By Doug Hallett
City staff have proposed shrinking the boundary of Guelph’s first heritage conservation district to exclude the Wellington Street Dam and most or all of James Street East, where residents have strongly resisted the idea.
A council decision on the boundary is expected in December. But earlier this month, Heritage Guelph picked its choice between two new boundary alternatives proposed by city planners. The planners’ pick won’t be known until their report, which goes to a Dec. 10 meeting of a city council committee, is released next week.
One of the two new alternatives would eliminate all of James Street East, as well as nearby properties on the east side of Gordon Street, from the heritage district. The other one would retain a small number of buildings near the corner of James and Gordon, including 22 James St. E. – a converted residential building that was used by the Toronto Suburban Railway when the electric railway served Guelph.
Both alternatives, though, are identical in proposing other shrinkages of the boundary, including removing the Wellington Street Dam from the heritage district.
The dam creates a summertime scenic pond just west of historic Gow’s Bridge, and the higher water level created when the dam is closed enhances canoeing and kayaking opportunities in the heart of the city where the Speed and Eramosa rivers converge.
Excluding the dam from the heritage district means its fate would be decided in the future based on a wide range of financial, environmental and other factors.
“It is possible there will not always be a pond that large in that area” west of Gow’s Bridge, Stephen Robinson, the city’s senior heritage planner, said in an interview. However, he said, both of the alternatives propose inclusion of the “riverscape areas of the Speed and Eramosa” in the heritage district – on both sides of the Speed from just east of the dam to just east of where the two rivers converge.
River levels have varied over the years near the 115-year-old Gow’s Bridge, Robinson said. But he said the riverscape on both sides of the bridge is considered to have heritage value “no matter what the ultimate water level becomes” – which depends on whether the dam is there or not.
Built more than 50 years ago, the dam operated until 2008 under a 50-year agreement between the city and the Grand River Conservation Authority. When the deal expired, the GRCA asked the city to assume responsibility for the dam, which had been used for flood control along the Speed River before the GRCA built the Guelph Lake Dam.
City hall responded by announcing that it would study the condition of the dam and the implications of taking responsibility for it before agreeing to the GRCA’s request. A city hall report in 2009 said possible removal of the dam and the downstream weir structures would be investigated by the city.
That report said it’s considered environmentally desirable to remove the dam in terms of such things as improved water quality, habitat diversity and fish habitat. But it also said the environmental benefits of removing the dam “must be balanced with the historical and social importance of the structure.”
In April, council received a letter from the city’s River Systems Advisory Committee asking that the dam and the pond west of Gow’s Bridge be removed from the heritage district’s proposed boundary.
The dam wasn’t part of the boundary that was originally proposed by city staff. But heritage consultants hired by the city recommended its inclusion as part of boundary expansions they suggested last winter.
The strongest opposition to the heritage district’s proposed boundary came from local industrialist Rick Jamieson. He and his relatives own several properties on James Street East, and he hired a lawyer and a heritage planner to help with the fight.
Heritage Guelph heard a few delegations this month with concerns about the boundary. Then it voted narrowly in favour of the alternative that eliminates all of James Street East and adjacent properties from the boundary.
“The vote was close,” Robinson noted.
He said 22 James St. E. and the adjacent three-storey apartment building at 220 Gordon St., a former coach house at the corner of Gordon and James, are both already listed on the city’s official heritage registry as properties that have “cultural heritage value or interest.” Neither building is individually designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.
Both of the two new alternatives from city staff would shrink the boundary in other ways as well, making it closer to what was proposed before the city’s heritage consultants recommended some boundary expansions last winter.
City staff are now proposing that the heritage district no longer include some land east of Gordon Street belonging to Cutten Fields. The organization, formerly known at the Cutten Club, had objected to the proposed boundary.
Among the other property to be excluded from the heritage district – if council goes along with one of staff’s two new alternatives – are the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre on the east side of Gordon and commercial property at the northwest corner of Gordon and College Avenue.
The heritage district issue was supposed to return to council in November, but was delayed. Robinson said the delay would provide more time for city staff to talk with those who expressed concerns about the boundary.