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The rise of heritage conservation districts

November 2016

The rise of heritage conservation districts

heritage conservation by Robert Hulley

One has to wonder if members of the provincial government in 1975 predicted the huge success that would result from the legislation they passed to create Heritage Conservation Districts (HCD) in Ontario.

Today there are 124 HCDs in existence, containing more than 22,300 properties -- with six more districts pending designation. An HCD is essentially a specific area that a municipality has designated in a policy statement bylaw. That designation is registered on the title of each affected property within the district. It includes guidelines meant to protect and provide stability to an area that is believed to have cultural heritage values worth preserving.

[Photo slideshow of Ontario heritage homes by Robert Hulley.]

There are a several reasons for the dramatic increase in the number of these districts, not the least of which is that two academic studies have shown that, although properties within HCD boundaries are relatively more expensive than those of neighbouring areas, the former tend to hold their value better, even in depressed markets.

"Despite an appreciation for older architectural styles, owners of heritage homes want modern, stylish bathrooms and kitchens."

But perhaps the most compelling reason for the growth can be found in the old adage, "Birds of a feather flock together". Neighbours in these areas share a love and respect for cultural heritage values. More often than not, a volunteer community association exists, much like a condominium board, but without any official powers. Members of the association meet regularly and they jealously guard the character and nature of the neighbourhood. Some of these areas even have their own community newsletters and promote community events like fairs, picnics and walking tours of the district.

Living in these districts, residents know that if a property is damaged by fire or natural causes, any infill or reconstruction must be done in keeping with the character and context of the neighbourhood. If reconstruction occurs, owners will follow guidelines on height, width and setbacks to ensure their property remains similar to that of their neighbours. They may even go so far as to choose suitable or complimentary materials and colours as well as maintaining the proportions of windows and entrances so they match those found on adjoining properties.

Despite an appreciation for older architectural styles and detailing, owners of heritage homes nevertheless want modern, stylish bathrooms and kitchens and contemporary heating, air conditioning and electrical systems. However, many of them design bedrooms, living and dining areas in period style with antique furnishings.


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Commercial HCDs face some of the same restrictions for rebuilding, but these properties are generally located in older downtown commercial areas. They have become very popular as local tourist destinations as well as choice locations for fashion boutiques, antiques, art and specialty stores as well as for book and souvenir shops.

Another compelling reason to own a heritage property in an HCD is the willingness of an increasing number of municipalities to offer grants and tax incentives as well as other forms of financial support to home owners and businesses that may wish to improve these properties in keeping with the spirit and character of the area.

What does all of this tell us about HCDs? A great deal. First, it reminds us that, in terms of volume, the number of HCDs is limited compared to other properties on the real estate market overall. However, these districts constitute a growing segment of the market.

Robert HulleyIn addition, provincial governments are pushing towards higher urban densities. For these reasons, HCDs are becoming more highly sought after as residential sanctuaries in otherwise overdeveloped urban core areas. Owners of heritage properties in HCDs may feel that restrictions on expansion and change offer an appealing barrier against the kind of sprawl that affects other city neighbourhoods.

For REALTORS®, the HCD market is a relatively stable one, providing sustainability and possibilities for future trading activities. All in all, HCDs are a proven success and will likely continue to be so in the future.

Find a full listing of the location, type and composition of HCDs and a more detailed official explanation of a HCD.

Robert Hulley (see accompanying photo) is an award-winning heritage conservationist, author, former REALTOR® and real estate counselor.


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