Heritage group warns of Old Town ‘facadism’ in Victoria

Victoria council should not allow the city’s “historic personality” to be threatened by “facadism” and buildings that are too tall in Old Town, says a group of prominent citizens and heritage advocates.

“Of late there have been many signs that the heritage program in Old Town is slipping out of balance,” says an open letter to Victoria councillors signed by more than 50 Greater Victorians, including heritage planners, architects, former politicians, neighbourhood advocates and academics.

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The city has to resist a move toward “facadism” — the practice of just preserving the facade of a heritage building as a nod to heritage — and not allow development proposals that want to exceed the 15-metre height limit in Old Town or look for additional density, said former Victoria councillor Pam Madoff.

Old Town includes the area of downtown from Chatham Street south to Humboldt Street, and from Douglas Street to Wharf and Store Streets and the waterfront.

Proposals such as the eight-storey condominium on the Northern Junk site near the Johnson Street Bridge and the Customs House development now underway have heightened concerns over what constitutes heritage preservation, Madoff said.

“It’s that combination of the height and density but also leaning toward the saving of the facades and not saving the buildings themselves,” she said.

Madoff said the letter, which is to be presented to Victoria councillors on Thursday, “is not a post-election thing,” but has been percolating for some time.

“It’s certainly been on my mind for a long time — and others’,” Madoff said.

The letter says that faced with “unsubstantiated claims” by developers of unaffordable costs to rehabilitate heritage buildings, council might be tempted to permit height and density bonuses that go beyond existing regulations.

Allowing additional height and density is “a very potent method to boost a project’s bottom line,” the letter says.

“But when granting exceptions to the rules becomes the norm, when every exemption becomes a de facto new baseline for future proposals, there is a real danger of undermining the very strategic goals that the system of policies and regulations was established to achieve.”

The letter asks council to consider three recommendations “to forestall the irreversible erosion of the character of Old Town”:

• Respect the 15-metre height limit in Old Town, as mandated by the Official Community Plan and Downtown Core Area Plan.

• Require a third-party review of a development pro forma to back any claims of financial need when considering requests for the relaxation of regulations or rezoning applications.

• Support the maximum retention of historic structures and fabric, in preference to “facadism” and similar “token measures” of conservation.

The letter says that at the heart of Victoria’s heritage program is the notion of balance.

“The city’s flexible, site-specific approach to project approval is designed to create conditions that encourage investment in Old Town. On the other hand, heritage policies and guidelines seek to contain and limit the impact of new construction,” it says.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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