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Downtown heritage: Cost prohibitive or priceless?

Heritage supporters say wood-frame windows and clay brick are necessary to preserve the town's historic buildings; some building owners say the costs are too high

This article has been updated from a previous version.

A recent clash between the BIA and Heritage Committee provides a window into the delicate balance between business plans and historically authentic buildings in Collingwood's downtown.

The clash is over windows: more specifically, the requirement to have wooden windows on historic downtown buildings built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Business owners have approached the BIA to say the requirement is taxing on the bottom line. Heritage supporters, including the town’s Heritage Committee, say authenticity is necessary for a heritage district.

Penny Skelton, the chairperson of the Collingwood BIA board of directors, made a presentation to council’s corporate services standing committee recently to raise the issue about windows.

“Members (of the BIA) have come forward to say the wooden windows requirement is, for some of them, cost prohibitive,” said Skelton.

According to the Collingwood Heritage Conservation District Plan, if a window cannot be repaired, it should be replaced with one that matches the original in materials (usually wood), shape, sash, and glazing pattern. A more modern building, such as one built in the 1940s or 50s, would not require window replacements to be wood-frame. They could, for example, be aluminum if that’s what was originally installed.

The current Property Standards Bylaw in place in Collingwood regulates restoration work done to heritage buildings. The bylaw requires heritage building owners to maintain and preserve heritage attributes and to repair or replace those heritage attributes using the same type of material as the original work. 

Skelton said part of the trouble with replacing a window with an historically appropriate wood-frame window is that such windows are single-pane and often require storm windows to be installed and uninstalled each year.

“Wooden windows are twice, if not more, the price of an energy-efficient window,” said Skelton. “I think we need some dialogue and some consideration.”

However, there’s no rule in the Heritage District plan that requires wooden windows to be single-pane glass. Dual-pane windows can also be made with wooden frames.

Skelton said the BIA board would like the heritage committee to consider an amendment to allow synthetic materials on windows installed on the second storey of some downtown heritage buildings; it's suggested the wood-frame standard be maintained for ground-storey windows.

Skelton said the BIA did approach the Heritage Committee with this request, but it was turned down.

The Heritage Committee discussed the BIA’s proposal again at a meeting in May. Committee member Andrea Leeming saw the matter as black and white.

“You don’t say because it costs too much we’re not going to preserve it,” said Leeming, adding if the business plan for that building didn’t support the cost of heritage restoration, the business plan should change or the owner should sell. “We don’t want to have a facade of heritage but not have actual heritage … That’s what we’re all about is heritage. Our whole premise of being here is trying to preserve the heritage buildings.”

Betty Donaher, the chairperson of the Heritage Committee, said maintenance costs are not unique to a heritage building.

“You have to sustain a building whether you’re in a heritage building or not,” she said.

The town does offer Heritage grants to building owners whose properties are within the designated heritage district. Through the grant program, owners may be eligible to receive a grant toward the restoration of the heritage features of their properties (including wood-frame windows). The grant is one-half of eligible project costs to a maximum of $3,000. Property owners are limited to one grant per calendar year. 

Alex Yuen and his wife, Cheryl McMenemy, are the owners of Collingwood Olive Oil on Ste. Marie Street. Yuen is a member of the BIA board. They own three buildings in the downtown heritage district, and recently replaced the windows and removed the paint from a facade of one downtown building.

Yuen said it cost him $25,000 to replace seven windows.

“The problem is, for landlords, it is a larger expense. It’s also about efficiency. Wooden windows are not the most efficient,” said Yuen.

He is a supporter of the BIA’s suggestion to allow non-wooden windows on the second storey of a heritage building constructed with wooden-frame windows originally (late 1800s).

“Windows can look wooden. You have people who build decks in composite, and that wouldn’t need the maintenance a wooden-frame window needs,” said Yuen. “There has to be some sort of middle ground. I certainly want the historical look of downtown. That’s what we’ve built over 41 years of the BIA.”

Yuen said he’d like the Heritage Committee to revisit some policies, with input from other committees and business owners. For example, he noted he wasn’t permitted to re-paint his downtown building and spent close to $50,000 to have the paint removed and the clay brick restored.

Rick Lex is a past president of the Collingwood chapter of the Architecture Conservancy of Ontario and the owner of the Tremont and Annex buildings. He was behind the restoration of both and the development of 65 Simcoe Street.

“The gentrification of the downtown has happened under the downtown rules, and those rules have made sure restoration has happened in a good way,” said Lex.

He is currently working with the Heritage Committee to put together a presentation on the options available for wooden-frame windows and a cost analysis of using natural materials over synthetic materials like vinyl or aluminum on heritage buildings.

“I disagree wooden windows are significantly more expensive,” said Lex. “I don’t believe that to be the case. Certainly, in my experience, it hasn’t been the case.”

Lex replaced 44 windows in the Tremont building. All of the new windows are thermal pane glass with wooden frames.

He also restored what is called the Annex across the street from the Tremont. There, he had the existing single-pane, wood-frame windows restored. He hired Mennonites to build storm windows, which Lex has taken on and off for the winter season. He said the storm windows cost him $100 each. Lex also paid to have the paint removed from the brick at the Tremont building, a cost that amounted to $85,000. He said it’s what made the difference for the building.

“If we want to maintain a certain authenticity on the facades of the building, we have to use natural materials. That’s clay brick and wooden windows,” said Lex. “If heritage means anything, then we need to be authentic in how we restore these facades.”

There have been complaints put forward by the BIA board and downtown business owners claiming there are some heritage district building owners who don’t follow the rules and install vinyl windows where they should be wood-frame, or they repaint clay brick instead of having the old paint removed.

“The problem is, you get people doing midnight or weekend jobs,” said Yuen. “There are property owners who have done that. Once they’re in there, there’s nothing you can do. Then, there are business owners trying to do it correctly and they are getting penalized.”

Yuen replaced the windows and removed the paint from the clay brick on his downtown building due to a property standards order issued by the town based on a complaint received about his building. If he didn’t comply with the order, and use the materials specified in the heritage district bylaws, he faced a fine.

There are painted clay brick buildings in the heritage district, including Dags and Willow and Bent Taco. Paint is permitted as long as it is in good condition. However, those buildings cannot be repainted, even to refresh the existing paint. Instead, the paint must be stripped to restore the clay brick.

There are also clay brick buildings in the district that would have been built in the late 1800s and early 1900s with new vinyl or aluminum windows installed, and the installation took place after the heritage bylaws were enacted. According to the bylaws, the windows should have been wood-framed.

“I think the heritage committee needs to reinforce their rules so there is an even playing field for everyone,” said Lex.

Following Skelton’s presentation to the standing committee and the subsequent council meeting, councillors voted to have staff investigate the concerns brought forward by the BIA and encourage the BIA and Heritage Committee to work together on a resource guide for restoration work that conforms with the heritage district regulations and is cost-effective and efficient.


Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter, photographer and community editor.
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