Among many, London has these two strategic goals: To rejuvenate the downtown and to protect its built heritage. But when you overlay on that a provincial directive to build up rather than out, tension and turmoil is almost certain.
“In general the province has decided intensification is better than urban sprawl,” says Don Menard, London’s heritage planner. “The corollary, of course, is that intensification in an urban area often impacts on heritage structures.”
The brief battle to save 199 Queens Ave. from becoming a parking lot en route, possibly, to a high rise condo development is just the latest example of an evolution that goes back to London’s earliest days.
In recent times it reached a crescendo when the historic streetscape of an entire block of Talbot was demolished to make way for a shopping centre that never happened. Ultimately, what is now Budweiser Gardens was built on the site, the northeast corner of which replicates one of the doomed structures from another century.
From that event in the late 1980s has emerged a determination to protect more of London’s structural history. The principle tool has been creation of heritage conservation districts which, rather than designating individual buildings for special attention, throw a protective blanket over entire neighbourhoods.
In an interview Mr. Menard, a retired history teacher who turned a love of fine old architecture into a second career, provides some context.
“The intent of heritage conservation districts is to provide a degree of stability for an historic neighbourhood. That way change, if it comes, is through a planning process rather than something arbitrary.
“But I think some people thought that a conservation district gave them not only stability, but a certainty it would not change and that certainty is what is now being questioned to a degree, and probably should be questioned.”
Today the downtown is ringed by heritage conservation districts from West and East Woodfield to the immediate north and northeast, and Old East London.
There’s talk as well of a similar district for Wortley Village and Old South. And pending an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board, all of the downtown will become one.
“A conservation district is not meant to freeze an area in time,” Mr. Menard says, “but once you say that then it opens the door.”
For the West Woodfield Conservation District that issue is about to be sorely tested. Working its way through the planning department is an application for a high rise condo tower on the corner of Wellington and Wolfe, facing Victoria Park. It would mean the demolition of two buildings which, while not heritage buildings themselves, are heritage buildings by virtue of being part of a heritage district. Part of the planning process will be a study to determine the negative impact on the neighbourhood.
“The downtown and the areas around it will not remain frozen,” Mr. Menard says. “But we’re trying to ensure whatever happens will complement the best of the past.
“I think we have to accept we’re going to lose some buildings, we’re going to gain some taller buildings. I’m hoping we can keep our losses at a minimum and not sacrifice a lot of character as a result, but that’s easier to say and harder to achieve. Things do change.”
Philip McLeod is a longtime London journalist who writes a regular blog on civic affairs. He can be reached at email@example.com.