Any change to ‘eyesore’ St. Charles Hotel welcome: Exchange neighbours
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As a gallery owner, Bill Mayberry is used to looking at great works of art. When he looks at the long-vacant St. Charles Hotel, all he sees is an arson waiting to happen.
Mayberry’s business is located inside another heritage building in the Exchange District national historic site. He says he can’t understand why the City of Winnipeg has meanwhile allowed the former hotel to be left vacant for almost two decades.
Reacting to a Free Press article this week — in which the building owner says he is looking at redeveloping it into affordable housing or housing for people facing homelessness or struggling with addictions — Mayberry is skeptical.
“I have been driving past this poorly neglected eyesore for almost 20 years,” he said. “It’s not hard to spot, it’s the grand old building all covered in graffiti.
“Shame on our city for allowing property owners to neglect historic buildings in this manner… This is a typical example of demolition by neglect. It’s a fire waiting to happen and that, to me, is despicable.”
The St. Charles was constructed in 1913, and had a long history of a restaurant on the main floor, with two floors of hotel rooms above, and then later with bars on the main floor and lower level.
By the time the city listed the building as heritage in 1985, the interior had been gutted of anything historical. The exterior features were marked to be preserved.
Ken Zaifman, who bought the hotel for $800,000 in 2005, originally had plans for a boutique hotel, but later unsuccessfully fought the city in court, claiming he didn’t know it was a heritage-designated property, inside an area that had been tagged as nationally significant in 1997.
Zaifman, who said this week he would have long ago torn down the building if not for the heritage designation, said he is talking with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. about turning the three-storey building at 235 Notre Dame Ave., into housing.
Andrew Aigbedo, owner of African Food General, located across the parking lot from the old St. Charles, said the building has been empty for the 13 years he has been running his business.
“It is not helpful to the neighbourhood for this building to be vacant,” Aigbedo said. “It does not bring life to our neighbourhood. If there is housing inside, everyone will benefit. It would be a win-win for everyone.”
“It is not helpful to the neighbourhood for this building to be vacant… It does not bring life to our neighbourhood. If there is housing inside, everyone will benefit. It would be a win-win for everyone.”–Andrew Aigbedo
Coun. Sheri Rollins, chairwoman of the civic property and development committee, said the city’s vacant building bylaw, which was put in place in 2010, is supposed to be able to push owners to redevelop such buildings via increasingly higher annual penalties.
The city won’t verify, citing privacy reasons, if the St. Charles Hotel is subject to the bylaw. If it is, the owner could have paid as much as $179,220 while sitting empty, on top of paying property taxes.
Rollins also pointed to the Gail Parvin Hammerquist Fund, which allows heritage building owners to apply for a grant of 50 per cent of a renovation project’s cost, to a maximum of $50,000.
“That fund is really important because there are costs for developing heritage buildings,” she said.
Rollins said late last month the committee approved a motion to increase the amount of affordable housing in the city by accessing federal rapid housing funds until 2026, and waive all property taxes and permit and development-related fees on those projects during the funding agreement.
“I do think we should look at the vacant building bylaw,” Rollins said, but added, as long as owners follow the rules under the bylaw, including passing annual inspections, the city can’t seize the buildings.
Cindy Tugwell, Heritage Winnipeg executive director, said she believes the bylaw needs to be amended to further target owners who keep buildings vacant for years.
“An amendment would give them so long before they have to divest,” Tugwell said. “I’m talking about when it is grid locked — they won’t sell and they won’t renovate. We need the bylaw to not allow people just to… let a building sit vacant.”
Lowell Latuk, owner of Mariaggi’s Theme Suite Hotel & Spa, said he has spent millions on the McDermot Avenue building during the 35 years he has owned it.
“I guess (the St. Charles owner) is not willing to put his own money into the building, which you have to do,” Latuk said. “We’ve done 95 per cent of the work on our own.”
However, Latuk said the city could do more to help, because every time an owner upgrades a building, the property assessment goes up and so do the property taxes. Heritage grants, which used to come from the city and the province, ended years ago, he added.
“They should help him out by giving some tax incentives,” Latuk said.
Ultimately, Mayberry said, if the owner of the St. Charles Hotel isn’t able to develop the property, they shouldn’t be the owner.
“If you’re not going to use it, then lose it,” he said. “Let someone else to the right thing.”
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.