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July 4, 2008

The Historic Building Myth- a call for reform

The James McGregor Stewart Society calls on the Minister of Tourism and the HRM Heritage Advisory Committee to explicitly acknowledge that accessibility is the top priority in exterior renovation of heritage properties and to stop funding preservation for public buildings without adequate accessibility.

Historic property designation allows owners to apply for grants up to $10,000 for exterior preservation work and a rebate on part of the HST. Owners love this program, and it is popularly misunderstood to preclude such additions as ramps. So unless someone is paying attention, your own tax dollars can be used to exclude you from property.

Persons facing barriers are very used to exchanges like this:

"I'm looking for the ramp"

"I'm sorry, we don't have one. We're a historic building, you understand...."

Actually, we don't understand. You seldom see historic buildings that have not been retrofitted with electricity, flush toilets and telephones. The answer really is:

"Our building's appearance and my comfort are way more important than any rights you might think you have. We have a double standard and you better get used to it!"

The HRM Heritage Property Program Planning and Development Services DESIGN GUIDELINES simply say:

All exterior alterations to a municipal registered heritage property (ranging from, but not limited to, paint color, window replacements, re-roofing, and signage) must be reviewed by the Heritage Office.

I know I feel better that paint color is more important than I.

The word interior does not appear in Nova Scotia's Heritage Property Act. Should you be so lucky as to own a heritage property, you receive a Notice of Registration of Property as a Provincial Heritage Property which reads in part:

The effect of registration in the Provincial Registry of Heritage Property is that no demolition or substantial alteration in exterior appearance of the property may be undertaken from the date of registration without the approval of the Governor in Council.

So when someone says to you that they don't have an elevator or Braille signs because they're in a historic building, they are giving you a load of hooey. Don't let them get away with it!

Halifax is a town with hundreds of antique buildings whose charms are advertised to tourists and residents alike. Just like they do in London, England, for example. Here is a statement on Historic buildings in England:

It is important in principle that disabled people should have dignified access to and within historic buildings. If it is treated as part of an integrated review of access arrangements for all visitors or users, and a flexible and pragmatic approach taken, it should normally be possible to plan suitable access for disabled people without compromising a building’s special interest. Alternative routes or reorganising the use of space may achieve the desired result without the need for damaging alterations. Download the full document

And in the US:

Many city programs, services, and activities are conducted in buildings that are historically significant. In addition, many cities operate historic preservation programs at historic sites for educational and cultural purposes. If no accessibility changes are made at these facilities and locations, individuals with disabilities are unable to visit and participate in the programs offered. For example, people who use wheelchairs would not be able to reach the courtroom or clerk's office located in a historic nineteenth century courthouse if no physical changes are made to achieve access. Full text here

So what's so special about you, Halifax?

Do you agree? Give the Minister a piece of your mind! billdooks@eastlink.ca


Anonymous said...

And in Canada for federal real property:

The requirements for heritage facilities are the same as those for other Crown-owned facilities except where these requirements will significantly reduce the heritage quality of the facility. Some deviation from the standard is permitted provided a local or regional committee consisting of experts in accessibility issues and the Federal Heritage Building Review Office, which represents federal heritage considerations, have agreed to the accessibility requirements and the following requirements are met:

(i) access must be provided to at least one main level in the facility;

(ii) there must be full access to government services and employment opportunities;

(iii) where washroom facilities are provided in an inaccessible location, equivalent facilities that are accessible must also be provided; and

(iv) for inaccessible exhibitions, another version of the exhibition, such as a video display, must be provided in an accessible area.

Full policy is here: http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/pubs_pol/dcgpubs/RealProperty/acp_e.asp

Wheels said...

Dear Anonymous,
Thank you for your comment. My experience in my wheelchair is that the federal government must be extremely busy allowing deviation from the standard - so busy that they have little time to consider the entitlements of their citizens. Evidently, the federal government reserves the enjoyment of Canadian history for only some of its citizens. Recent encounters with federal barriers include:
The Maritime Command Museum at Stadacona, where you could not go with your wheelchair if you had lost your legs in Afghanistan.
The parade ground and ramparts at the Citadel, which seem designed to be barriers. I doubt there is any historic realism to the pea gravel, and the lack of $5 improvements (a piece of plywood) means that a tour of the ramparts is a life-threatening experience.
Fortress Louisburg is largely inaccessible, despite being a reconstruction with many amenities. How would it devalue a replica to include an elevator to the Louisburg Cross? Sadly, the federal government is as hypocritical as the rest.
Gus Reed