Edmonton’s built heritage has been front and centre a lot over the last several months and in recent weeks the possible demolition of the McDougall United Church has returned to rear its ugly head. As usual, the attention has been disheartening, negative, and controversial, revealing how poorly we have done with protecting our most beloved historical edifices.
This has left me to reflect. How did we get here? A fair amount of blame has been passed around. But the uneasy truth is that we’re all to blame for the current state of built heritage in Edmonton.
There are easy targets: a provincial government that rarely uses their power to designate without property owner consent; limited municipal powers to designate heritage properties; developers who lack understanding of local context and values; and property owners who buy into refuted myths about heritage properties. (No, designation does not erode property rights or property value. Like zoning, it simply regulates portions of a building that are deemed to be of significant historic value. Non-regulated portions are still redevelopable and the land and building continues to retain its economic value.)
Less overt are the inadequacies of our current incentives and municipal tax systems. For example, our heritage reserve fund lacks the resources to fund the sheer number and scale of potential projects in this city. How can we improve a municipal heritage program that, despite being considered one of the best in the country, lacks adequate tools to support small owners that may not have the contacts, resources or know-how of larger developers? Not to be forgotten, our current tax regimes tend to incentivize allowing old buildings to fall into disrepair.
Not to be outdone, the general public has not exactly been helping the cause for heritage in Edmonton. Whether it’s journalists who devalue robust historical conservation efforts while trying to sound supportive or citizens who see no value in public spending on heritage preservation. And what to do with a highly fragmented heritage community that could benefit from more coordinated and united advocacy and education? Consider also that local outrage about the loss of heritage tends to be muted and short-lived. Heck. Throw some blame my way! Here I am proselytizing about all that’s wrong with heritage in Edmonton and I haven’t provided much in the way of solutions. (My wife says I could make a career out of complaining!)
Built heritage in this city has endured generations of indifference and inaction at all levels. The destruction of built heritage in Edmonton has been commonplace for so long that many of us shrug in indifference at the heritage threat of the week.
We continue to excuse our heritage missteps as the awkward growing pains of a young city still trying to find itself in this wide world. We try to convince ourselves that these issues will work themselves out when we’ve matured – when we’ve become a real city.
The incorporation of the City of Edmonton occurred over 100 years ago – enough time to see a pattern emerge in our treatment and attitude toward historical buildings. The Edmonton region is now the fifth largest metro area in Canada. The truth is we are a real city. So now it’s on us as a collective to find solutions and become better advocates and stewards of our shared history and built heritage because ultimately, it’s hard to find yourself when you continue to dismantle and reinvent the most important parts of who you are. With every failure of our built heritage, with every demolition, we become a new old city.