Heritage committee under fire
Redesigned group limits talks, prevents members from providing real input or advice, members say
Two and a half years after it was redesigned, current and former members of the city’s heritage committee said it is no longer serving its purpose of protecting Kingston’s historic buildings.
The committee members say the body, once the envy of heritage conservationists, now limits any real discussion of heritage and prevents the volunteer committee members, many of them experts in the field, from providing any meaningful input or advice.
The changes have left some who have made heritage preservation their life’s work frustrated and disillusioned.
In early 2016, the city combined the roles of the Museums and Collections Advisory Committee (MACAC) and the Municipal Heritage Committee into one heritage committee, Heritage Kingston.
Longtime heritage committee volunteers said the 2016 merger fixed a committee that wasn’t broken in the first place and eliminated the opportunity for substantial discussion among committee members and property owners.
The criticism of the new heritage committee is not being levelled at the city’s heritage staff, but is aimed instead at the procedure and structure of the new committee.
The new committee brought together citizen experts with interests in museums and others with interests in building and physical heritage.
On the surface, those two groups may seem to share a common interest in history, but in reality the two groups were different enough that they did not share the passion for the others’ work.
And the more formal committee came with substantial city staff reports about every application that committee members have to read.
“At times I wonder why they even sit there,” Bruce Downey, who spent 30 years sitting on municipal heritage committees, said. “I don’t know why a professional, such as myself, would read through the reams of documents they have to read through only to hear that we are just accepting your comment and that is it.”
The committee’s struggles have been punctuated by the resignation of seven members since the merger, including all of the members with interest in museums and culture.
Among the changes that the merger brought was how the committee arrives at decisions about areas in the city where most of the heritage properties are located.
For properties in the city’s three heritage districts – Sydenham District, Barriefield, and the Springer Market Square area – committee members can only provide comment on plans.
For properties in those three districts, from which come the majority of heritage applications, it is city staff who meet with the applicants and decide what action can be permitted.
The expert volunteers sitting on the committee often don’t get to talk to the applicants, and their sometimes differing input into the decision-making process is limited, Downey said.
“Dealing with heritage issues are not mathematical equations. Often there are different perceptions about how to proceed with work on a heritage property and there was always a period of time when people would learn about how you would work on a heritage property through those discussions. That is very different than any other committee of the city,” Downey said.
“As a heritage professional, I found it very fruitful. I found it really, really beneficial for myself, for other committee members and for the person giving the application,” Downey added. “Now most of those discussions, I believe, are held between staff and the applicant, and the committee doesn’t have that opportunity.
“We had a heritage committee that was probably the envy of most municipalities in Ontario because it was so well informed.”
“Kingston was a leader,” Mac Gervan, who resigned from the committee about 18 months ago, said. “Everyone looked to Kingston for how they should be doing things. Now we are at the low end of the totem pole.”
Gervan said the merger of the culture and museums and the heritage committees was a “stupid idea” and created a committee that is too formal and limits discussion between committee members and applicants.
“Clearly this has failed,” he said.
Removing the chance for any meaningful input by committee members into heritage decisions in the city’s three heritage districts means those decisions are made by city staff alone, and Gervan said that while they do the best they can, they are often overwhelmed by the volume of work and pressured by senior city management.
“Sydenham ward ratepayers wanted more protection for their buildings. That’s why they wanted to become a heritage district. Well, in the end they got less protection,” Gervan said. “Over time you are going to see our heritage losing much of its appeal and much of its detail. It’s kind of a subtle thing. It’s not going to happen tomorrow.”
German said that when the committees were merged, the city promised to review the performance of the new body. No review has taken place so far.
Sydenham District Coun. Peter Stroud echoed the frustration of many of the committee volunteers, and Stroud is not seeking re-appointment as chair of the committee.
In a statement to the Whig-Standard, Stroud said the committee’s 2016 redesign created a “dysfunction” in the committee’s structure and procedures and also questioned why no review has taken place.
“These were a result of a document written by staff in 2016 which outlined the new mandate, structure and procedures, and which contained the promise of a review after one year,” he wrote.
Stroud said the committee review will need to adhere to city council’s commitment to protect heritage.
“Until this happens, as a resident of a heritage building and elected representative of hundreds of heritage property owners in Sydenham, I cannot in good conscience reapply to serve on the committee,” he wrote.
In a statement to the Whig-Standard, the city said the merger of the two committees was done to bring all matters of cultural and built heritage under one umbrella.
“Council approved the new committee mandate and name, including process changes in accordance with legislative requirements,” an email from the city stated.
The city acknowledged the number of heritage permit applications has increased dramatically in recent years, and since 2014 committee members have had access to the online Development and Services Hub (DASH), where they can review and provide comment on heritage applications.
The success of the new committee design shows in the volume of heritage applications it has approved, the city stated.
“Staff can confirm that the new committee format has provided the city with significantly more heritage decisions related to both permits and heritage property designations,” the city said.
“Cultural heritage work celebrating the rich history of Kingston is progressively increasing as part of work for the committee.”
The sun sets Friday on Sydenham District, one of three heritage districts in the city. Heritage committee volunteers have raised concern about how well the committee is protecting the city’s heritage buildings in Kingston.