The built form of cities reflects the demographics and economic structures of their eras. In the great age of rail, we built elaborate central train stations. In the age of mail, we built impressive post offices in central city and suburban locations. When cities functioned mainly as trading ports, we built wharves, warehouses and cargo handling facilities and CBDs effectively grew up around these functions. Many of these structures remain long past their economic use by date, and are often re-adapted to contemporary uses. The recent decision by Australia Post to sell its central GPOs for adaptive re-use is a case in point.
Re-purposing quality heritage structures ensures an ongoing economic role for these buildings, and in the process means they will be maintained and protected, as well as enjoyed by their tenants and the public. It allows cities to grow and develop and to adapt the built environment to the demands of contemporary economic life. Preserving features of the past connects us all to our history and enhances the sense of place and belonging.
But is the drive to preserve past structures now going too far? Are we now locking down swathes of our urban landscape and preventing sensible adaption to modern lifestyles and economic change? Is it true that the notion of preserving anything ‘old’ has become so widespread that the merits of preservation go largely untested while any benefits of redevelopment are assumed to be nothing more than development profit for demonized ‘greedy developers’? Has it become, in the case of the preservation of built form, a matter of guilty until proven innocent?
This came into focus for me when some dilapidated pre-war homes in Highgate Hill – an inner suburb of Brisbane - which were approved for demolition suddenly became a cause celebre of a small but passionate and very vocal protest group. Yes, there was a local government election in the air but it’s a story that could be repeated in many Australian cities. Despite holding a legitimate license to demolish the properties in order to develop a five storey unit project - in line with the local plan for the area - the local and state governments succumbed to pressure and combined to issue a temporary stop order on any demolition.
Keep in mind these were dilapidated properties, allegedly riddled with termites and with significant amounts of asbestos. Any aesthetic value had long since disappeared after decades of being subject to multiple changes, partitions, and neglect. They had served their purpose for multiple generations of different types of occupants, but their use-by date was up.
They had sold in recent history to a developer with plans to follow the local planning scheme – a scheme endorsed by both local and state government. Evidently, when the properties were available for sale, our committed band of protesters did not buy the properties themselves. Concern for their protection did not extend to investing their own money in acquiring the properties and undertaking very extensive structural and design changes to restore them to some former glory.
What also became apparent from some media reports was that a number of the protesters, as nearby residents, were not ratepayers but renting houses or even just rooms in the area. You may think this too harsh, but it seems that not owning a nearby property (and hence not paying property taxes) is no obstacle to protesting that someone else’s property should be dealt with in a certain way. “No taxation without representation” was a slogan during the American Revolution. Now we have representation without taxation. This group seemed to hold the view that a purchaser of these properties had some community obligation to undertake very extensive and costly renovations to restore derelict houses in line with what a small number of the nearby community believed should happen, irrespective of holding a valid license to demolish the properties and irrespective of the local community passing on the opportunity to buy the properties themselves.
And for what? Why this obsession with preservation even when it comes to structures that are clearly redundant or structurally deficient? We are not talking about highly significant heritage buildings of unique architectural or historic merit. We are not talking about public buildings in which the community has a legitimate say. We are talking about basic dwellings, privately owned, built of low cost materials available at the time and designed to suit a community and an economy that expired long ago.
The risk is that blanket preservation across swathes of our suburban and commercial centres prevents common sense rebuilding in line with contemporary needs. For starters, new housing tends to be more thermally and environmentally efficient. Anyone who has tried to cool, heat, or maintain an older style home will attest to that. Further, modern housing is designed around the needs of today’s occupants – not households of more than 50 years ago. Plus, the local demography of many areas has entirely changed. Where once neighborhoods were busy with children playing in the street, some areas now house a large number of elderly who remain in homes that may no longer suit their needs because little is allowed to change (ie be redeveloped) in their neighborhood that might actually meet their needs. More important it seems to preserve dwellings that have outlived their purpose and insist that elderly relocate to somewhere else, than accommodate a changing community need.
Before you start sticking pins into a voodoo doll fashioned in my likeness, this is not advocating a ‘slash and burn’ of heritage properties. But it is trying to identify a clear difference between what constitutes a significant building or structure that is worthy of protection or adaptive reuse, and ones that are simply old.
It also raises a question about who should pay for this protection. Landmark public buildings are often paid for through adaptive reuse which identifies a new, alternate economic purpose. Failing this, taxpayers are generally willing to protect or maintain significant historic structures. But private homes are another thing. Only some are so significant that they have a market value which makes their preservation in private hands worthwhile to the owner. Run of the mill houses which are simply old may be more valuable for the land on which they sit than the structure above it. If these are to be preserved, unwillingly, by private owners – what compensation do we offer? None. Instead, the community is growing accustomed to the idea that they are entitled to have a greater say in what can and can’t be done with other people’s private homes in held in private hands for private use.
A city governed by excessive intervention in private property rights – all in the name of heritage protection – could find itself with large areas increasingly ill-suited to the modern world. We aren’t forced to keep driving around and maintaining old cars simply because they’re old – we are allowed to choose convenience and comfort and make fit-for-purpose decisions ourselves. Why is this increasingly not the case for the humble house?