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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

Knock ‘Em Down

Nathan Raine
Published Thursday February 19, 07:06 pm
Saskatoon has a less than ideal attitude to built heritage

On Dec. 31, the not-so-shocking news broke that Turning the Tide, an independent bookstore and cultural staple in Saskatoon, was being evicted from their location at the historic Farnam Block. An outpouring of support came flooding in towards the local business, as did a great deal of disappointment at the closure.

This comes a little more than a year after Lydia's, the iconic pub and music venue on the corner of Broadway and 11th, suddenly closed its doors. The Farnam Block, built back in 1912, is not only one of Broadway's most iconic spaces, but one of Saskatoon's. And so, with the former Lydia's and Tide buildings now sitting vacant, many fear that yet another Saskatoon landmark will soon be snuffed out.

The new owners, a pair of chiropractors in Saskatoon, have not yet announced the fate of the Farnam Block — but a filed demolition permit suggests at least the possibility of the buildings coming down.

Gaby Aki, the real estate agent who represents the owners, says that preserving the Farnam Block's heritage is of the highest priority for his clients.

“Absolutely the top priority, but it also has to be put in perspective,” said Aki. “The restoration of the structure is a very, very costly one. The building has some major structural issues apart from the look on the outside.”

Aki says that among the possibilities for the site is a full restoration, a partial restoration keeping the building's facade, and a total demolition of the building.

“It's still very much up in the air, but the restoration is very costly. And when I say expensive, it's always in relation to what you can generate in revenue,” says Aki, “But the Farnam Block, the way it sits right now, is not doing good for anyone.”

Whether the endangered building goes by the way of the wrecking ball or not, it shouldn't come as a surprise that these historical buildings are at risk.

Even if the revenue priorities of the landlords do align with heritage, in the last year, there's been a higher than average turnover of local business in the Broadway area — an unfavourable trend for both local business and some of our older buildings.

“I think the city is shifting. With the economic boom, I think landlords everywhere are tempted to get as much money as they can from their properties. So, I think that's creating a squeeze on businesses who are leasing,” says Peter Garden, owner of Turning the Tide. “Certainly there are landlords out there who understand that businesses just can't keep paying more and more and still remain viable.”

One of the major problems seems to be with “heritage,” a word that apparently holds very little weight in Saskatoon. Garden fears that the little pink house that long waxed the Tide may soon be demolished.

“I certainly don't think Saskatoon has been very good at preserving our heritage. There's been some pretty iconic buildings that have been torn down. The old Capitol Theatre was torn down, the Victoria / Traffic Bridge. So I think there is a municipal responsibility and responsibility to people in Saskatoon to want to see buildings preserved,” says Garden.

Throughout its storied history, the Farnam Block has functioned as a private residence, church, studio, retail space and, of course, live music venue. But although it dates back over 100 years, it’s not actually designated on Saskatoon's embarrassingly small heritage buildings list.

When asked about the loss of Turning the Tide and what the loss of the Farnam Block could say about heritage in Saskatoon, Sarah Marchildon, Executive Director of the Broadway Business Improvement District (BID), is quick to note that it’s not yet gone.

“Yes, of course [Turning the Tide] was a loss. Not to minimize the loss of [Turning the Tide], but we lose something every time you lose a cool business on Broadway. And let's just be clear: it's not certain that we've lost either of those buildings yet,” she says.

“From our side at the Broadway BID, we definitely recognize the Farnam Block as a historical piece of Broadway, [but we also] recognize that there's two sides to the coin. Things financially have to make sense to make business decisions, and I guess the unfortunate part is that that particular block has not been kept up.”

The Broadway BID has implemented the Broadway 360 plan, which imposes a policy to ensure new buildings and structures maintain a consistent look / flavour / smell of the area. But despite the good intentions, some buildings seem too easily deemed too far gone.

Head: WOW DO WE SUCK!

But it’s certainly not just Broadway that has a problem — so we spoke to a couple of experts to try to figure out why Saskatoon sucks so much at heritage. Their opinions?

“The City of Saskatoon's track record on heritage is the worst I've seen in any city I've lived. It's absolutely abysmal,” says Ryan Walker, professor of Geography and Urban Planning at the University of Saskatchewan.

“I would agree,” says Lenore Swystun, a member of the Saskatoon Heritage Society. “I mean we're just catching up to the 21st century — and it's already 15 years in.”

