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More than buildings at stake in Oak Bay heritage plan

Heritage consultant, Stuart Stark on St. Patrick Street in South Oak Bay with homes he feels could be considered heritage.  - Sharon Tiffin/News staff
Heritage consultant, Stuart Stark on St. Patrick Street in South Oak Bay with homes he feels could be considered heritage.
— image credit: Sharon Tiffin/News staff

The fundamental values that shape the nature of Oak Bay's character are being examined in a process that the Heritage Commission hopes will help guide the future of the community.

The process began this spring with the municipal council calling on the Heritage Commission to prepare a heritage plan for Oak Bay. The plan is to be finished prior to and for consideration within the development of the overall Oak Bay Community Plan.

“We found that whenever heritage properties came up for demolition or change, we were dealing with them on a one-by-one basis,” said Mayor Nils Jensen. “Having a plan in place with some established policies and direction will be preferable to approaching these important questions on an ad-hoc basis.”

The process is being driven by Stuart Stark and Associates and Donald Luxton and Associates, the consulting firms charged with determining what it is about Oak Bay that makes it special. They're being challenged to develop an effective, sustainable and realistic framework to preserve the viability of the unique heritage resources within the community.

Both firms are well qualified for the job, with Stark literally having written the book on Oak Bay heritage. As well, both firms have received the B.C. Heritage Award, conferred annually by the Minister responsible for heritage. Those awards were given in 2002 and 2009 respectively.

"Heritage isn’t always just about old houses,” said Stark. “We want to know what citizens value as heritage in their community.”

The process has begun with an online survey in which citizens are invited to provide their opinions about the heritage of their community and offer suggestions on how that heritage should be protected and sustained.

“Reaching out online is an approach that we've used in other jurisdictions with a lot of success,” said Stark. “We want to cast the net as wide as possible to get the full range of opinions.”

And opinions of what heritage means in Oak Bay are certainly quite varied. Stark has spoken to people within the community who value the rock outcroppings that dot the neighbourhood. Others see the existence of the back lanes as fundamental to the character. “Some value the gardens, the parks, the trees, the pathways and, yes, the houses,” said Stark. “You find that it's a very personal thing for people once you get them thinking about it.”

It’s expected that the full range of those opinions will be presented at a town hall meeting to be held on September 27 at 7 p.m. at the Windsor Park Pavilion, 2451 Windsor Rd.

“There’s an amazing mixture of all kinds of values in this community,” said Stark. It’s his hope that those values can be articulated and represented in the heritage plan.

In the past politicians have made a point of saying that they want to sustain the character of Oak Bay, only to  allow that character to fundamentally change through the modification of parks, street-scapes and housing, said Stark.

He cites a review of heritage buildings as an example of that unregulated change. He says that in 1986 an inventory of heritage buildings identified 205 buildings with heritage importance in Oak Bay. Of those fewer than 20 have been protected by heritage designation bylaws. By 2005, seven of the remaining, unprotected buildings had been demolished and three had been moved out of Oak Bay. Some 21 of the remaining homes have been significantly altered, eliminating some or all of their heritage importance.

“One house, once owned by Emily Carr was actually slated for demolition,” said Stark. “Emily Carr.Can you imagine? … And we were prepared to tear it down.”  That house was eventually spared, but moved out of Oak Bay.

“This plan is a significant step forward to protecting not only the built heritage – and we have such a rich history of architecture – but also the natural settings, the layout of streets … all those things that combine to make our community special,” said Jensen. “I’m very excited about the project.”

Stark shares that excitement. “Our heritage isn't just bricks, or even the natural landscape, although it incorporates those factors. Heritage is the foundation – the grounding influence of how we live our lives,” said Stark. “All those things are the landmarks of our lives, they're what gives us grounding and stability.”

Further information on the town hall meeting, the online survey and the heritage plan can be found at oakbaybc.org.

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