Back in 2008, the owners of two century-old hotels on pedestrian-friendly Albert Street announced plans to convert their heritage properties into boutique hotels befitting the entrance to the Exchange District National Historic Site.
At the time, immigration lawyer Ken Zaifman promised to renovate the three-storey St. Charles Hotel into an upscale property, while former Internet-pharmacy entrepreneur Daren Jorgenson had more modest plans for the four-storey Royal Albert Arms.
Today, both properties sit empty as their respective owners contend with financing challenges as well as orders under the city's vacant and derelict building bylaw.
As other areas of downtown Winnipeg experience a modest renaissance, downtown-revitalization proponents are growing frustrated with the slow pace of development on a desirable stretch of Albert Street only one block from Portage and Main.
"It's time we saw some action on these properties," said Ross McGowan, president and CEO of downtown-development agency CentreVenture. "This is a perfect mixed-use pedestrian street, and right now it's being hampered by those two derelict properties."
Built in 1913, the 41,600-square-foot St. Charles Hotel, vacant for three years, was most recently used as long-term housing for low-income tenants while Zaifman attempted to secure financing for a $10-million renovation. On Monday, he lost an appeal against a city order to install a functional water and sprinkler system in the vacant structure.
Zaifman said he intends to comply, as one more order against the building could place the city in position to begin proceedings to seize the structure.
The 21,000-square-foot Royal Albert Arms, also built in 1913, has only been vacant since May, when the city ordered the hotel closed following the disruption of water service. At the time, the building housed a long-running indie-rock venue as well as a restaurant, Deseo Bistro, which has since moved to Osborne Street in Fort Rouge.
In December, the city issued the Royal Albert Arms a repair order under the vacant and derelict building bylaw, demanding water service be in place at the hotel by March 1, city spokeswoman Michelle Bailey said Tuesday.
Jorgenson said via email he is working on financing to reopen the building, whose closure has disappointed members of Winnipeg's close-knit heavy rock and metal scene, which relied on the venue.
CentreVenture has an interest in the development of both the St. Charles Hotel and Royal Albert Arms but must allow the vacant-and-derelict building process unfold, McGowan said.
The Exchange District Business Improvement Zone is also lamenting the situation on a block intended to serve as a showcase for both the neighbourhood and urban revitalization. But the organization is powerless to do anything but advocate for development on Albert Street.
"Unfortunately, that's the gateway into the Exchange, for a lot of people. Obviously, we want to see things happening there," said Brian Timmerman, executive director of the Exchange District BIZ.
"If it doesn't work for the present owners, I do support the city in attempting to get the owners to comply or turning them over to other owners to develop their properties."
Timmerman said he understands entrepreneurs have experienced difficulty obtaining financing following the 2008 financial crisis. Property values in Winnipeg, however, have not declined and hoteliers claim there are not enough rooms in downtown Winnipeg to meet existing demand.
Several blocks west of Albert Street, on Donald Street, work has started inside the interiors of the former A&B Sound and Wild Planet buildings, which will be demolished to make way for the Longboat Development Corporation's effort to build a new boutique hotel, office space and parkade on most of a city block opposite the MTS Centre.
CentreVenture and The Forks-North Portage Partnership played a role in this development by helping assemble land.
Down and out in the Exchange
Two years ago, the owners of a pair of 99-year-old Albert Street hotels promised upscale renovations into boutique properties. Today, both heritage properties sit empty and under repair orders from the City of Winnipeg.
St. Charles Hotel
Owner: Immigration lawyer Ken Zaifman.
What was promised in 2008: A $10-million reconstruction, with remodelled rooms and a new main-floor reception area and a restaurant, with a patio extending north along Albert Street where the Albert Street Business Block currently stands.
The situation today: The building sits empty and under a city order to install a working water and sprinkler system. Zaifman lost an appeal against the vacant and derelict building order on Monday.
Royal Albert Arms
Owner: Former Internet-pharmacy entrepreneur Daren Jorgenson.
What was promised in 2008: A $1-million remodelling of 40 rooms, the restoration of the front reception area and the removal of a front atrium to expose the hotel's original facade.
The situation today: The building sits empty and under a city order to install a working water system. The vacant building order was issued in December.