Her­itage com­mit­tee un­der fire

Re­designed group limits talks, pre­vents mem­bers from pro­vid­ing real in­put or ad­vice, mem­bers say

Kingston Whig-Standard - - FRONT PAGE - EL­LIOT FER­GU­SON

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.”

EL­LIOT FER­GU­SON/THE WHIG-STAN­DARD

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.

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