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Preserving Housing and Heritage in St. John’s (Sharpe)

“Preserving Housing and Heritage in St. John’s” is an article written by Christopher Sharpe for The Canadian Geographer (1995). It begins with a comparison of the St. John’s “inner city” with those of other Canadian cities. St. John’s lacks a “privileged” inner city district, a condominium market, grey-field development, or a population boom (much of which remains true today). It does, however, have a distinctive visual and topographic appeal, and does reflect demographic changes seen elsewhere. Families are down, incomes are up (but low), renters and rents are up. The proliferation of rental units, Sharpe argues, makes for a geographically uncommitted inner city population.

Next Sharpe looks at the inner city in terms of two planning policy objectives: “maintenance of the residential function in the inner city and preservation of its historic townscape.” The city approached housing by providing units, via the non-profit housing corporation Urban Living, and by encouraging the private sector to fill the gaps, via infill housing. In 1995 Urban Living had 424 units, but was, Sharpe notes, not financially self-sufficient. The city’s infill program saw the addition of 457 dwelling units (close to 350 downtown) by both the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation and private interests.

St John’s first designated a 65 -acre Heritage Conservation Area in 1977 based on Heritage Canada’s area conservation policy (meant to encourage sensitive growth rather than to halt it).  Regulations for the area required new development to share style, details, materials, scale, and height with historic properties. As in other articles, Sharpe is critical of why heritage should be conserved. He recognizes the aesthetic benefits of a regulated streetscape, but points to examples which pose interesting problems. When language governing material choice in the HCA was removed from the plan in the mid-1980s, the Historic Trust argued against allowing “vinyl slider and siding” construction. While clapboard was, at one time, the cheaper alternative, by then it had become more expensive and difficult to justify in a low-income district. In this sense these policy objectives may be at odds.

In light of this setback for preservation, Sharpe highlights some of the heritage movement’s successes. He points to the St. John’s Heritage Foundation, which purchased and renovated 28 homes, and sold 23, between 1977 and 1982, the Heritage Grants Programme, established in 1991 (30% of costs to $6,000 – total budget $25,000), and regulations relaxing rules regarding bed and breakfasts.

Sharpe concludes with observations on the fragility of support for heritage conservation in St. John’s. Heritage-consciousness is at a high during economic slumps (1970s), he observes, and lowest during (anticipated) booms (mid-1980s). “The local experience seems to indicate that heritage conservation will be supported only when to do so incurs no obvious or direct costs.”

Further reading:
Brown and Burke, The Canadian Inner City 1971-1976 (CMHC, 1979)
Ley, Gentrification in Canadian Inner Cities (1985)Sharpe, Preserving Inner City Residential Areas: The Planning Process in St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1983-1991 (ISER, 1993)
-, Heritage Conservation and Development Control in a Speculative Environment (ISER, 1986)
City of St. John’s, St. John’s Municipal Plan (1984)
-, St, John’s Land Use Zoning and Subdivision Regulations (1988)
-, St. John’s Municipal Plan 1990 (1993)
-, St. John’s Municipal Plan Review (1992)
O’Dea, “The St. John’s Heritage Conservation Area: The Politics of Preservation” (presentation, 1981)