Rapid development raises concerns about fate of Fredericton's heritage buildings

·5 min read
Jeremy Mouat, president of the Fredericton Heritage Trust, says he's concerned that housing growth in Frederiction will come at the expense of historically significant building. (Aidan Cox/CBC - image credit)
Jeremy Mouat, president of the Fredericton Heritage Trust, says he's concerned that housing growth in Frederiction will come at the expense of historically significant building. (Aidan Cox/CBC - image credit)

As Fredericton ramps up efforts to boost its stock of rental housing, some are concerned it could come at the expense of heritage if the proper work isn't done first.

Staff at city hall are set to embark on a two-year project to plot a path for how the downtown gets developed, known as the south core plan.

That work comes as city council adopted its affordable housing strategy, which lays out recommendations, including allowing developers to create four to six-unit buildings in the urban core without special approvals.

But before any of those plans get implemented, the city needs to do a broad review of how it preserves historically significant buildings, or risk having them drastically altered or destroyed, according to Jeremy Mouat, president of Fredericton Heritage Trust.

"There's a ton of development and a lot of the sort of large development areas have now had their future mapped out.

"And in this context, we really would like to see some sort of review to establish how effective the heritage program has been and are there ways to ensure its effectiveness going forward as we basically lose a fair bit of empty space to development downtown?"

Mouat is also one of five council-appointed board members on the Heritage Preservation Review Board, which ensures the city's heritage preservation bylaw is being followed.

However, only about 300 structures have official heritage status or are part of the St. Anne's Point Heritage Area, and therefore protected by the bylaw.

Aidan Cox/CBC
Aidan Cox/CBC

That means the board has little to no say in any modifications or renovations done to the roughly 2,000 other buildings across the city that he says have historical significance.

That includes St. John Street, with its mix of brightly coloured, tightly packed homes that hark back to the development style of the mid-19th century.

"Lots of streetscapes, in our view, need protection," Mouat said. "I mean, if you walk around where I live on St. John Street, down Charlotte Street, Needham, lots of other places, you see charming streetscapes that are the envy of lots of other cities in Canada.

"And what we're anxious about is the fate of these streetscapes, as development pressures are going to pick up, particularly in terms of the need to densify housing and to add on and, you know, subdivide more and more of the older buildings into apartments."

Mouat said his group isn't opposed to the buildings being renovated and used for apartments, "but we're anxious that ultimately that's going to lead to, to wear and tear that would ultimately lead to, to demolition."

Aidan Cox/CBC
Aidan Cox/CBC

Request brought before councillors

On Monday, Doug Wright, chair of the heritage board, made a presentation to Fredericton city council on the group's work since 2021 and recommended council "establish a comprehensive heritage program review" to ensure it aligns with provincial regulations and council priorities.

"It would offer an opportunity for council to consider the broad heritage program in the light of the rapid development now occurring in Fredericton," Wright said.

His recommendation led to a motion by Coun. Margo Sheppard to direct city staff to undertake a heritage program review, including design guideline recommendations and potential amendments to the heritage bylaw prior to the south core plan being done.

The motion generated discussion among councillors, with some in support, and other against it.

Coun. Jason Lejeune said it's important to put the heritage review ahead of the south core plan being done.

"I think getting this done will inform a lot of our work to be done under the south core plan and it's important to get it done ahead of that time primarily to avoid any unintended consequences that could come down the road," he said.

Coun. Bruce Grandy said he couldn't support the motion, noting that staff indicated they were already busy with getting the south core plan done.

"They're tasked with a great load at this particular moment in time. Not only that, the construction and permitting that's going on and the amount of development that's happening," Grandy said.

"If it was a staff recommendation I certainly would support it but understanding what I just asked previous, and the work that they're involved in with the limited staff, I won't support the motion."

The motion was defeated 7-4, but councillors agreed to have the issue sent to the economic vitality committee for further consideration.

Dwindling heritage stock

If a property owner wants to tear down a building with historical significance, council has the opportunity to step in and grant it heritage status.

However, councillors still voted in 2019 against giving heritage status to the Risteen building, effectively giving the developer who owned it the right to tear it down.

Sheppard said with the city set to grow in population, and housing needs to continue growing, she fears more buldings will meet the same fate.

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

"Being the capital city, as Fredericton is, we really need to be cognizant that, that our heritage is, is dwindling," Sheppard said.

"We have many heritage buildings that are not protected in any way. Some have national significance, some have provincial significance, and, you know, we can we can decide that we want to create an environment where people want to keep heritage buildings."

Sheppard said a broad review of the city's heritage strategy could result in incentives from the city to encourage property owners to preserve a building's defining features.

A review could also result in more buildings being better recognized for their heritage value, she said.

"The [heritage] preservation bylaw hasn't really resulted in too too many neighbourhoods being designated for one reason or another.

"And, you know, maybe it's time we took a look at the, at that process and also look at other things that have been over the last 20 years or so ... recommended but never acted upon."

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