Historic but no heritage status: Palace Theatre to be demolished
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An iconic former movie theatre built in the heart of the North End more than a century ago now faces the wrecker’s ball.
Plans to demolish the historic Palace Theatre came as news to much of the Selkirk Avenue community, after its owner filed a request to the City of Winnipeg to refund an inspection fee because it had decided to tear it down.
The 501 Selkirk Ave. structure and its iconic facade has played many roles over the years, including movie theatre, department store and flea market. It is owned by the University of Manitoba and has sat vacant since 2002.
The U of M filed a request to the city’s property committee (to be discussed June 6) to have the most recent inspection fee refunded “taking in consideration the building in question will be demolished (in the) next couple of months.”
“The University of Manitoba has (made) several attempts to find a new use for the building or to sell, without positive result. Last year, the University of Manitoba decided to demolish the existing building and clean the site,” a memo from U of M project manager Dan Ionescu, dated May 11, reads.
A construction company has been hired and an application for demolition has been made. The building has to be inspected annually, and the U of M is requesting the fee ($1,248) it paid earlier this year be refunded in full.
Despite the building’s origins — constructed in 1912 and designed by notable architect Max Blankstein — it’s not listed as a historical resource with the city and there are no protections in place for its facade.
Heritage Winnipeg executive director Cindy Tugwell said Wednesday she plans to register to speak at the Monday meeting — despite the report only calling to approve or deny the refund — because there’s no other opportunity for her to speak out against the “ridiculous” demolition process.
“My argument would be: what happened to the process that you’re talking about waiving a fee to a building that’s imminently going to be demolished and where’s the justification for it to be demolished?” she said.
“But the process, if a building is not (heritage) designated, allows for the city department of property and development, the urban planners, to give a demolition permit when they see fit, which disallows anybody to argue.”
When asked what influenced the U of M’s decision and what the university planned to do with the space, public affairs executive director Myrrhanda Novak said the institution is “committed to community consultation and the overall well-being of the neighbourhood.”
“We welcome discussions with interested community groups before making decisions on how to proceed with the structure,” she said in a brief email.
The city’s process leaves sites like the Palace Theatre as “sitting ducks,” Tugwell said, adding Heritage Winnipeg would be calling for greater protections for historical buildings without heritage status during the upcoming mayoral election.
“The city needs to look to stop allowing demolitions of these buildings, unless it’s last resort… Heritage is an excuse to protect it, but where is the city’s green policy to say we are not going to lose these buildings anymore, unless they absolutely cannot be retrofitted, or redeveloped?”
Coun. Ross Eadie (Mynarski) said the refund request was the first he’d heard of the demolition plan.
“It’d be a shame to lose (the building), we could use some event space,” he said Wednesday.
Eadie said he would speak at the Monday meeting to ensure if the demolition permit is approved, it’s only after the city has proven the building is either is beyond repair or something new will be rebuilt in its place.
“They can’t get a demolition permit and just leave it vacant three years,” he said. “We won’t allow that.”
Community advocate Michael Redhead Champagne has been calling for the revitalization of the Palace Theatre for years. He was part of talks between the North End Community Renewal Corp. and U of M to turn the space to a neighbourhood venue in 2020.
As a member of the newly-formed North End Historical Society, Champagne said the Palace Theatre was one of the buildings that came to mind when new members discussed monuments to recognize at its first meeting last month.
“To see such energy from the community around the Palace Theatre in the last few months, and then to just see the plans for demolition that were obviously proceeding concurrently to that, just feels quite jarring,” he said.
Area resident Steven Snyder, who plans to run in the Mynarski ward in the upcoming municipal election, called the idea “another nail in the coffin for the Selkirk area.”
“Every block you can walk past, there is at least one boarded building, quite a few vacant lots… A vacant lot, especially as prominent as that location will be just an eyesore,” Snyder said, adding he hopes local pressure can keep the file in the spotlight.
“If the community reaches out and they say, ‘Hey, we do have an idea for this location,’ and the community really… puts pressure on the U of M — they’re a government institution, we can build changes.”
Champagne said he understands partial demolition if there’s structural problems — but the building’s facade is an important part of the North End’s history and should be preserved as such.
“For me, I would like to see the Palace Theatre become a theatre again. I would like to see it become a venue for our community to share our thoughts and ideas.”
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.