Preparing heritage impact assessments

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The preservation of Canada’s heritage properties is a priority shared from province to province, in bustling, fast-developing cities to more remote locales. From condos and apartments to offices and the hospitality industry, developers are finding value in renovating and building around old factories, mills and other historic landmarks. But with a vision for combining modern and old aesthetics comes policy—the need to assess the heritage resources within a planning application area.

Here, heritage experts share tips on what to consider in the heritage impact assessment process. Dan Currie is partner at MHBC Planning, Urban Design & Landscape Architecture, and Nicholas Bogaert is a senior planner at the firm.

When is a heritage assessment report required? What purpose does it serve?

Most municipalities have policies in their official plans that require a development proponent to have such studies prepared when proposing development on or adjacent to significant cultural heritage resources. In most places, these are properties that are either designated under Part IV (which relates to individual properties) or Part V (which relates to heritage conservation districts) of the Ontario Heritage Act, or listed on the municipal register of non-designated properties. This information is accessible by contacting the municipality directly or available online.

The preparation of a heritage impact assessment typically involves historical research, evaluation of the property, identification of heritage attributes and the formulation of recommendations on mitigation measures to avoid adverse impacts to heritage attributes. This information is then used by the municipality to guide the final land use planning decisions that are made.

What are some issues developers should consider through the heritage assessment process?

It is important to identify any heritage resources on a site early in the process.  That way, if there is a significant heritage resource that needs to be retained, then there is the opportunity to integrate it into the site redevelopment plans. This may involve some creative thinking by the project team and heritage consultants, but the end result can be a project that the proponent and community are proud of.  Often, the effort in working together to come to an appropriate design solution for a property can be beneficial for all involved. It is also key to engage municipal staff early in the process so that they can provide any advice or considerations that they see as important to the redevelopment of a property.

Any helpful advice for the background research process of a property’s history?

Background research is an extremely important component of the process of preparing a heritage impact assessment, as this phase develops the understanding of the evolution of a property over time and helps to guide the later assessment of impacts. There are often multiple sources of information that are valuable, and local historic societies, libraries and archives are great resources to tap into for information. Municipal staff can be great resources as well, as they may have histories on properties and can consult with groups such as the municipal heritage committee. Sometimes, there is a lot of information about a particular property or the people who lived there, but other times it is required to start essentially from scratch and compile the information together from multiple sources.

What benefits does a report generate for both the industry and community?

There are many benefits of a heritage impact assessment, but perhaps the main one is that it provides all interested parties with a summary of the property’s history and an evaluation of potential impacts of a particular redevelopment proposal. It provides a source of information that people can turn to when considering heritage resources in the context of redevelopment and is another piece of the puzzle that fits together in the overall land use planning process.

Any important details often missing from an heritage impact assessment that should not be overlooked?

We think that sometimes there can be a tendency to have a lack of focus on looking at the various other options for the development, or consideration of mitigation options. Early consideration of cultural heritage resources (and therefore involvement of heritage planning professionals) in the design of the development can often avoid future conflict with the community or municipality, and often results in a development that is as good as or better than had the plan assumed the heritage resources would be removed.

What is the best way to communicate the adverse/positive impacts on cultural heritage?

 The best way to communicate the impacts (positive or negative) on cultural heritage resources is through a fulsome assessment of the development proposal by preparing a comprehensive heritage impact assessment. If there are adverse impacts on cultural heritage resources, it is important to clearly outline what those are and what the rationale is for determining that they are acceptable impacts. If there is a good news story to share because of positive impacts on cultural heritage, this should be conveyed. Visuals always help, so things like renderings or drawings are great to include where appropriate.


Dan Currie is an associate with MHBC Planning, Urban Design & Landscape Architecture, specializing in land use policy, intensification strategies and cultural heritage planning. He previously worked as director of policy planning for the City of Cambridge. Nicholas Bogaert is a senior planner with MHBC, providing urban and rural planning advice and analysis for all aspects of the firm’s activities. As a member of MHBC’s Cultural Heritage Division, Nick has gained experience and expertise in cultural heritage planning projects.

Photo of Todmorden Mills Heritage Site, courtesy of MHBC.


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