Dozens of descendants of Winnipeg's first postmaster would be in line for a windfall if the city ever decides to sell the Public Safety Building to private interests, historical and family records suggest.
Earlier this week, the City of Winnipeg confirmed the city's police station sits on land donated in 1875 under the condition it must always be used for public purposes. Under the terms of the agreement, the rectangular parcel bounded by William Avenue, Main and Princess streets and what used to be Market Avenue would revert to the donors' descendants in the event it's ever used for private purposes.
Historical land records show those donors were siblings William R. Ross and Margaret Ross, the children of William Ross Sr., the first postmaster in the Red River settlement. His former residence -- Ross House Museum in Point Douglas -- became the first post office in Western Canada.
Parish records show the land was transferred to the City of Winnipeg on June 7, 1875, for $600. It's home to the Council Building at city hall, the Public Safety Building and a portion of the Civic Centre parkade.
The city is contemplating the sale of the Public Safety Building after the Winnipeg Police Service moves into its new headquarters in the former Canada Post building on Graham Avenue. City officials hoped the sale of the PSB would offset part of the $194-million cost of the new police headquarters project.
The city is also considering the sale of the Civic Centre parkade, whose $6.2-million repair job is no longer in the Winnipeg Parking Authority's business plan. But any sale of this land to private interests would be complicated, as there are 19 living descendants of Margaret and William R. Ross, according to family records that do not even include the youngest generation.
The condition of the 1875 donation has been passed down through the generations, said one of the donors' descendants.
"We always knew city hall stood on the family land," said Winnipeg resident Aileen Rouse, one of Margaret Ross's great-grandchildren.
She said she has no problem if the land is sold to a public institution such as Red River College, whose Exchange District campus sits across from the Public Safety Building and the Civic Centre parkade on Princess Street.
"If it's a public use, then that's the way it would stand," Rouse said. "But if they sell it (to a private interest), it would have to go back to the original agreement."
On a previous occasion when the city contemplated selling a chunk of this land, the Ross siblings' descendants reminded the city about the agreement. Use city hall site or lose it, the Winnipeg Tribune headline warned in 1947, when the city was contemplating a new location to build a city hall to replace what was then a Victorian-style "gingerbread" structure on Main Street.
A similar dynamic is playing out 65 years later, as city lawyers are conducting due diligence about the condition attached to the 137-year-old land donation, in terms of how it would affect the sale of the Public Safety Building and Civic Centre parkade.
The city faces several different scenarios, depending on what its lawyers determine, chief operations officer Deepak Joshi said Wednesday.
One of those scenarios would involve a sale to a public institution such as Red River College.
While the two structures together are assessed at $12.4 million, it's unclear what they would fetch when the parkade requires $6.2 million in repairs and the PSB faces a Tyndall-stone recladding job of unknown cost.
Red River College has a potential interest in the block, said communications manager Colin Fast. But the college is more concerned with completing the fundraising for the nearly complete Union Bank Tower conversion on Main Street and building a $60-million skilled trades centre at its Notre Dame Avenue campus.
"Given the location of the PSB, it makes sense, given the growth of what we're now calling the Exchange District campus. But do we have any immediate plans? No," Fast said.