Swystun, a regional and urban planner by profession, is more than familiar with the City's mild attitude in matters of preserving heritage.

“It's important to nurture heritage in a viable way, but it's never been a priority with the City, particularly in the last decade. There was more focus on it in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and then it just kind of faded away when [Mayor Don] Atchison and some of the [current] council came in. They demolished a lot of old buildings; just one thing after another was being torn down,” says Swystun.

Saskatoon has seen the demise of a fair proportion of its historical built architecture, including the Capitol Theatre, the downtown Legion hall, the Folk's Finer Furs building, the Traffic Bridge and the Barry Hotel, to name a few. And the Farnam Block might soon be added to that list.

“If they wanted to, they could designate the Farnam Block [a heritage property] today. They're choosing not to because in their words it's ‘chump change’[...] It takes a culture that believes that heritage is a part of a development continuum. There are some things you can do to get a private building or residence designated, and that designation allows them to tap into a couple of the heritage or incentive programs. But the City really hasn't been proactive in this at all. The listing that we have for designated properties is like, next to nothing. Like a dozen,” says Swystun.

The good news is that the Heritage Society and the City are revising the shamefully bad heritage policies, as well as getting a much-improved incentive program.

“We have an intersection of indigenous history, including where the founding of the city was. When the heritage of our city comes together, we have a very compelling story, but over time the focus for most of the city has been on new developments.”

She points to Saskatoon’s leadership as a big reason why Saskatoon has been prioritizing new developments.

“We have a mayor that says, 'Unless you have the money, shut up.' The irony is that the mayor is one of the biggest believers in supporting public amenities — he has no problem putting in a huge amount of dollars for the brand new [art gallery], but doesn't see the value in saving some of the structures that were right on that site. And this is not just the mayor, but I can direct it at him because he's been very direct himself against the Heritage Society,” says Swystun.

“Not every building needs [designation], but it's about giving the opportunity of choice to see if it makes sense. The knee-jerk reaction just shouldn't be to demolish things. The reaction should be: ‘What's the value of this in relation to the greater community?’ It's about being able to embrace developments on all ends of the spectrum, not just making it a polarizing dialogue.”

Head: THERE ARE BETTER WAYS

The support doesn't seem to be there — and neither are incentives to keep older buildings, says Walker.

“An impediment to our preservation of older buildings, or the reason why we don't use or keep older buildings rather than knock them down, is our property tax structure,” he says. “If you look at an older building — say the Folk's Finer Furs building, or the Barry Hotel — our property tax structure and policy framework is such that in the assessment of the property tax on the site, we value highly the built form on the property itself.

“So if you tear down a building, you're paying property tax on a lot with nothing built on it. If you don't tear down the building, your property tax values the building itself highly. That's what Saskatoon has set up. So it's smarter to tear down an old building in many cases and turn it into a parking lot than it is to keep the building,”

Walker also says there’s little motivation or incentive in the current structure to build at all.

“In our property tax rate we don't factor in the inherent value of the site. So in some cities if you don't build on that particular site, the taxes will still have some of that inherent value built into it, which will motivate you to actually build on the site. If you're going to pay taxes on the value of that building that isn't even built, you might as well build one.”

Of course, Saskatoon doesn't have this.

“Montréal, on the other hand, incorporates some of the inherent value of what could be built on that land into the tax rate. And, they prohibit the developing of service parking. So if you have an old building in Montréal and you want to tear it down you can do that, but you can't put up a parking lot. And, the taxes that you pay on that land actually incorporate some portion of the value of that land if something were built on it. It's like a double protection,” says Walker. “This leads to older buildings staying up longer, being used productively until the time when improvements can be made — whether that means renovating the building, or demolishing it and building something new.”

This sounds beautiful. So why the hell don't we do this?

Walker says while we're headed in a better direction in considering heritage in Saskatoon, much more regard has to be paid by Saskatoon's leaders.

“They've gone through revising their heritage policies. They do have a good policy framework in place, but they just don't seem to be proactively engaged in the protection of some of our highly valuable built heritage in the city,” says Walker. “But no matter what policy framework we have in place for heritage in Saskatoon, it won't be a priority until our elected officials throw their hearts into the heritage of our city — no matter what ward the building is in, we need our elected leaders to lead on heritage. Citizens and councillors have a house or apartment based in a ward, but the city is our home. Heritage defines a city. Our elected officials in Saskatoon have a track record of poor leadership on heritage issues, and it sets the tone for the administration.”

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