At What Cost Idealism?

By Jason Menard

Heritage advocates in this city can’t not pay for their cake and expect not only to eat it, but for the baker to decorate it in exactly the fashion they want. At some point, we have to put our money where our ideals are.

I think you would have a hard time finding people who would oppose a City of London with full-capacity commercial towers, restored and vibrant heritage buildings that pay homage to their legacies while serving to build our city’s future, and fully protected green spaces representative of the beauty of our community’s soul.

I also think you will have an equally hard time finding people who are willing to pay for it.

The name Shmuel Farhi has been on the lips (and fingertips) of the City of London and its Twitterverse (follow me here). And, the discussion centres upon what responsibility the developer has to the city when it comes to preserving heritage buildings and enticing business to its core.

My thought? He has no responsibility whatsoever. If he chooses to let all of his buildings and property holdings fall into a state of disrepair, then that’s his choice (please note, he doesn’t. In fact, he’s been praised by the city’s built and natural environment committed for his efforts in heritage preservation). And if we don’t
like it, then we have a choice.

Stop wishing; start paying.

Heritage debates tend to swing on the discussion of what someone “should” do. It’s very easy to see what the “right” decision is most of the time. Green space good; massive apartment complex obscuring the view bad. Restoring a treasured building good; knocking it down and building a commercial complex bad.

Unfortunately, for the most part, those arguing for the “right” decision are not the ones reaching for their pocketbooks when these properties come to market.

We can’t expect developers to take a completely altruistic stance on their properties. They’re in it to make money. You can hope that they’ll see the added value that community focused efforts can have, but they’re under no obligation to do so.

And if the community wants to be the final arbiter of what a developer can or can’t do with an owned property, then it better be willing to either pay for that right, give developers significant incentives to respect a property’s heritage/aesthetics, or get out of the way.

I’m all in favour of funding the arts, preserving heritage, and other practices that aren’t considered good business. I see the value in all of these and hope people with far deeper pocketbooks do to. But there also has to be a line drawn somewhere. At some point, the market needs to show some sort of interest in the product – and if it doesn’t, then
perhaps it’s time to rethink its value.

Fahri’s buildings may be plastered with “Vacancy” posters, but that’s his choice. If he holds his buildings at a certain value and is willing to eat the losses, then he has that right. He’s under no obligation to change his rental rates, just to make the city look
better.

It’s important to remember he’s not the only person in this city. These properties were on the market before, yet Fahri made the winning bid. If there are deep-pocketed altruistic developers out there, let them come forward and stake their claim on the city’s architectural resources.

I’m not advocating a complete abdication of responsibility for developers. Money doesn’t buy everything – including a carte blanche opportunity to redraw the city in their own vision. But eventually heritage advocates need to put their money where their mouths are.

If no one steps up and saves these buildings and they fall into the hands of a developer who wants to raze them for some other box-like monstrosity, then when do we stop blaming the guys trying to make a buck and start looking in the mirror.

Preserving history costs; so who is willing to foot that bill?

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2 thoughts on “At What Cost Idealism?

  1. stuartclark

    Great post Jay, as it gives me pause to think. I agree part of preserving such things should fall back to the community at large. I wonder what stops this sometimes? Would there be an easier way for people / orgs of similar mind to band together to do something about it.

    Reply
    1. Jay Menard Post author

      Tax incentives perhaps? I don’t know if there’s a perfect answer. Sure, it’d be nice to preserve everything, but that’s just not viable. I look, for example, at Fanshawe Pioneer Village. Every year they were coming out, asking for $250,000. At what point do you say, “the public doesn’t value this as it stands.” It doesn’t mean simply paving it over… but perhaps get creative. What if we took all the empty storefronts downtown and made them into mini museums. Thereby creating a walking area, culminating at the Museum London, that would encourage people to come downtown, walk around, look at storefronts, and hope that there would be some spillover to businesses in the area? You could also use vacant space in Galleria (OK, Citi Plaza) or other areas. Give developers a financial incentive to opening up underused properties and eliminate some of the empty eyesores. Just an idea, but we can’t keep pouring money into things that don’t resonate with the community, nor can we expect developers to buy buildings and maintain them simply for historical value with nothing in return.

      Reply

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