Recent work

Balancing act

By James Jackson
Waterloo Chronicle
Published April 23, 2014

While the growing number of cranes in the sky signal Waterloo’s desire to build towards the future, a recent hire at City Hall suggests planners are starting to place more value on identifying and protecting Waterloo’s past.

In December, the city hired its first heritage planner and all signs point to Michelle Lee taking on a larger role in municipal planning.

The biggest task during her two-year contract with the city, a position created as part of the staff reorganization process 2013 Forward, will be to help develop a heritage strategy to identify the city’s existing historical stock, what might be missing from that stock, and come up with ways to protect and preserve more of that heritage.

Her research will be critical for planners and builders as they work to conform with the provincial growth plan, which highlights intensification and density targets in urban centres as a key to housing tens of thousands of new residents in the coming decades.

“Waterloo isn’t unique,” said Lee. “(Communities) are all facing the same challenge of how to get more people to live and work downtown without razing (heritage) buildings and constructing new ones.”

Few communities have such a heritage strategy in their planning tool-kits, and those that do were often developed in response to major conflicts between residents and the municipality, she said. Waterloo will benefit by planning ahead.

“I think that’s a pretty big deal,” Lee said. “To have a broad plan that says ‘this is what we’ve got, these are the gaps and this is what we’re doing to address those gaps’ is very useful for the city.”

Waterloo currently has 41 designated properties on its heritage registry, built between 1812 and the mid-20th century, and one heritage conservation district.

Raised in a military family, Lee was exposed to the range of historical perspectives as a child. From the remote community of Cold Lake, Alta. where she said the oldest building was built around the 1940s, to being stationed in Germany and experiencing its rich architectural history.

When she left home for university, however, her focus leaned towards the protection of natural landscapes rather than the preservation of built ones.

She received her undergraduate degree in environment and resource studies from the University of Waterloo in 1997 and went on to receive her master’s degree in landscape ecology two years later in Ottawa.

After a decade of working with Environment Canada and a consortium of research scientists and academics, she developed an interest in how cities and the surrounding ecology interact and began looking at ways to help prevent urban sprawl from taking over the natural environment.

That interest prompted her to return to UW and enroll in the school of planning, and her research was focused on how communities such as Waterloo have adjusted to the provincial growth plan, referred to as Places to Grow, and how it has impacted the built form in city cores. She is in the process of finishing that research now.

“It was very obvious in uptown Waterloo … you see intensification is quite rampant. At the same time I was living there and well aware of its historic qualities and saw there was a challenge there,” she said.

She joined the city’s municipal heritage committee three years ago and was vice-chair of that group when she was hired by the city late last year. Lee stepped down from the citizen-only committee, but has since returned as staff liaison.

Her experience suggests Waterloo’s best course of action to preserve its past is through adaptive reuse of older buildings.

“It’s arguably the greenest approach to city-building,” she said. There’s been a push in recent years for buildings to become eco-certified under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design designation, yet Lee said for infill development and intensification it is actually more efficient to reuse old buildings, not tear them down.

Heritage buildings or districts tend to boost tourism and become cultural hubs as well, Lee said. Preserving a city’s heritage also helps residents develop an identity.

Lee is currently working on the redevelopment of the former St. Louis Catholic School site at 75 Allen St. E. Lee spoke to council last May through her role as vice-chair of the heritage committee and urged them to avoid tearing it down. Council decided to include the school, which was built in 1905, on the city’s municipal heritage registry as a non-designated building.

Lee is now working through the redevelopment process alongside city staff and the developer, Jeff Zavitz, who bought the 24,000 square-foot building last year and wants to adaptively reuse it for condo units.

“There’s definitely been a strong heritage thrust for that project. It’s been remarkably easy because the developer is supportive and the project is supportive of retaining all of the heritage features,” she said.

“It’s been a very positive experience.”

Kae Elgie, president of the North Waterloo branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, is thrilled the city created the heritage planner position and hopes the job becomes permanent.

“I have no doubt Michelle will do excellent work as a heritage planner and it will benefit the city economically, environmentally and culturally,” said Elgie. “I am really impressed by her initiative and leadership.”

Uptown councillor Melissa Durrell said she’s been hearing for years that the city needed a dedicated heritage planner.

“My hope is that a heritage planner will collaborate with developers and we will have an advocate for our heritage buildings and our heritage sites,” Durrell said.

A trained environmentalist, Lee sees strong parallels between her work as an environmental researcher and her new role with the city.

“The environmental movement was initially fragmented and considered extremist, but now more people have become more accustomed to the idea,” Lee said.

And she’s confident the same will soon be said about the growing push to recognize and respect Ontario’s built heritage.