Some facts about Heritage Conservation Districts

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By Brent Eades

Mill-Post

In light of Town Council’s apparent reluctance this week to go ahead with the initial study of how parts of downtown Almonte might be designated a Heritage Conservation District (HCD), I thought it would be useful to look at the real-world experiences of Ontario communities that have successfully gone through the process.

In 2009 the Ontario government funded an extensive study (by the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario) of 32 HCDs in towns as diverse as Toronto, Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Goderich and Niagara-on-the-Lake. All of the districts had been designated by 1992 or earlier, meaning that study respondents had had at least 17 years’ experience living or doing business in a heritage regime. The districts studied encompassed either commercial, residential, or mixed populations.

Entitled Heritage Districts Work!, the study made several key findings:

  • By and large the goals set for individual Heritage Conservation Districts have been achieved.
  • Satisfaction with living and owning property in districts is overwhelming.
  • It is not difficult or time-consuming to make appropriate alterations to properties in districts.
  • Real estate values in Heritage Conservation Districts generally rise more consistently than surrounding areas.
  • Strong real estate performance and resident satisfaction are most pronounced where district guidelines are enforced.

In Depth 

Following are some key excerpts from the study.

Are people content?

This study found that people are overwhelmingly satisfied with living or owning property in a district. When asked how satisfied they were with living in the district, 318 of the 681 people surveyed (almost half) said they were very satisfied (see Figure 1). An additional 193 people stated they were satisfied. In total 511 people (75%) are happy living or owning property in a district. Only 34 people were dissatisfied and nine people very dissatisfied.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Is it difficult to make alterations?

It is clear that alterations are not an issue. Almost all requests were approved; very few appear to be denied. The vast majority of applications are said to be approved within three months, with a large percentage approved within one month. There are only two districts were there was any indication that the process regularly takes longer than three months.

The districts where authority to approve changes is delegated to staff seemed to be able to approve their applications in the most timely manner, and those districts also received fewer complaints about the inconsistent application of the design guidelines.

Have property values been impacted?

The real estate market in Heritage Conservation Districts is healthy. In total 2500 properties were examined for sales histories but only 431 properties had two or more sales. This small number of sales histories shows that districts are very stable areas.

Of the 431 properties in the districts that had sales histories, 190 showed above average sales history trajectories. One-hundred-forty-seven had average trajectories, while only 94 performed below average. There was also an indication that in many cases properties in Heritage Conservation Districts resisted real estate downturns. While other properties in their cities were losing value, the properties in the district maintained their value.

It appears that better enforcement of the guidelines led to higher satisfaction. Consistent enforcement also results in higher property value increases. In the three districts where there was 100% satisfaction with living in the district and few complaints about enforcement, the sales histories were mostly above average.

Education and Awareness

The issue of better education and awareness was one of the most common points mentioned. Almost every district would benefit from some form of education. The lack of awareness for residents ranged from not knowing they lived in a district, to not having a complete understanding of the processes for management and a lack of understanding about the benefits of a district. The awareness of Heritage Conservation Districts might be a direct result of the lack of information available on municipal websites.

Local Examples

In our immediate area, both Arnprior (2007) and Perth (2013) have successfully overseen the designation of their downtown cores as HCDs.  This Stewardship Guide (PDF) gives a good explanation of just how the HCD system is implemented in Perth.