The Greenest Brick: City Votes to Demolish Entire Street of 41 Historic Buildings


Terrific illustration from the National Post

We do go on about how The Greenest Brick is the One Already in the Wall, how old buildings have embodied energy, how renovation creates more jobs than new construction, and how old buildings are ultimately more energy efficient than new ones.

Some old buildings even have a lot of history behind them; The Ontario City of Brantford is one of the cradles of industry and commerce in the Province. Alexander Graham Bell had an office here; Canada's earliest department store and largest shoe store chain started in these buildings. But none of this stopped the City Council from voting last night to knock them all down and plant grass.
Rear of Colborne Street

But wait there's more; the buildings, some of which date back to the 1840s, back onto what used to be a canal, and have as many as seven stories below grade. Goods used to be manufactured in the buildings and shipped to Buffalo and the United States, right out the back door. It is an important industrial archaeological site. But it has been neglected for many years, owned by various slum landlords and left to rot; last year the city expropriated all 41 buildings.

Brantford has had a tough couple of decades, losing major industries and having very high unemployment. It suffered from many of the terrible urban renewal ideas of earlier decades, including the construction of a big mall in the middle of downtown that sucked the life out of the surrounding retail streets like Colborne Street. It should be on a rebound, with a major university expanding into it and restoring many of its older buildings. But it still has high unemployment and a lot of problems. Somehow they think that if they get rid of these buildings, their problems will vanish with them.


Citizen activists of all generations and species protesting demolition

Earlier this year, the Canadian Federal Government offered a "stimulus" grant of $1.38 million to knock down the buildings. The Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, a 76 year old organization devoted to saving old buildings, was asked by local residents to help save the buildings, and noticed that Federal grants required that an environmental screening be performed. (full disclosure: I am President of the ACO) This was a problem; to qualify as stimulus, all work was supposed to be completed by March 31. But the Federal Government granted them a one-year extension; problem solved.


Citizen activist Philip Lefebre reinventing the rear of Colborne as a hill town and tourist attraction.

As the Environmental Assessment dragged on, it became apparent that there was actually something there. Last week the word finally came down from FedDev, the granting organization: They are not certain that alternatives to demolition were investigated, and a full historical and archaeological assessment, taking up to a year and costing up to half a million dollars, has to be completed before any funding will be granted.


John Williamson's tongue in cheek vision of Brantford redeveloped

One would think that this would give them pause; it is not a rich community, $1.38 million is still a lot of money, and there is now clear evidence of historical and archeaological concern. But this is Brantford; instead, they had a council meeting where they blamed their problem on a bunch of outsiders (I think they mean me) and insisted that every speaker say where they live. (I stayed away, thinking that in such a xenophobic environment I would add nothing) They then proceeded to rail against the higher levels of government for changing the rules (they didn't, they just followed them) and complained that this is what happens when you take money from government, that it has strings. As if a town with over 12% unemployment is going to start rejecting government money. One councillor, previously against demolition, changed his vote because he was upset that the Federal Government came out against demolition. Crazy stuff; you can watch them here. In the end they voted to kiss off the Feds and knock the buildings down on their own nickel.


demolition equipment being moved in this morning

Councillor Mark Littel says the demolition could start as early as today; cranes and bulldozers are moving in right now. They say they are going to build a YMCA there; that seems unlikely, the only money they have is from FedDev, which has been burned once on this site and has been crapped all over by this council, and a donation from SC Johnson, one of the biggest supporters of heritage architecture in the States; I suspect that the Johnson family will be furious to find their money being used to build on the rubble of 41 historic structures.

There is an Ontario Heritage Act that gives the Minister of Tourism and Culture, Michael Chan, the right to step in and issue a Stop Order, but the Minister has made clear in the past that he respects the rights of municipal politicians to make their own decisions. This is surprising from an activist government, where last year I recommended the Premier, Dalton McGuinty, as the Best of Green Regional Leader; no word where he is on this issue.

Instead, we all sit and watch as a heritage, archaeological and environmental tragedy unfolds before our eyes.

Tags: Ban Demolition | Green Building | Ontario