The Status of Listed Buildings in Any Municipality

(Je traduirai cet article aussitôt que possible. Je regrette le delai.)

This is an edited letter which I wrote to the Mayor of a city recently following public meetings where the fate of a listed building was discussed – a developer had asked for a permit to demolish. Several experts had been hired by the developer and the City to ‘advise’ on the condition of the building in question

Dear Mayor,
It seemed that you had read the report of listed buildings carefully and that you realize what few others understand about heritage properties. This is that the conservation and the preservation of all buildings on any list of important buildings have factual and directive values. Many actors in the general area of development, out of lack of knowledge or even from a will to frustrate the intent of conservation objectives, fail to act in consequence of this. Having read the document carefully, myself, only in the last few weeks, I did not realize that the report has the same legal effect as a City By-Law. As such, its actual words are important. The most important of these are located near its end. The primary objective of the report, which by regulation manages the site is this : La preservation des immeubles ayant des valeurs historiques et culturelles. Conditions essential to the management of the district also spelled out : la transparence totale et l’implication pleine des citoyens du départ de tout projet.

In this objective and in this directive about the management of the Heritage, the By-Laws of your city conform perfectly to the International Charters of Athens and of Venice. These render to all of the World’s Heritage an International character. They also raise all of the issues around its definition and management, from a Political level of Opinions and Argument, to those of Law and of Science and of Fact. Any other conclusions about the meaning of the report of listed buildings in your city would make no sense. Any later change, that weakened the central intent of your lisst to conserve, would betray its intent.

Nowhere, in any definition or any guide to the management of officially recognized cultural property, will one find the concept that cultural property is to be preserved …under certain conditions…. Or …..if it is not too costly…. Everywhere, in every city, from Florence or Rome to Québec City, Old Montreal or to the buildings on the répértoire of your city’ list in the report, the Heritage is to be preserved – period.

Discussions may be held as to how best to carry out this regulatory requirement. Surely, full transparency and the fullest participation of the citizens is necessary. But all opinions about the state of the carpentry, the foundations or about the cost of repairing a building are not helpful ; in fact, they are universally counter-indicated by the intent of all preservation legislation.

There are good reasons for this which I can illustrate from personal experience.

Over many years, having to deal with arguments by diverse experts about the condition of historic buildings, has shown me that all professionally qualified experts who write about or who appear to give testimony about the heritage - in engineering, in architecture, in history, even in general culture, will, as if they were lawyers advocating for the individual cases of their clients, even when sworn, will only tell those truths and semi-truths that their pay-masters want to hear. Regrettably, many will exaggerate, diminish, and or prevaricate for their clients. None ever evince professional disinterest. Experts in court cases, both criminal and civil, always do the same, often with regrettable, and for their reputations, shameful results.

And therefore, the Charters, of which your city’s list is a junior off-spring, define the buildings of value to begin with, closing out any argument about relative values of costs of retaining history or architecture. Discussions about the best way to preserve may be possible, may even be necessary, but neither demolition nor replacement are ever to be part of these considerations. Protection of the Heritage is governed by Law, Facts and Science, not Opinion, and can never be influenced by purchased, vague, relative cost estimates and-or arguments, no matter how reasonable sounding to the ear.

Most important, to ensure that there is no harm caused by this rigor applied to preservation and conservation practice under Law, all the rules encourage and allow for argument and opinion in favour of helping an owner who feels or who can show financial damage by being required to conserve a recognized cultural property.

Fair public subsidy, in money or in minor derogations or otherwise, can be awarded to an owner, if it is proved or found out that one is damaged by doing the correct thing. But those arguments are made after it is made clear, that regulations of the Charters and the By-Laws will be obeyed.

For these reasons, I urge you to reject each and every recommendation from anyone, or any group, however impressive their qualifications, to frustrate the By-Laws which established your city’s list, clearly require preservation of all the listed buildings in your protected area

Please count on me for any support or other illustrative material that I might give you or anyone else in this matter.


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