Heritage Under Threat
Premier Heritage Village in Jeopardy
Nestled on the eastern edge of Kingston, bordered by highways and the Cataraqui River, in the hub of the UNESCO designated heritage site of Fort Henry and the Rideau Canal, is the village of Barriefield. Approaching Kingston on Highway 15, past subdivisions and strip malls, the first view of this gem of historic preservation is the village's charming stone church which looms on the horizon, beckoning entry into this extraordinary place.
Barriefield is a unique example of a rural, early nineteenth-century village. As well as the church and its green, the village boasts significant cultural heritage landscapes buffering the narrow streets and alleys. The village has a large complement of historic houses, most made of wood and stone, a couple of brick, all sympathetically restored (many winning heritage prizes), along with several new houses built according to heritage guidelines. Once home to soldiers and officers, masons, carpenters and shipbuilders, Barriefield played an important role in the military history of Kingston. Today, most Sunday afternoons you'll find tourists and locals visiting the village, marveling at this well-kept bit of history in the New World.
Barriefield owes its extraordinary character to a series of careful steps in its conservation. More than thirty years ago, in the pioneering days of heritage consciousness, Barriefield became the first village in Ontario to receive heritage designation. Since then, the village has been maintained by the watchful eye of first, the Pittsburgh County LACAC, then after amalgamation with the City of Kingston, the Kingston LACAC (now Municipal Heritage Committee). Barriefield residents have lived by the principle of stewardship, that is, that their houses are not their exclusive property, but a part of the community's heritage that they hold in trust. This has meant submitting to the advice of others on the matter of care for their homes, often with the result that more costly methods and materials had to be used.
Barriefield residents were horrified, then, when they learned last October of the City of Kingston's plan to build a high-density housing project on the green spaces at the perimeter of the village. The village's vital cultural heritage landscape would be destroyed by this proposal that runs roughshod over the Barriefield Conservation District Plan and the Official Plan for the City of Kingston. Both plans require that green spaces be protected, housing be low-density and that architectural design conform to heritage guidelines – all of which are contradicted by the proposal. Moreover, zoning amendments would be required to allow for duplexes, triplexes and apartments.
The fragile heritage character of the village is also jeopardized by the much higher density housing and huge increase in population contemplated by the proposal. The proposed first phase concept plan – to build 32 units, 55 bedrooms for 110 people in eight buildings on 1.38 acres of buffer lands – will increase the population of Barriefield by more than 50%. And this is just phase one! This is too large a population increase for a rural village which currently consists of only 90 homes and 182 people.
Indeed, the very designation of the village would seem in question given the proposal's effect of 'swamping' the historic houses with a large contingent of modern ones. If the proposal goes ahead, Barriefield's complement of historic homes would go from 56% to 40% – and that's just for phase one. Brian Osborne, a professor at Queen's University and an expert on local history, suggested at a recent City Council meeting that even the UNESCO designation could be compromised if the plan should go ahead, given Barriefield's proximity and importance for the fort and the canal.
Barriefielders have united to mount an extraordinarily successful campaign against the development, garnering positive press in the local media, supportive letters to the editor and influential appeals to politicians, as well as close to 2,000 names on paper and on-line petitions (http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/barriefieldvillage). In effect, the proposal violates the codified trust between Barriefield homeowners and the City of Kingston on the question of heritage conservation. Many residents are wondering how the Municipal Heritage Committee can ask Barriefield homeowners to abide by the principles of heritage preservation if the City does not.
The issue owes its origin to the federal government's Surplus Federal Real Property Homelessness Initiative, whereby surplus federal lands can be sold to municipalities for one dollar, on condition they are used to build social housing projects for targeted disadvantaged groups. Plans for the Barriefield housing project were in the works last spring, but council meetings were in camera until October.
Most people would agree that affordable housing is an important policy objective that meets vital social needs. But the Barriefield site is an odd choice. In a speech to City Council, Kingston resident Anthony Barlow, who as an architect in his native Britain worked on affordable housing projects, pointed out that with its rural setting, Barriefield is far from shops, social services, doctors and pharmacies. As the CMHC guide Housing in My Backyard: a Municipal Guide for Responding to NIMBY notes, "Most of the time, citizen engagement is a very positive and healthy sign of local democracy. Sometimes, a housing proposal is just wrong for the neighbourhood — it's out of scale, violates heritage character or has inadequate infrastructure or support services."
To date there has been little opportunity for heritage considerations to be brought to the discussion. The Heritage Planner did not know of the proposal until it was made public and has been absent from Council meetings on the subject. The proposal was not even made known to the Kingston Muncipal Heritage Committee until the November 2nd meeting which was an 'information only' meeting with no discussion. Moreover, the committee is now in a rump form, as the architect who designed the city proposal is a committee member who has recused himself. Two Barriefield residents who are members of the committee are also out of the discussion, following the advice of the City Solicitor.
The City has assured Barriefield residents that there will be ample time for public consultation and the Heritage Committee has agreed to set up a special heritage consultation process. Moreover, some productive dialogue has begun between city staff and Barriefield residents on possible alternate uses of the land, such as keeping it in the hands of the federal government under a land conservancy project, making it into a park, a nature preserve, or even, as has been suggested by some observers, developing it as a war memorial garden commemorating Canada's military, given the historic connection between the land and Canada's military and the proximity of the village to military bases in Kingston.
But time is short. City staff noted at the October 20th City Council meeting that they intend to have a proposal ready to present to Ottawa in January. The last Council meeting of the year takes place on December 15, and Council Chambers will doubtless be filled again with Barriefield residents, heritage advocates, observers and supporters, as this controversial issue continues to unfold. Those who care about heritage will need to impress upon the City of Kingston that important social goals need not mean sacrificing heritage, and that while such goals can take a variety of forms and opportunities, heritage, in contrast, is not so flexible. As the residents themselves have learned in their education as stewards of history, the conservation of historic Barriefield is a commitment that cannot simply be swept away, destroyed and then recovered. Once gone, it is gone forever.
Christine Sypnowich is a Professor of Philosophy at Queen's University and a member of the Kingston Municipal Heritage Committee. She lives in Barriefield.