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Saint John mulls allowing changes to hidden facades of heritage buildings

Saint John wants to revamp regulations around heritage designations
WATCH: The City of Saint John is considering allowing owners of heritage buildings to update non-visible building facades using non-traditional materials. Silas Brown has more.

A former heritage officer for the city of Saint John is raising concerns about proposed amendments to the Heritage Conservation Areas bylaw.

The changes would allow the owners of heritage buildings to make changes to some aspects of side and rear facades without receiving heritage permits. Jim Bezanson, who was one of many who spoke out about the amendments at a public hearing on Monday night, says it’s a slippery slope to start allowing alterations on one part of heritage buildings.

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“You start with the back facade, side facade, then why not the front facade?” he said.

“It’s a lack of understanding on the part of senior staff and council, who get their direction and recommendations from them, about what heritage conservation is all about. It’s about buildings, it’s not about front facades.”

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Bezanson says heritage buildings need to be treated like an asset rather than a liability and worries that the proposal, which is intended to spur development, will begin a slow erosion of Saint John’s heritage character.

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“We are a city of old buildings. We have more old buildings than anywhere else in the country and they’re in good shape. They just need to be respectfully developed,” he said.

The Saint John Heritage Development Board has signed off on the changes which would cover things like windows, doors, decks, stairs fire escapes and fences. Door and window size would still have to remain the same and masonry would also remain to be protected.

The board says the proposal is able to strike a balance between private and public concerns.

“In terms of, again, balance of the pressures and the economic interest of the property owners we felt it best to prioritize those things that we can see and be a little more permissive on the things that we can’t see,” said chair of the board Robert Boyce.

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“These building have to have viable economic lives. We can’t afford as a society or a community to have a bunch of heritage artifacts that aren’t being used.”

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Boyce admits that it means the heritage character of some buildings will be altered, but that the alterations being allowed are fairly minor and could likely be reversed in many cases should an owner wish to restore a building to its original state.

“There’s no question that it does alter the character of a building,” said.

“But in an effort to balance private interest and public interest we felt that it was reasonable, again without permitting overall major change to the fabric, to be a little bit more permissive on the invisible facades.”

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Ward 3 councillor Donna Reardon, who represents uptown, says she believes the proposed rules would still respect the integrity of heritage buildings.

“What really keeps the integrity of your building is your brickwork or your exterior, your windows or your roof. I think those are the big components,” she said.

“Your fence can be changed later down the road, your driveway, your landscaping, fire escape, those things don’t impact the integrity of the building and that’s what we need to concentrate on.”

Reardon added that the rules should provide some flexibility to buyers.

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“I think it makes it a lot more flexible for people buying, I think it makes it more acceptable, I think it makes it a little bit more enticing to buy and say the back is for you to do your thing but the front we’d like you to keep the street-scape,” she said.