Port Moody fire a reminder of fragility of city’s heritage

The loss of the historic Roe & Abernathy grocery store on Clarke Street, and it’s neighbour the Gallery Bistro, may be just the opportunity Port Moody needs to reboot efforts to protect its heritage.

Coun. Diana Dilworth, the chair of the city’s heritage commission, said “its a shame” the structures were destroyed by a fire on July 28. But the pile of sooted rubble that now occupies half a block of shops, which were once the commercial core of Port Moody when it was a bustling railway town, is also a reminder residents and property owners must remain vigilant about protecting the city’s past.

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“Heritage is something you take for granted until you lose it,” Dilworth said last Friday, while visiting the site for the first time since the fire. “You don’t know what you had until it’s gone.”

Dilworth said going forward, as the site is rebuilt, it will be important to preserve the stories of the lost buildings and what they represented to the city and its residents.

“History is about the story that is attached to the place,” she said.

Already, the Moody Centre neighbourhood that contains several residential and commercial structures that date to the city’s earliest days as a railway and lumber hub is peppered with brass plaques affixed to rocks that recount significant people, places or events in Port Moody’s evolution. There’s also a series of colourful tile mosaics on metal pedestals and vinyl murals wrapped around utility boxes.

Dilworth said those initiatives have to be reinvigorated and better promoted so residents and visitors can know about them and seek them out.

“We need to capitalize on heritage and small local businesses as an attraction,” she said.

Tri-City restauranteur Fred Soofi knows the intrinsic and commercial value of preserving the city’s heritage. He’s made it his mission to purchase and restore several historic homes and commercial buildings in Moody Centre over the years, even moving them to new locations to keep them out of the way of new developments.

In fact, Soofi said he was on just such a quest when he reached a lease agreement with the family that owned the Roe & Abernathy building. But the deal fell apart when the parents died and is now the subject of a legal dispute.

Soofi said heritage is a fragile asset that must be preserved for future generations to appreciate how they got to their current point.

“If everybody lives in condos and high rises, they’ll be able to remember how their grandparents lived and shopped,” Soofi said.

But saving heritage shouldn’t be left to the passions of individuals, he said. It needs to be a community effort championed by local government.

“The city should encourage heritage,” Soofi said. “They should ask themselves why nobody else is doing it.”

Acting Mayor Hunter Madsen said the block affected by the fire “has always been a key focus” of the city’s efforts to revitalize and brighten its historic core, and the old grocery store — which was built in 1912 to replace a previous one also destroyed by a fire — was a distinctive component.

Madsen said the city’s goal with its 13-block heritage conservation area is “to manage, not prevent, change.”

But there’s no more sudden, unplanned change than losing a building to a fire.

Madsen said he expects any new construction on the site to be “mindful of, and that resonates well with, the overall heritage look and feel of the neighbourhood.”

He added, “While exact replicas of the old structures might be amazing and welcome, there are many ways to achieve a fine complementarity without calling for literal re-creation.”

Dilworth said the fire should serve as a wake-up call that preserving heritage in Port Moody needs to be an ongoing effort, perhaps bolstered with supports like financial incentives such as tax deferrals or reductions. She said while those have been offered to owners of heritage homes, it may be time to extend such a program to commercial buildings as well.

“We need to be more practical,” Dilworth said, adding there also needs to be a conversation with the city’s fire department about ways it might be able to work with owners and tenants of heritage buildings to find ways to better protect their old, wooden structures from fire.

In fact, in the wake of the fire, a Port Moody building material company has stepped up to offer owners of heritage buildings in the city its own fire-resistant wall sheathing product for free.

Jaco Cheung, the CEO of OmniTek Canada, on St. Johns Street, said his company’s special OmniBoard product has up to four times the fire rating of ordinary drywall and offers zero flame spread, unlike the paper surface of conventional drywall boards. He said that makes it easier to create separate “fire compartments” that can prevent a fire from consuming an entire building.

“Preventing fire from traveling between floors can be a life or death issue in heritage structures,” he said, adding the offer is the company’s way of contributing to the community and is good until Sept. 30.

City ready to support businesses

Owners of businesses displaced by the fire that destroyed half a block of Port Moody’s historic commercial core on Clarke Street July 28, won’t have to manage their recovery alone, said the city’s Acting Mayor, Hunter Madsen.

He said the city is prepared to facilitate any permits those businesses may require as they look to rebuild or relocate.

The fire destroyed the old Roe & Abernathy grocery store, which was vacant, as well as the Gallery Bistro next door. Smoke and water damage affected three other businesses, including a chocolatier, a pottery shop and the Silk Gallery, located in the old Burns butcher shop.

Helen Daniels, the owner of Gallery Bistro, said it’s still “too early” to know what her next step will be, but Madsen said the city will stay “in close touch.”

Coun. Diana Dilworth suggested the city could play matchmaker to help connect business owners with available spaces should they look to relocate even temporarily while their establishments are cleaned up or rebuilt.

Meanwhile, Coun. Zoe Royer, who manages the Silk Gallery, said the fire could spark a re-imagining of what that part of Moody Centre could become, with Clarke and Spring streets lined with small artist studios, not unlike parts of Granville Island in Vancouver.

“It would be an amazing opportunity,” she said. “It would bring back the charm.”

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