Developing historic properties often come with headaches

Advertised as a “heritage business opportunity,” Halifax’s Victoria Hall is for sale.
It's a rambling, 32,000 sq. ft. mansion built in 1884-85 with 50 bedrooms.
Its owners, the Victoria Hall Trust, describe the sprawling North End building as an “architectural and historic legacy” and are asking $2,975,00 for the designated municipal heritage property.
Recently, there was an auction to sell off items from the historic residence for senior women.
Potentially, the mansion could be converted into a hotel or offices, among other uses, but the trust itself can no longer afford to maintain the structure. Sounds like a bargain, right? Maybe.
One developer considering the property is Wadih Fares of Halifax’s W.M. Fares Group The company owns some 1,000 rental units and a variety of commercial and residential properties throughout Halifax. Fares already has had experience successfully taking an historic home in the city’s South End, and renovating and adding on to the heritage house to create a rental property with 13 units. “We’re very proud of it,” Fares says.

Inglis Street home built in 1870 converted to rental by W.M. Fares Group
Worried about the heritage hoops
Three years ago, Fares bought the 1870 home on Inglis Street, pictured above, converted the house into four rental units, added three townhouses on one side and six, two-bedroom apartment units on the other. But Fares is hesitating about purchasing Victoria Hall, one of about 475 heritage properties in the Halifax Regional Municipality. “I’m going to be honest,” the developer says. “We showed some interest at first, but I don’t think I’m going to be interested.”
Why the change of heart? It’s simple. Redeveloping heritage buildings isn’t an easy proposition. And sometimes it’s not even profitable. Sometimes taking on an historic property just isn’t worth the headache, according to Fares.
“It’s really costly to renovate a heritage building,” Fares says. While cost alone might to deter the developer, having to work within the often stringent guidelines of heritage groups who insist on vetting materials and changes to a building sometimes turns an economic opportunity into a heritage headache – and that’s just for a house.
When the Armour Group first proposed the Historic Properties Waterside Centre, it encountered fierce opposition from local preservationists and the city. To make way for the nine-storey, 90,000 sq ft building currently under construction, the Armour Group needed to pull down several 19th century buildings, which in this instance formed one of the earliest preservation projects in Canada the private sector had undertaken. The initiative was second only to San Francisco’s Ghiardelli Square and predated Boston’s Faneuil Hall.
Preservationists oppose development through bureaucracy
Ultimately, despite the outcry, Waterside Centre received approval when the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board overturned the Halifax Regional Municipality council’s decision, saying the city and local preservationist group,
The Heritage Trust, had too narrowly interpreted the city’s regional municipal planning strategy. Armour did preserve the façade of the historic buildings at street-level, helping maintain the streetscape’s aesthetic integrity.
The use is generally not the issue when it comes to changing an historic property, says Maggie Holm, a heritage planner with the City of Halifax.
Rather, proposals are evaluated on how changes might affect the character-defining elements of a building and its heritage value. If it looks as if a proposal might have a substantial impact, a report is written and goes forward to the HRM council.
“There would probably be some negotiation with the owner at that to say ‘that in our professional opinion we feel that if you were to do this and this, it might mitigate those negative impacts,’” Holm says.
The city tries to work with the Heritage Trust as much as possible, although Holm notes they don’t always see eye-to-eye on the final outcome. Holm looks at proposals in relation to the existing regulations and how it meets an objective written into a policy. The Heritage Trust lobbies harder about how a building is developed and often fights just to ensure that a structure isn’t going to be torn down.

The street front of Victoria Hall in Halifax, N.S.
Some old buildings not worth saving
Fares, though, finds it frustrating to attempt redevelopment of what he sees as often run-down structures. He points out that in the case of the Inglis Street home, he had to pay $5000 just to clean the place enough so they could walk into it. “It’s a shame, but we can’t slap a heritage plaque on a property and leave it. Sometimes the wood against the plaque is rotten and the plaque is displaced.”
According to Fares, it’s obviously better to maintain the city’s history, but says often heritage buildings are in state of shambles when developers purchase them. “They make you renovate and it becomes so costly, either you leave it or you have to get more land to support such a renovation cost,” he says.
The developer points out historic buildings come with their own advantages: their architecture is unique and often they can be transformed into one-of-a-kind properties. “I think it’s very important for everyone to understand, developers are not against heritage.”
His advice to developers looking to work with historic homes or buildings: make sure they know the costs associated with the renovations and put that into perspective against the project as a whole. Holm says developers early on should come and talk to the heritage planners.
“Let’s sit down when you’ve got a building you’re looking at, and some concepts and even rough hand sketches. Let’s sit down and talk about that before you get into putting a lot of money into it.”


A multiple award-winning reporter, writer and editor for more than 25 years, Charles Mandel most recently worked as the National Observer's climate change reporter. He is a former Atlantic correspondent…

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A multiple award-winning reporter, writer and editor for more than 25 years, Charles Mandel most recently worked as the National Observer's climate change reporter. He is a former Atlantic correspondent…

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