Listing Beasley — How a Heritage Inventory Project became an Epic Conservation Journey

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Editor’s note: I am happy to welcome another special guest to OHA+M. Carol Priamo is a Beasley resident and former heritage consultant with the provincial Heritage Branch (where she was a colleague of mine for many years). A professional architectural photographer and communications designer, Carol is currently Vice Chair of ACO Hamilton and the Heritage Projects Board Member with the Beasley Neighbourhood Association.

On June 3, 2020, while the pandemic was gaining traction and we were all in a state of shock, I proposed a project to Architectural Conservancy Ontario Hamilton (ACO), asking for support to conduct a heritage Inventory of parts of Hamilton that still needed to be catalogued.

This was prompted by the sudden and unannounced demise of the Brandon House in Ancaster1 (now part of Hamilton), and the looming changes under Bill 108 to the Ontario Heritage Act.2 As a heritage professional and architectural historian with experience in inventory work in other cities, I saw an urgent need to afford more heritage buildings some defense against demolition without notice. Many had fortunately already been identified with the completion of the City of Hamilton’s inventories of the Downtown (2014), the Durand neighbourhood (2017), and Waterdown (2020), during which 1,600 buildings were added.

Added to what, you might ask. The Municipal Heritage Register — a compilation, required under the Ontario Heritage Act (OHA), of buildings that meet criteria of historical, architectural, or contextual significance. When a property is added to the Register, any threat of demolition of the property is flagged by the City and a 60-day delay is placed on demolition permits, allowing the City and the public time to discuss alternatives to demolition.

As a ten-year resident of the Beasley neighbourhood in downtown Hamilton and an active board member of the Beasley Neighbourhood Association promoting its heritage preservation, I wanted to get Beasley buildings on the Register.


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Beasley neighbourhood collage    

Photos and collage by Carol Priamo

Beasley is one of the original historic areas in Hamilton with a concentration of nineteenth century housing — mostly working class — and including an important section of James Street North (one of the city’s main streets) with uninterrupted streetscapes of very early commercial buildings. The southern portion of Beasley had been inventoried by the City in 2014 but the north section of over 600 buildings had not been studied or recommended for inclusion on the Register. The project became defined as the Beasley Heritage Inventory.

The BNA, an association of community organizations and merchants, active in supporting the preservation of its heritage character, fully supported this new project. At this time, I also contacted our Ward 2 Councillor to inform him of the project and ask for his support – which he gave. This type of project needs endorsement of the community and municipal representatives to achieve acceptance and a successful outcome.

The Beasley Heritage Inventory project’s goal was to inventory approximately 600 buildings, select those that met OHA criteria for heritage value and recommend them to be added to the Register. Let’s just say it was a task much easier said than done!

Beasley location map

By July 2020, we were off and running. In the preceding month, I learned that our project would have to follow exactly the process of previous City inventories. This included some additional requirements which I had not expected.

During this introductory process, the City of Hamilton informed me of their past practice of notifying property owners in advance of adding a property to the Register, which was not a requirement under the OHA. This added an extra layer of detail and, for some owners, confusion around why this was happening and what the impacts might be to their home or business.

While City staff seized the opportunity to make this a “pilot project” — the first of its kind as a volunteer-led initiative — a list of requirements, including detailed building descriptions (again, not required by the OHA), were added to the work plan as well as the recording and documenting of every building in Beasley North, rather than only the recommended heritage candidates. 

This is when the journey became epic! It meant ensuring that every building was photographed with two views, municipal forms were filled out to identify heritage features, and building descriptions were written. In the end, a comprehensive evaluation was included to assign the building to a category of heritage value — either as a) character-defining or b) character-supporting as a landmark. Some were in the first category but most were in the second and a few were “landmarks” that were already listed and designated. 

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Eager Buildings, 161-169 James St. N., 1882 — Character Defining Row       

Photo: Carol Priamo

Although volunteers could and were trained to document and fill in inventory forms, only a qualified heritage professional was permitted to label and describe architectural styles and complete the evaluation process. This specific kind of qualified volunteer was a scarcity in Hamilton… and I soon discovered I was on my own to provide most of the work involved for this essential part of the project (luckily a volunteer architect came along to help out for a time). 

Over eight months, approximately 600 buildings were photographed, surveyed and categorized, described and evaluated and many recommended to be added to the Register.3

Here is a glimpse of the path through the system that the volunteer work submissions took. After review by City Inventory staff, the recommendations would proceed in batches (about 100 – 150 properties) through a process of presentation, discussion and recommendations by two City heritage committees, including the Municipal Heritage Committee, cultural heritage planners and the planning department before going to City Council for approval. By the end of the project, seven batches had been completed; but only one made it to Council in 2020 and, by 2021, only three have so far made it to the first stage — the Inventory and Research Committee — for review. What happened? 

