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Flames tear at heart of the Exchange

Businesses, heritage remnant go up in smoke as block gutted

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One of Winnipeg's oldest residential dwellings has been consumed by a $430,000 fire that destroyed an Exchange District heritage building and sent heavy smoke billowing across downtown Thursday.


Troubles plaguing a pedestrian-friendly block officials call the gateway into the Exchange District:

ROYAL ALBERT ARMS (48 Albert St.): The 99-year-old heritage hotel has been vacant since May 2011, when the city ordered the building closed following the disruption of water service. It forced the closure of the live-music venue on the main floor and displaced a restaurant, Deseo Bistro. In December, the city issued a repair order under the vacant and derelict buildings bylaw.

ALBERT STREET BUSINESS BLOCK (38-44 Albert St.): Commercial block, with one component dating back to 1877, was destroyed by fire on Thursday.

ST. CHARLES HOTEL (22 Albert St.): Another 99-year-old heritage hotel, the St. Charles, has been vacant for three years. In February, the hotel's owner lost an appeal against a city order to install a functional water and sprinkler system.

--Bartley Kives

Shortly before 9:30 a.m., fire began tearing through the Albert Street Business Block, a low-rise commercial building between the St. Charles Hotel and the Royal Albert Arms on Albert Street. The small structure contained three street-level retail units built in the 1920s as well as the remnants of a two-storey home built in 1877, when the city was only four years old.

By 1 p.m., when firefighters extinguished the blaze, the structure had been destroyed, along with two businesses that operated inside the block -- the Ken Hong Restaurant and War on Music, a retail co-op.

"This is the heart of the Exchange and it's burning to the ground right now," Jade Rennie-Harper, who works in the area, said when the fire was underway. "People worked so hard to make these businesses happen and they're such small businesses. This is people's lives that (are) going up in smoke right now."

Charley Justice, one of the founders of War on Music, said the business lost records, CDs and other merchandise. War on Music is insured and he's hopeful the business will survive.

The family that owns the Ken Hong Restaurant arrived at the scene while the building was burning, staring at the wreckage with moist eyes and pained expressions. Relatives declined to comment to media.

The Albert Street Business Block sustained $400,000 in damage, city spokeswoman Tammy Melesko said. Workers were preparing to demolish the building after the fire was extinguished Thursday afternoon.

"The buildings are destroyed," lamented Ken Zaifman, who owns the numbered company that owned the block, adding he was sad for his tenants. "They had businesses and now those businesses can't operate. It's more my concern for them than for the buildings themselves."

Zaifman asked city council for permission to demolish the heritage structure in 2008 to make way for an expansion of the St. Charles Hotel, which he also owns. He was granted permission to do so only if substantial renovations were made to the hotel.

Those renovations were not made and the block remained untouched until Thursday. Zaifman said he expects the fire means the new development proposed for the site will proceed more quickly.

"We'll just have to move to redevelop the property a little faster than we originally planned," he said.

Bill Clark, acting deputy chief of operations for the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, said it's not yet known what caused the fire or where it started.

"When we arrived, the entire structure was completely involved in fire, and it spread throughout the building by the time we had arrived," he said.

Firefighters tried to prevent the fire from spreading to the neighbouring Royal Albert Arms Hotel, which sustained $30,000 worth of smoke damage.

Clark said there were no injuries due to the fire. He also said there was nothing to suggest it was deliberately set. "I don't even go there (until) we've had a chance to get our investigators in there," he said.

City police said the fire did not appear suspicious.

The loss of the Albert Street Business Block leaves three empty properties in a row on a stretch of Albert, dubbed "a perfect mixed-use pedestrian street" and "the gateway into the Exchange" by Ross McGowan, president and CEO of downtown development agency CentreVenture

Both the St. Charles Hotel and the Royal Albert Arms are vacant. The city has issued derelict-building orders against both properties in the past year.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2012 B1

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