Heritage district… or Disneyland?

This has produced some interesting discussion in the Espresso Post this week; I’ve been watching the brick go up on the town’s new library (conveniently located across from the offices of the Enterprise-Bulletin) and thinking to myself, “So?”

Don’t get me wrong: I’m excited about the new library, and I’ve always thought the library was one of the important assets of a community — just as important as roads and sewers. I’m certain the inside will be thrilling, just as stoked as I am that the building will be LEED gold.

The exterior, however, is drawing a big shrug — and I’m not the only one.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m a big supporter of the heritage district. But I’ve been a little leery about the whole red brick thing since Loblaws rebuilt its store about 10 years ago. I mean, Loblaws is OK, but as I said in a column several years back, “it complements the rest of the downtown, and fits in the with overall theme of blandness as promoted by town council.” Otherwise, the place looks like the town armoury.

We went through it again when the Temple building; what the original had in grace and charm, the new building — built after the fire in September, 2000 — has made up for in sheer, uh, bigness, for lack of a more appropriate term (well, actually, I can come up with a more appropriate term, but my publisher — quite rightly — has provided me with a list of words that I shouldn’t even be using on the Internet).

And now the library. Watching the brick go up the last week or so, and all I can come up with is ‘warehouse’. Inside will be bright and airy, full of wonder and literature and art. Outside? Ho-hum.

The town is trying to create heritage out of thin air, and it can’t be done. Look at any of the existing buildings in the downtown that the owners have restored: Espresso Post, Ed Christie’s, Clerkson’s, Feminine Touch, Smart’s Flowers. While effort and new material have gone into those buildings, they still retain that organic quality of being, well, old. Just look at what Rick Lex is doing with the Tremont; there are people who think he’s crazy trying to fix the building up, but at the end of the day I have no doubt that what Rick will create will be authentically ‘heritage’ because what he starting out with is authentically historic. (I also have no doubt that, based on his other buildings in the downtown, that he’ll do an amazing job.)

As another example, the canoe club’s Watts Boathouse. I know there are some (well, only one person) who would call it an ‘ugly old building’, but it is an essential piece of our maritime boat-building history. The club could build a new building in the same style, but it would never have been able to recreate the sense of heritage; step inside, and you can literally smell and feel the wave of history wash over you.

We’re so hung up on this idea of ‘having’ a heritage district that we’ve lost sight of ‘why’ we should have a heritage district — and how the plan for the district directs how future development should look:

A Heritage Conservation District designation is not intended to prohibit or discourage the changes required by contemporary needs. Its purpose is to guide those changes so that change contributes to the District’s architectural and historic character.

The library? Not so much. All it will look like is a new building with red brick. No charm, no soul.

The town (i.e., council) lost an opportunity to create something new and exciting when it had architect John Shnier. The town hired Henry Wong, and while Wong is a great architect, he basically delivered what he was told to by council.

The great cities of the world are great — architecturally — because of the way they’ve been able to blend old and new. The past has been cherished and protected, and the present has been embraced and encouraged. In Collingwood, we seem to be scared of the present; we’ve creatively stymied ourselves for some misplaced romantic ideal of what the community once was.

For if that’s the case, we might as well just encase the whole place in Lucite…

%d bloggers like this: