Plan to go from hotel to affordable housing
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The owner of the St. Charles Hotel, which has been empty for almost two decades, has re-imagined the historic downtown building to fill a desperate need in the city.
“We’re looking at affordable housing. I would say the proposal is now multi-unit housing. I’m not sure the hotel business currently is the most robust business, so that’s the model we’re working on,” said Ken Zaifman, who has been meeting with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. to discuss his plan for the building at 235 Notre Dame Ave.
Zaifman, who considered demolishing the structure in the past, said he would be open to housing people with addictions, something that excludes them from many housing options.
He needs the CMHC to agree before he takes his plan to the City of Winnipeg.
Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud, the CEO of Siloam Mission, said she was thrilled to hear about the possibility for more housing downtown.
“This is needed desperately,” Blaikie Whitecloud said.
“Affordable housing is needed, but it is also needed by people who face homelessness. We would love to sit down with (the building owner).”
Blaikie Whitecloud said there is a need for housing for people who have been released from addictions treatment.
“We will definitely support any initiative for bringing more housing for people who need it.”
Mayor Scott Gillingham was also positive about the proposal.
“We need more housing of all sorts, especially affordable housing and safe accommodation for homeless people,” Gillingham said.
“I would encourage any proposal that helps achieve that target, and if it brings an empty heritage building back to life, then that’s even better.”
CMHC said it can’t say anything about individual projects until details are finalized.
The three-storey structure is one of more than 100 buildings located in the Exchange District National Historic Site.
It was constructed in 1913, at a cost of $122,000, by Charles McCarrey, who also owned the St. Regis Hotel on Smith Street, a civic report from 1985 said.
Construction started in April and it was mostly completed by June. The exterior has dark tapestry brick set against white limestone trim. When it opened, there was a “large and elegant dining room” on the main floor and two floors of hotel rooms above.
The interior remained virtually unchanged until Donald Stefanyk bought it in 1965. He replaced the dining room with a beer parlour, and later put white tile on the facade of the ground floor.
Kalen Qually, a communications officer with the City of Winnipeg, said the former hotel is on the city’s List of Historical Resources after being added to the Building Conservation List in 1986.
It means the exterior is protected from being demolished or altered; its owners would need permission from the city before making alterations.
Other heritage buildings that were vacant for long periods have been repurposed, including the former Merchant’s Hotel on Selkirk Avenue, which was made into affordable housing and educational space; and the James Avenue Pumping Station, which was converted into a bar and restaurant; as well as the Fortune Block on Main Street and the Porter Building on McDermot Avenue.
Zaifman bought the St. Charles Hotel for $800,000 in 2005; later he said he wanted to turn it into a boutique hotel.
He then launched a court battle to try to strip the historic designation from the hotel, something he claimed at the time he didn’t know about when he purchased it.
A Court of Queen’s Bench justice sided with the city in 2008 and the designation remained.
Since then, heritage groups have said the building was being allowed to deteriorate.
“It’s demolition by neglect,” said Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg. “The city should tell the owner to develop it or sell it.
“This one is on a major street a half a block to Portage and Main. I think the city needs to rethink its vacant buildings policy.”
That was before the news Zaifman was looking at repurposing the St. Charles into housing.
Gordon Goldsborough of the Manitoba Historical Society had questioned why nothing had happened, but he didn’t think the civic government should seize the building.
“Responsibility for restoring the building would presumably then transfer to the city and the owner would be off the hook. The vacant buildings bylaw does provide authority for the city to levy high fees to owners of long vacant buildings.”
While the St. Charles has remained vacant, it likely has cost the owner more each year, due to the bylaw.
Zaifman wouldn’t reveal his fixed costs. Besides having to heat the building, to ensure it doesn’t deteriorate, it likely does fall under the vacant building bylaw.
While the city wouldn’t confirm that, it wouldn’t come cheap.
The first year a building falls under the bylaw, a commercial building owner would have to pay $2,517 for a permit. The following year, the permit jumps to $4,421, then $6,232, and $8,109 before going up by $1,888 every year after that.
It would mean that since 2010, the cost of permits would have hit $179,220 as it sat empty.
Coun. Jason Schreyer, the new chair of the civic historical buildings and resources committee, said he’s open to seeing the building used for affordable housing or for people who are struggling.
“It’s wonderful that he can make it work,” Schreyer said.
Coun. John Orlikow, a former committee chairman, said the building at the gateway to the Exchange District “is an important building for the area. When you drive by it you say “there’s Winnipeg’s past right there”… two decades is long enough. Let’s get going.”
Zaifman admits that, if not for the heritage designation, the building would have been razed years ago.
“We would have looked at other options which would have made it more viable,” he said. “We would have looked at a large development. It would have been something nice and iconic and fitting with the location.
“We’re trying to find the right fit.”
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.