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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wrecking Ball Approach to Heritage

It is a common story; heritage buildings being demolished for the promise of progress. Does it work?

Recent history shows us that this type of progress does not build communities; it only isolates people by destroying the physical things that emotionally bind them.

Ryan McGreal, editor of urban affairs blog Raise the Hammer, says: “Hamilton is still stuck in that mindset: ‘if we want renewal, we have to demolish all the stuff that’s there now and put something new and shiny in its place.’ We’ve been doing that since the 1960s and it hasn’t worked yet,”

In Hamilton Ontario four Victorian commercial buildings are currently at risk. Two of these storefronts were designed in the 1840s by William Thomas; the others were constructed in the 1870s. The developer claims the buildings were shot when he bought them more than 10 years ago. Perhaps they were but I am sure the 10 years has not helped their condition.

A January 5, 2013 Globe and Mail aticle  goes on "over the decades, swaths of the core have been torn down to make way for inward-facing malls and a fortress-like convention centre that do little to liven up the streets. Other buildings were razed to make way for parking lots, leaving vast, empty spaces in the cityscape."

Instead of learning from these mistakes, Chilliwack seems to aiming for those same vast empty parking lots full of empty promises and lost heritage with their decision to demolish the Paramount Theatre. The building has both historic and emotional value for me as a former Chilliwack resident. Opened in June 1949, this large movie theatre in the heart of downtown Chilliwack has traces of Art Deco influences in its signage and fluted fa├žade. It was listed on the Heritage Canada Foundations Top Ten Endangered List. Many Chilliwackians saw their first movie there or had a first date. The current plan is to make the downtown 'shovel ready' for new development and revitalization. There was a proposal by the Chilliwack Paramount Film Society to transform the Paramount into a single-screen, repertory-type theatre offering 600 seats for patrons to screen vintage, independent, alternative or non-mainstream films that was rejected in favour of empty lots and dreams of waiting developers.

It is the same story in Vancouver where they are losing two cultural gathering places with one swing of the wrecking ball — the Ridge theatre and Varsity Ridge Bowling lanes.

"It’s real-estate values, property taxes, industry economics, and competitive dynamics that are killing the neighbourhood theatre." according to a recent article in the Straight.

It all comes down to money. These decisions disregard the emotional element that creates a strong sense of community from which a revitalization could truly become a reality. It can be argued that condos bring people to an area but those people need places to meet their neighbours and empty lots do not create a community.

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