Neighbourhood resentment builds over fire-scorched rubble pile

A massive pile of rubble marking the spot where a three-storey building was destroyed by fire nine months ago is sparking questions about how Winnipeg addresses eyesore properties.

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A massive pile of rubble marking the spot where a three-storey building was destroyed by fire nine months ago is sparking questions about how Winnipeg addresses eyesore properties.

“It’s pretty disgusting, yeah. I hate looking at it every day… We need to have something done with it — something better than that,” said Kayden Musgrave, gesturing toward the towering pile of twisted metal, crushed rock and scorched furniture across the road from his Daniel McIntyre neighbourhood home.

The vacant apartment block at 694 Sherbrook St. burned shortly before midnight on Feb. 14.

Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service crews battled the blaze overnight and into the following day, reporting the building had sustained massive damage and was at risk of collapse. Heavy equipment was contracted to demolish the structure.

Crews set up barriers around the fallen building shortly after — but Musgrave said he hasn’t seen any work done since.

The pile is a now safety hazard that makes the community appear worse than it actually is, he added. “I’m just really worried about people’s safety, and that’s top priority.”

A woman who has lived in a duplex beside the rubble pile for more than a year said the mess has made her want to leave the neighbourhood.

“It would be good to have it cleaned up, instead of just sitting there… A lot of people used to come and dig through it, because there would be clothes and stuff. There were even people trying to make little tents toward the back with stuff they found in the rubble.”

The woman, who asked not to be named, has children who pass the pile daily on their walk to school. They have been verbally accosted multiple times, and once, somebody tried to grab her daughter, she said.

“I’m planning to move just because of that.”

Both Musgrave and the woman said the former apartment had been empty for more than a year before it burned, becoming a frequent hangout for squatters.

The fact the rubble pile has remained untouched for so long highlights severe deficiencies in how the City of Winnipeg handles derelict and demolished properties, said area Coun. Cindy Gilroy.

“The permit has been issued for them to do this demolition but the stuff is still sitting there,” she said. “I want to see if I can shorten up the timeframe to make sure these things are done faster and more efficiently.”

According to the city website, the person who applied for a demolition permit (most often the owner) is responsible for cleaning the resulting debris. The job is considered complete “when the site is in a safe, level, well-graded condition.”

However, this requirement can change if the building was demolished due to an emergency, such as a fire.

The City of Winnipeg refused to comment on the Sherbrook site, citing “privacy reasons.”

“We aren’t able to comment on the status of a specific property… but can confirm the city would be in contact with an applicant during and following a demolition application,” said spokesman Kalen Qually.

The city could not provide the names of the Sherbrook property owner or when the site might be cleared, Qually said. The city establishes its timelines on a case-by-case basis and “has the authority to ensure the property owner addresses outstanding issues and establishes timelines that follow safety protocols.”

A review of records at city hall traced the property to a numbered company owned by two men with addresses in Grunthal. Neither person could be reached for comment.

The city often allows around six months to complete the process and property owners can apply for extensions, Gilroy said.

“We have to give an opportunity for people to demolish a building and get it away and, sometimes, that does take time, but I don’t think that takes six months… They need to complete the work, and that has to get done really fast.”

Gilroy plans to introduce a series of motions (informed by City of Edmonton bylaws) at city hall later this month, including more strict enforcement of demolition permit windows.

She would like to remove bylaws that force residential property owners to have a plan to rebuild prior to demolition. This would incentivize owners to tear down vacant buildings before they fall victim to squatters, arsonists and accidental fires, the councillor said.

Gilroy also wants the city to punish non-compliance through increased property taxes rather than fines. This will help prevent owners from evading collection agencies, she said.

Winnipeg’s assessment and taxation department estimated the Sherbrook site’s property value at $1.7 million before the fire. It was up for re-evaluation in 2022, but the provincial government pushed the general assessment cycle to 2023, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Manitoba Historical Society, the building was designed by local architect Edmund Walter Crayston and was formerly known as the Tremont Apartments. It was built in 1914.

The original configuration of 694 Sherbrook St. contained 28 apartments, with two more added later.

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