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

Stop Smashing!

Nathan Raine
Published Thursday April 16, 03:34 pm
Saskatoon really has to learn how to preserve built heritage

Photo Credit: Illustration by Myron Campbell

 If you squint really hard at the corner of Broadway & 11th, you might still be able to see a few demolished bits of heritage.

The 100-year-old Farnam Block, former home to Lydia's and Turning the Tide, was much more than a simple building to many in Saskatoon: many of the businesses that operated there over the years were cultural beacons — places where people could gather, could learn, could enrich their lives through something that was distinctly Saskatoon.

Losing the Farnam Block was lobotomizing one of the core cultural and historical centres of Saskatoon. We weren't just losing a big red building. We were being stripped of something we recognized as home.

It ain't no secret that Saskatoon’s track record on heritage is pretty abysmal. But who’s to blame? Are we too reactionary and not proactive enough? Planet S went to a bunch of experts to discuss heritage past, present,and future in Saskatoon, and just how we might get this heritage stuff right before something else beloved (3rd Ave United Church?) is torn down.

 

THE PARTICIPANTS

Peggy Sarjeant (founding member of Saskatoon Heritage Society)

Dr. Avi Akkerman (professor of Geography and Urban Planning, University of Saskatchewan)

Darryl Dawson (Planning and Development Branch, City of Saskatoon)

Lenore Swystun (board of directors, Saskatoon Heritage Society)

Dr. Robert Shipley (professor of Urban Planning, chair of Heritage Resource Centre, University of Waterloo)

 

FARNAM DEMO AND THE CITY

Prior to the wrecking balls — and just weeks before the demolition began — the new owners of the Farnam Block stated that their commitment to heritage was of the highest priority. The City, which had been working with the owners to try to save the building, did not designate it. Now that the building is only a memory, what could've been done?

LS: I have to call them out on claiming to be committed to heritage. Even for the most basic premise of letting us in the building to get a good archival record of it, we weren’t allowed in [...] The demolition permit finally triggered the City to do something. A few people from the City and Heritage Society sat down with the owners to see if they could save it. But it's way too late at that point.

PS: It should be acknowledged that the City and Heritage Society tried very hard with the owners of the Farnam Block. But the City was limited in what they can offer the owners. And while the City has the ability to designate the building over the owner's wishes, historically the City is most reluctant to do that.

(The City of Saskatoon declined to comment on the Farnam Block.)

 

REACTIVE NOT PROACTIVE?

With the improvements made to the heritage policy over the past year, as well as the outrage surrounding the Farnam, there's a lot of talk surrounding heritage lately. Saskatoon's track record is poor, yes. But is this just further indication that we need to be proactive in establishing good heritage practices?

PS: Generally, we take our [built] environment very much for granted — it's only when something happens that we tend to react to it. It was the same with the Capitol Theatre, which is always talked about as a seminal event. And with the Farnam Block, it's coming forward to people's attention once again. I think now people are concerned about how much we are losing our built heritage.

AA: I think that the City policy is driven by development, not by public interests. We have a very fine planning department, but why are these people are not allowed to voice their independent opinions? That's the problem. We have many people that could provide wonderful input that are right here in the civic administration. The community cannot benefit from continued development in the suburbs. Another bridge, another bridge, what's that going to do? It's going to create more automobile traffic, and in another 50 years time we’ll require another two bridges. The city is expanding and it's quite obvious that it doesn't have the money to maintain the infrastructure in all the areas.

DD: We’re continually working to promote the heritage program. As with any heritage properties that are not designated, we will have communication with the property owners to discuss their plans, and ensure that they are well aware of the heritage programs and incentives available for maintaining that property.

LS: I think the City itself, like the City's corporate and political leadership, has set itself up to be reactionary even when they want to be proactive. We're trying to create a proactive policy structure, but because they're not implementing it yet, it's still reactive. They don't think about heritage when they think about development — it comes after the fact.

 

WHAT NOW?

There's no shortage of improvements that Saskatoon can make on heritage, policy, and ensuring that we retain some our most valuable culture. And by the variety of answers given by our panel, there's certainly plenty of work to do. Even us in the media...

PS: The City has recently passed heritage policies which need to move forward. We need to find ways to encourage business owners to preserve their buildings, and quite often that’s a financial aspect. I think that this can only be provided by a municipal government. We need to look at providing more incentives for owners. And, I think people have to learn to look at buildings with different eyes, see potential in them.

AA: It's obvious that there's pressure from developers. We shouldn't let private interest dictate what the public is paying for. What should happen in the city is more transparency — we should know who these developers are who are pressuring the City. [City officials have said] they will not name some of these developers. This isn't transparency. How can we not give the names of developers in a democratic society? We’re in an open society, not North Korea. And, to be honest with you, I think journalists here are doing a very poor job. They don't do any investigative journalism whatsoever. The StarPhoenix is complaining that nobody is reading their paper. Well of course nobody is reading it, because there's nothing in it. There’s so much going on behind-the-scenes, and no one is looking into it. There should be recognition of public interest, not private interests. There should be transparency. If there's no pressure from media, there will be no transparency.

DD: [The City's heritage policies] were updated and adopted in 2014. Some the key points of that was the creation of a heritage registry. That registry, when completed, will be comprised of about 200 properties, which will include the 37 heritage-designated properties in the city [...] We also want to streamline our approval process. Going through the process to get funding or heritage designation can be a very time-consuming process, and we're looking at ways to make that better.

LS: When you think about what makes Saskatoon a destination, or makes it distinct, is its Indigenous history. There's a culture there almost in spite of [the lack of support] — but what would be great is if there was a leadership there who would nurture it. You need to have leadership committed to seeing the value of heritage, and you have to have policy and money and programs in place to help that. The City has no problem putting money and policy in place for other things, but for some reason they seem to think that heritage is something that doesn't have as much value. We need to find different ways of engaging people so we can have a voice that has much more value [to municipal policy].

 

LOOK TO THE LEADERS

Obviously there are cities out there that get a passing grade on their heritage report card. To find out what other places have done, we spoke with Dr. Robert Shipley of the University of Waterloo, one of Canada's leading voices on heritage and cultural preservation.

RS: Good cities have heritage planners, someone specialized who is in the planning function or bureaucracies in the city who can give good advice. The economic development offices also understand heritage, so they’re able to look at the benefits. And there’s an effort to educate the elected representatives as well, so they understand the potential and possibility for maintaining older buildings.

The best thing you can do in Saskatoon is put some of the planners and councillors on an airplane and send them off to places where people do things differently. Europe has very strict rules about existing buildings. You’re not allowed to knock things down. They have developers making a lot of money, but they are working within rules that don’t include destruction of buildings. These rules need to be clear. Then the developers can get on with what they do best, but within the rules.

And when considering the value of heritage, is it far greater than simply the existence of a pretty building?

RS: I think it's important to have a better understanding of the economics of heritage. Heritage, when viewed in a constructive way, is not an alternative or impediment or opposition to development, it should be a part of the way any city evolves. Older buildings contribute to the sense of place, they define a community, because they are expressions of the past. But building structures are also real estate assets. Quite often it's less expensive to reuse old buildings than to trash them and to build new buildings. So certainly one step is to see or accept the built environments as economic assets.   

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