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Heritage planner left a legacy of city history

Victoria was deeply embroiled in one of the most controversial development debates in its history when Steve Barber arrived from Winnipeg to take on the job as the city’s first full-time heritage planner just over 27 years ago.

Victoria was deeply embroiled in one of the most controversial development debates in its history when Steve Barber arrived from Winnipeg to take on the job as the city’s first full-time heritage planner just over 27 years ago.

“This town was exploding, and heritage was right in the middle of it,” Barber said in a recent interview.

By the time Barber was on the scene, most of the decisions had already been made. Despite protests, heated debate and even a court challenge, the rezoning for Cadillac Fairview’s proposal to build the giant mall known as Eaton Centre in the middle of downtown was approved by council.

It led to the demolition of 10 historic buildings to make way for what is now the Bay Centre. As a compromise nod to heritage values, the facades of some of the original buildings were preserved. Most significant, Barber says, was that part of the agreement involved the sale of a portion of Broad Street — and that saw the creation of the Downtown Investment Fund.

“And $720,000 of that became the first grant program administered by the Victoria Civic Heritage Trust and that was the very first [heritage] building incentive program. The trust became successful and the city has funded it ever since,” Barber said.

That program still provides grants of up to $50,000 for the restoration of a heritage building. Its birth came at a time when both the provincial and federal governments were withdrawing from heritage restoration programs.

Barber, who retired at the end of January, doubts a development like the Eaton Centre would be allowed to happen today.

“I think there’s a much higher awareness of the importance of heritage conservation and a higher level of political support for it,” he said.

A lot has changed in Victoria over the past 27 years, but even with those changes, a lot of the city’s past has been preserved. In the 1990s, Victoria was a ghost town after dark. Since then, the city has seen a rebirth.

“Everybody at that time was saying: ‘Why don’t we have people living in the vacant upper floors of heritage buildings?’ We said: ‘Let’s create a program and see if it works,’ and it’s worked like gangbusters.”

Under Barber’s guidance, the city adopted a tax incentive program giving developers who redevelop and seismically upgrade downtown heritage buildings a tax holiday of up to 10 years.

Since the award-winning program’s inception in 1998, $5.4 million in taxes have been forgiven but more than 30 heritage buildings have been rehabilitated and seismically upgraded, and about 620 new residential units have been created downtown.

Victoria’s skyline also now boasts highrise condominium towers, but Barber is quick to point out that they are not being built in the city’s Old Town, but rather to the east of Douglas Street. That placement is by design and spelled out in the city’s downtown plan.

Again, it harkens back to the Cadillac Fairview debate, he said.

“One of the things that grew out of that whole project and debate was that we had to do a new downtown plan,” he said. “Our directors said: ‘We have to solve this debate — this conflict between heritage and development.’ And that plan was really fundamental.”

The plan preserved heritage buildings in Old Town and shifted new development to the east of Douglas Street and to the north of downtown.

The plan was renewed last year and it has followed the same philosophy.

“We’ve managed to encourage a conservation ethic in Old Town and shift the development to the places in downtown that can accommodate it.”

Mayor Dean Fortin said Barber’s efforts have left the city in good shape for the future.

“Steve’s really been there for us as we worked hard to preserve, enhance but also update our Old Town. It’s kind of what defines Victoria and makes us rich, recognizing that there has to be growth and development but also recognizing that you don’t want to lose what makes you special,” Fortin said.

While he has always had an interest in heritage, Barber got into the field almost by accident. After earning a degree in environmental studies from the University of Manitoba, he earned a master’s degree in environmental design in architecture from the University of Calgary. He was looking for work after graduation when a friend called and offered him a job in Winnipeg’s heritage-planning department.

Eight years later, the lure of being closer to his wife’s family and living in warmer climes found him taking a job in Victoria.

Coun. Pam Madoff, considered by some to be council’s “heritage conscience,” said Winnipeg’s loss was definitely Victoria’s gain as policies put forward by Barber have been recognized nationally and internationally.

“He has left such an incredible legacy of tangible policies that have become an absolute part of the fabric of our city planning,” Madoff said.

“I’ve always said about our heritage planning that it really needs to be part of planning in general and become part of the culture and practice. With Steve’s incredible work over almost three decades, that’s what’s happened.”

Barber said one of the most misunderstood aspects of heritage planning is that people think it means no changes can be made.

“People have this perception that once something is designated [heritage] you can’t change it, you can’t touch it, you can’t do anything with it. That’s far from the truth. We’re at great pains to try to say we know that buildings have to be adapted for modern uses or they are not going to survive,” he said.

“We just want to make sure that the heritage values are preserved and protected. But it doesn’t mean you can’t make changes.”

Still, one of the most controversial periods of his career came when, at his recommendation in 2010, the city refused to grant Rogers’ Chocolates permission to expand the Government Street store’s historic interior. It was a decision that ultimately cost the city about $750,000 in a compensation award.

Given the cost, Barber’s not sure city councillors would make the same decision again, but he said he still thinks it was the right decision.

“The net result at the end of the day is that’s one of the most important historic store interiors, not only in Victoria but in Canada and it’s still there. It’s preserved. ... There’s very few original store interiors of that quality left in the country. ”