Use it or Lose it? On Preserving Empty Heritage Buildings

Fifteen years ago, the spaces behind the red-brick façade at 48 Ontario Street North were emptied out, and so they remain today. But a group called Friends of 48 Ontario is pushing to reanimate the 106-year-old structure, which was home to the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 50 for half a century and is now owned by the City of Kitchener. To start, they’re opening it to the public during this year’s Doors Open event on Saturday September 17.

“A big part of why it was important to get this building into Doors Open was because it had been vacant for so long that most people had no idea where it is or what the potential of it was,” says James Howe, one of the key advocates behind Friends of 48 Ontario.

The group is motivated by a history of heritage losses in Kitchener, most potently symbolized by the 1973 demolition of Kitchener’s old city hall. In 2005, the destruction of the city-owned Forsyth Factory was declared one of that year’s worst losses by the National Trust for Canada. The Mayfair Hotel, part of the same block as the Legion — bounded by King, Young, Duke and Ontario Streets — came down last year after it was declared unsafe by the city’s chief building official.

Both the Forsyth and Mayfair buildings were empty for extended periods of time before their demolition, slowly degenerating until they could no longer be brought back to life. Friends of 48 Ontario are concerned that the Legion might meet the same fate.

“We needed to immediately make the link between the Mayfair and the Legion building because, sooner or later, something was going to happen to the Legion,” Howe says.  Although it is well maintained as an empty space, it does not receive the same level of scrutiny and care as an occupied building would. “In terms of a heritage building, especially one that the city owns, it shouldn’t be sitting empty… hoping that nothing happens to it in the meantime.”stair

Last month, I sat down to chat with Howe and Kae Elgie at Smile Tiger, itself located in a renovated heritage building on Ahrens Street West. Elgie is past president of the North Waterloo Region branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario and is spearheading Friends of 48 Ontario along with Howe. The pair connected over their shared interests while speaking at Kitchener city council about issues like built heritage.

“It does have a lot of potential,” says Elgie of 48 Ontario. “From my perspective… I just want to see the building occupied. Get it used.”

The City of Kitchener is currently investigating whether the building might support an arts hub. The need for more affordable arts space in the city has been identified in numerous studies, the earliest from 1996. But how and where that space will be realized is still under discussion, with other locations on the table including the second floor of 44 Gaukel Street, empty space at existing centres like the Registry Theatre or Centre in the Square, or a combination of dispersed spaces as opposed to a central location.

For the Legion, the city is considering three options as presented by staff last June: sell the property with proceeds to go towards an arts hub elsewhere, lease it as an arts hub, or sell it with a portion to be leased back as an arts hub. The most recent consultation happened last month and involved stakeholders in imagining what an arts space might be like; the next event will be a charrette, shortly after Doors Open on September 20, to determine how those ideas translate to a physical space. In this process, the fate of 48 Ontario has become almost inextricably intertwined with the arts hub idea.

“They are two key issues that have converged,” agrees Silvia Di Donato, manager of arts and culture at the City. “It’s obviously of specific interest because it’s currently vacant.” But Howe and Elgie believe that a lengthy consultation about an arts hub will delay the building being occupied.

“I’ve told city council, if the city does not have plans to have that building occupied in the short term, they should sell it,” says Howe. “I like the idea of the city owning it and turning it into an arts hub or maybe some other kind of use, but it’s in the best interest of the building to be occupied.”

City staff don’t disagree. “Obviously, the best way to protect the building is to use it,” says Sandra Parks, the City’s heritage planner. But now that it’s a contender for an arts hub, council will likely delay making any decisions regarding the building until that consultation is complete.

“I’d probably prefer that it’s sold,” says Elgie when I ask what she envisions for the building. “It’s always nerve-racking because you don’t know who’s going to buy it and some developers are a lot better at working with heritage buildings than others.”

Di Donato took me through the building on a sunny morning, when the light was lovely coming in through the tall windows. Aside from cosmetic issues like peeling paint, the structure appears sturdy, its concrete columns and beams lending it a potential openness that might accommodate a variety of uses. An immersive, site-specific theatre piece called “Legion of Memory” was staged there in 2006 and 2007, leaving poetry scribbled on the walls. The building also has a long history of hosting the arts before the Legion moved out.hall

“I am quite convinced that [it] is the birthplace of the blues in Kitchener,” says Howe. In 1985, local resident Glenn Smith began organizing blues shows at the Legion, a perfect venue for occasional concerts. He capitalized on an existing tour circuit that wound its way
from London to Toronto and Ottawa to book acts like Buddy Guy and Robert Cray.

Waterloo Region’s 14th Doors Open will showcase 48 buildings, many of which are not generally open to the public. This year’s theme is “Into Science + Tech” and features, among churches, factories, and institutional buildings, the offices of Bridgit (in the Smile Tiger building), Google (Breithaupt Block), and four tech companies in Kitchener’s first commercial highrise at 305 King Street West, designed by renowned Toronto firm WZMH in 1964.

These spaces point to a merging of heritage and high tech, also exemplified by the redevelopment of the Tannery in 2011 and the ongoing $10 million renovation of the old ‘hide house’ across the street. That building will be occupied by Deloitte in 2017. While this trend has helped revitalize heritage places throughout downtown Kitchener, it has also contributed to rising real estate prices, potentially pricing out tenants not as flush with capital as companies dealing in software and financial services.

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the celebrated urban activist Jane Jacobs wrote that “the economic value of old buildings is irreplaceable at will. It is created by time.” She was referring not only to the “architectural distinction or charm” of old buildings, but the fact that they are cheap and help sustain economic diversity. Meticulously renovated heritage buildings in which millions have been invested are economically similar to new buildings, requiring high rents for developers to recoup costs. The former Legion is, still, in good enough shape to require minimal investment to become useful again, especially as a city-owned building. Bigger costs would involve making the building accessible with an elevator and replacing the roof.

Elgie and Howe agree that getting people interested in and vocal about the building is important.

“The more profile the building has, the more awareness the building has, the more difficult it is for somebody to come in and get rid of it,” says Howe.

“It’s just a drain now. And it is an asset, whether they rent it themselves or they get someone else to do it. Especially with the climate, with the enthusiasm for being in heritage buildings, like this,” says Elgie, gesturing to the exposed brick and steel beams around us. “It’s a little trend — it may not last forever, but capitalize on it; don’t wait till it’s done,” she laughs.