings were largely supported by volunteer labour, but communities’ demographics have changed.

“People often come to the heritage foundation because they want to save that building. And what actually saves a building isn’t us—what saves a building is a really strong community group that has a plan for that building. Heritage, I really feel, needs to be community driven.”

Moreover, churches are closed and are sold because they don’t have the people to support them anymore, Jarvis pointed out. So if you want to save the building you need to find a purpose and that can’t always be a museum—many existing museums are also struggling to stay open.

But many heritage properties have found new life as a business or a social use, like inns and restaurants, which preserves the building.

“It’s not government coming in and saying you need to save that building,” Jarvis explained. “It has to come from the ground up. And our role is to help support that.”

He said a lot of interesting things can be done with heritage buildings. He cited how Craig Flynn and Brenda O’Reilly of the Yellowbelly Brewery are opening a restaurant and beer garden at an old church in Harbour Grace—and they’ve also opened a speakeasy-style venture at the old courthouse.

Sometimes he’ll hear the view that heritage is anti-development—but that’s not the case, he argued.

“If you talk to anyone who is really engaged in heritage, it’s the exact opposite,” Jarvis said. “We really want to see good development with heritage buildings. Because we see all the potential that’s there. So we want innovation. We want change.” 

“Heritage isn’t about the past—it’s about what we do now and move it into the future.”

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Elizabeth Whitten is a St. John's-based journalist and The Independent's St. John's municipal politics reporter. She's previously worked for allNewfoundlandLabrador and Downhome Magazine, and her work has been published by CBC, The Overcast, and the Toronto Star. She's currently writing a book about how Dr. Cluny Macpherson invented the gas mask in World War One.