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Calgary heritage advocates say Guidebook isn’t specific enough in neighbourhood preservation

Calgary’s heritage advocates generally view the Guidebook for Great communities as good, but they say it lacks meat for in preserving the city’s neighbourhood history.

The Guidebook for Great Communities comes to Calgary’s combined meeting of council March 22, and it has become a lightning rod for controversy. Sides have staked their claims, with some arguing that it’s the blueprint for responsible and equitable growth, while other say it threatens the existence of single-family detached homes.

Cynthia Klaassen with the volunteer group Heritage Inspires YYC said the 131-page document lacks a real commitment to heritage preservation. She said the document contains a lot of “shoulds.”

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“If you read through all the heritage pieces, it says, well, you should do this and you should do that, and when you’re looking at heritage, this should be the way it’s done,” she said.

“So, there’s nothing within the guidebooks that says this is what needs to be done, or what has to be done. It’s more of a very general suggestion.”

Klaassen said that the city’s been working on heritage preservation tools for the past few years. Some of them aren’t fully implemented. There’s nothing in the document explicitly linking the two bodies of work.

“I think in some ways it’s good, but it’s a little bit like putting the cart before the horse,” she said.

Guidebook provides tools, but owners must protect

Lisa Kahn with the Guidebook for Great Communities said when the city enters a Local Area Plan (LAP) with neighbourhoods, they bring with them a list of heritage assets.

That list is discussed with the community. Kahn said policy can be introduced through the LAP that is sensitive to heritage characteristics of the area. But, the city has no right to designate a property without an owner’s approval.

That means, until an owner applies for heritage designation, it’s not protected.

“We can’t require them to be retained. Somebody can absolutely come down and knock down a heritage asset,” Kahn said.

Kahn said they’ve also created more incentive for people to preserve homes. She said they have adaptive reuse policies and policy that allows flexibility in redevelopment. That’s like adding a secondary or backyard suite.

“That helps promote the retention of it,” Kahn said.

“But if somebody does knock it down, then we have the heritage guideline tools that are used through the LAP to ensure that redevelopment is sensitive, contextually, to those heritage aspects.”

We asked if they’d considered a typology specifically for heritage blocks or neighbourhoods – like Scarboro.

For communities like Scarboro, where the entire community could be considered heritage, Kahn said they would go through the LAP and include an extra policy guide redevelopment in that area.

Watered down in the Guidebook

Klaassen said that the Guidebook is all about encouraging and not about acting on preservation.

“I think it needs to be a lot more explicit in the Guidebook,” Klaassen said.

“There’s a lot of really good information in the (Municipal Development Plan) that actually got super watered-down in the Guidebook.”

It needs a direct connection to the tool and incentives, Klaassen said. The tools should have been a part of the Guidebook itself, even.

“I mean it looks great, but it’s kind of missing the teeth,” she said.

“That’s what people are concerned about because it sets the stage for a lot of changes that are already happening and it’s trying to codify a lot of those changes and make it more helpful.  In the process, there’s a lot of work that goes on in local communities and I think communities also feel that they aren’t being heard or listened to.”