Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Electrical failure lit Albert inferno

Owners vow to pick up and start anew

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An accidental electrical failure started the fire that destroyed an Exchange District heritage building and closed two businesses this week, the Winnipeg Police Service said Friday.

The Albert Street Business Block, a heritage structure that contained three street-front retail units and the remnants of one of Winnipeg's oldest residential dwellings, was destroyed by a Thursday-morning fire and then demolished in the evening.

Investigators with the arson strike force and Office of the Fire Commissioner concluded the fire started at a power bar plugged into an electrical outlet inside retailer War on Music, police spokeswoman Const. Natalie Aitken said. The $630,000 blaze destroyed the music store, the neighbouring Ken Hong Restaurant, a vacant retail unit and an attached two-storey residential dwelling built in 1877.

The building's owner plans to redevelop the site, while one of his tenants vows to start anew.

Liz Harte-Maxwell, co-owner of War on Music, said her co-operative business isn't finished and she hopes to reopen with support from the store's punk- and metal-loving clientele.

"It's an opportunity to reconnect with our community and see what they want these days," said the 20-year-old, standing in a parking lot next to the space where War on Music stood, now an empty lot surrounded by metal gates.

"I just love this place... War On Music is definitely coming back. It's not over. We're going to do this better. We're going to take this opportunity to truly streamline what War on Music is these days."

The low-rise commercial building stood between the Royal Albert Arms and the St. Charles Hotel, a pair of vacant, 99-year-old heritage buildings.

Ken Zaifman, who owns both the St. Charles and the former business block, said he will proceed with his long-delayed plan to renovate his hotel.

"My preference would have been to do it in a more orderly way," Zaifman said Friday. "I'm very troubled by the fact the building was destroyed and two tenants had their businesses terminated."

Zaifman obtained permission from city council to demolish the Albert Street Business Block in 2008 once the hotel was renovated. Unless he approaches the city with a new development plan, he will still be required to renovate the St. Charles Hotel, city spokeswoman Michelle Bailey said.

Zaifman concurred. "The demolition of the business block doesn't change the redevelopment obligations of the St. Charles," he said, adding he does not want to create an open parking lot where the block once stood or create a curb cut into pedestrian-friendly Albert Street.

The main development obstacle facing the hotel remains the cost of heritage restoration and renovation, Zaifman said. Financing, however, should be no problem, he added.

On the other side of the former business block, the Royal Albert Arms sustained $30,000 in smoke damage. The heritage hotel has been closed since May 2011 due to a water-system failure but will "soon be open," owner Daren Jorgenson pledged via email.

Jorgenson said he will oppose any attempt to create a surface lot or a curb-cut entrance to a surface lot next door. Neither move is possible, according to the council decision governing the property.

Heritage Winnipeg executive director Cindy Tugwell said the loss of the Albert Street Business Block is "almost like a death in the family" and wants to see the entire stretch of Albert revitalized.

"The St. Charles Hotel is vacant, the Royal Albert is vacant and the adjacent Gregg building (next) to the Royal Albert is vacant," Tugwell said. "I think it's really critical now to get this redevelopment moving and we've been waiting patiently."

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 24, 2012 A4

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