With the pandemic rollercoaster and lockdowns coming and going, and the City Inventory staff person seconded temporarily to another position, the whole process was delayed, with the result that about half of the inventory recommendations were put on hold and have not yet proceeded through the system to approval by Council. But by the end of February 2021, all the necessary volunteer work had been done for the City. And that is what we had set out to do.


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329-333 James St. N., 1890 — Character Supporting Row      

Photo: Carol Priamo

Lessons?

It’s important to have a plan of action for the involvement of the community and property owners from the beginning. To ensure community support and cooperation for such an inventory project, owners need to be informed with an announcement of the project and additional information to understand the goal, the process and the effect of the Inventory /listing on owners’ properties. Beasley announced the project on their community website and Facebook page but found it essential to create and distribute an introductory letter and explanatory fact sheet before owners received the City’s formal notification letter recommending their property for listing. When owners received the City letter without an introductory letter, they were more likely to oppose listing from a lack of preparation and understanding. With this preliminary step, owners were informed and spared surprises.

The project work was divided into survey, photography, architectural analysis and evaluation. Volunteers could do a lot of the legwork in survey and photography with training provided and the project benefited from volunteer assistance at intervals in these areas. But to complete the more professional sections, an experienced heritage professional with an architectural history background is needed. Finding professionals to volunteer in this area is difficult. Unless your municipality does not require architectural analysis and evaluations and has staff ready and able to do this work, professionals in this area will likely need to be hired (making it a non-volunteer project).

Working with the municipality in the review of your inventory submissions is fraught with changes, delays and setbacks because of the nature of governmental systems. Progress of the work to the final listing approval by Council and placing of properties on the Register may take longer than expected with other municipal priorities intervening. In the case of this Inventory, the City staff assigned to review the submissions (first stage) was seconded to another position halfway through the review (the remaining 300 of the 600 properties surveyed and recommended will be reviewed by the City when there is again staff in this position). In order to continue the work in the face of these setbacks and finish the required work of a community inventory project, flexibility, commitment and patience are sorely needed.

It is crucial to find out, before proposing the project, the process being followed by your municipal government and staff. In the project here I followed the Ontario Heritage Act requirements for listing and discovered that the City had additional requirements that were more time consuming, needed professional expertise, and affected the goal of adding all of our recommendations to the Register. With owners being notified before their recommended listing was approved (a practice in other municipalities such as Ottawa), some owners opposed and — when councillors balked — important heritage resources could not be added to the Register.

Timing: The pandemic was an opportune time to undertake many aspects of the project – survey, evaluation, and photography (although many parked cars due to people not being at work obstructed building views). Training volunteers and engaging owners was challenging, but creative solutions were found. Delivering notices to properties was prohibited during lockdowns which we did not predict. The usual public meeting held by the City for other Inventories to inform and engage the public was also not feasible during the pandemic.

Last words: While providing invaluable experience in the complex inventory process and with Beasley revealing, through its buildings, the growth and achievements of a 200 year-old community, this project provided us all with the knowledge and tools to better safeguard its unique heritage legacy for the future.


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170 Mary St., c. 1890                     

Photo: Carol Priamo


Note 1: See “Lesson from Ancaster — Destruction of a Village Gem”.

Note 2: The amendments to the OHA in Bill 108, including changes to the listing process, are awaiting proclamation. There is more on Bill 108 here.

Note 3: Photographs with dates of each inventoried building have been posted on the City’s Cultural Heritage Resources Map.

Comments

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Carol - Thanks for sharing this fantastic and an inspiring community story. Fingers crossed the hard work is realized and the properties are added to Hamilton's heritage register by City Council.  Great photos too.  

Tamara:

Great to hear from you about this project and glad you found it useful.

Carol

Thanks for printing this story of commitment and co-operation between volunteers, professionals and the local city council. Heritage buildings help to create a sense of continuity in an area for all but especially important for the young. Congratulations on your tenacity.

Thanks very much Mary for your comment. Yes it is important especially for young people to appreciate heritage.

Carol

About Dan Schneider

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Dan Schneider is a heritage enthusiast, policy wonk, writer and professional heritage consultant. Formerly senior policy advisor with the provincial culture ministry, Dan has much experience with the Ontario Heritage Act and heritage policy issues. A lawyer by training, he was lead policy expert on major changes to the Ontario Heritage Act in 2005 and 2006. His advice is frequently sought on questions related to Ontario's legislative and policy framework for heritage. Based in St. Marys, Ontario, Dan is Principal of Dan Schneider Heritage Consulting. He can be reached at danschneider@live.ca.