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LETTER: Oak Bay must do better job of preserving our heritage

In his opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, architect Toon Dreessen argues for retaining versus replacing Ottawa’s Alexandra Bridge, which still functions after nearly 120 years in service. Our built heritage, he says, should be conserved, restored and respected, because it is “the place where we learn about our past, forge our sense of community and give hope to our future.” Preserving our built heritage, he adds, also keeps valuable resources out of our landfill and reduces our carbon footprint.

Here in Oak Bay, we must heed Mr. Dreessen’s advice and wake up to the urgent need to preserve our own heritage before it all disappears. Oak Bay council must lead the effort, and Oak Bay residents must be prepared to support preservation efforts with their tax dollars and the use of other tools.

Here are two examples of valuable heritage assets that we are on the brink of losing.

The property at 785 Island Rd. is of significant heritage and community value to Oak Bay. The home’s architectural features, occupant history, situation in a natural rock outcropping, and other aspects described in the Statement of Significance prepared for the Oak Bay Community Heritage Register provide plenty of support for preservation. Yet council was unable to negotiate a satisfactory Heritage Revitalization Agreement to preserve the property and allow a small subdivision. As a result, we now learn that this home will be demolished and, save for a few salvaged parts, sent to the landfill.

Meanwhile, just 2.5 kilometres away, 2072 Hampshire is up for sale as “prime for subdivision.” Real estate listings do not even mention that this historic farmhouse and orchard is listed in our Heritage Register. Given council’s failure to save 785 Island Rd., is this home also destined for the landfill? A better alternative must surely be a carefully designed and negotiated Heritage Development Agreement that preserves the house and sympathetic elements of the landscape in exchange for additional, compact housing.

Every time a heritage home is demolished or moved out of our community, we are losing the very thing that makes our community so special for residents, businesses and visitors. Without more proactive support for preservation the historic fabric of our community will continue to be torn apart lot by lot.

To halt the erosion of our built heritage, Oak Bay needs a comprehensive strategy to guide decision making. Such a strategy, backed by sufficient in-house expertise and resources, will assist council and the community identify the right opportunities for preservation and select the appropriate policy tools to make it happen. These tools include heritage designation bylaws and revitalization agreements, tax exemptions, density bonusing, strata subdivision of larger heritage homes to support conservation and increase the housing supply, and others. Such a strategy will also identify and allocate sufficient funds through the appropriate mix of tax expenditures, foundation grants or other resources to achieve the selected preservation outcomes.

Oak Bay Heritage Commission could be charged with this policy development exercise as a priority, and given a suitable budget and the appropriate contracted expertise to support their work and hold public consultations.

Like Ottawa’s Alexandra Bridge, Oak Bay’s built heritage is worth preserving. Our Official Community Plan says so. To be an effective steward of this heritage, council needs robust policy, staff capacity, and an energetic commitment to do better than it has to date.

Lesley Watson

Oak Bay

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