Pellerin: Maybe the city of Ottawa is doing heritage wrong

Article content

It is strange that we insist on preserving abandoned properties in the name of conservation and at the same time allow delinquent owners to neglect their buildings until they crumble. It’s as if we are doing heritage backwards and allowing our city to become uglier and less attractive in the process. We really shouldn’t.

This week, the Citizen reports the story of a man who bought three rental properties in Lowertown that he can’t renovate because they are too dilapidated or tear down because they are in a heritage conservation district. They are not heritage buildings in themselves. They are old, but have no historical importance.

Article content

The 19th century buildings were modified repeatedly over time and, frankly, judging by photographs of them, it is difficult to imagine that those changes were made with heritage or safety concerns in mind.

The owner says he wants to work with the city to ensure that what is built in its place contributes to the historic character of the community. And sure we can have rules about what buildings look like in historic neighborhoods. In an ideal world, buildings in heritage districts would be adequately and consistently maintained over time. But given the state of those three, wouldn’t it make more sense to replace them with something new but historic looking that would make the area more beautiful?

Nobody wants to simply destroy important historical buildings, but at the same time it is not necessary to preserve everything old. “Tradition,” said writer Eliot Schrefer, “is peer pressure from the dead.” We, the humans of 2024, have needs and priorities that are just as valid as those of 19th century Ottawans. We don’t need ghosts to intimidate us.

Or negligent owners. All over the city we have properties that are basically abandoned by their owners. I live next to one, which is now home to a thriving raccoon population. The people on my street are sick and tired of this. By my count, we’re on our third owner in three years, but nothing has been done to make it any less of an eyesore.

Article content

That’s a problem, Rideau-Vanier County. Stephanie Plante hopes to do something about it. On Thursday she presented a proposal to the emergency preparedness committee to create a website on “problem properties,” something like what Edmonton is doing.

Plante has been working on this for about a year, he tells me. Which is about the same time it can take to put up a fence around a dangerous property. There is a process and owners can drag things out with appeals. “It can be very stressful for neighbors,” she says. “It affects their sense of security.”

The difficulty is that the city does not have the necessary tools to manage this issue. The province does. In Edmonton, the problem buildings initiative includes representatives from the provincial government so they can actually do things to remedy urgent and dangerous situations. We need that here.

“What I hear most,” Plante says, “is ‘why can’t the statutes do more?’ Why does it take so long to put up a fence and board up the windows? “We need better tools to manage existing rules.”

You are right and although I support this initiative, I want more and better. Last weekend I took my oldest daughter and her cousin to Quebec City for some French culture soup to wrap up their March break. I gave them a brief tour of the old city and essentially let them explore on their own. If you’ve visited Vieux-Québec, you’ll agree with the kids that it’s historic and stunningly beautiful.

Quebec City as a whole is not perfect and has its share of negligent landlords. The municipal government began to crack down on them. almost two years ago and also reinforced its built heritage policy.

Ottawa will never be as pretty as Quebec City, but it should be as beautiful as it is capable of being. We can start right now.

Brigitte Pellerin (they/them) is a writer from Ottawa.

Recommended by Editorial

Share this article in your social network

Leave a Comment