Winnipeg city council has scaled back a heritage designation, after the building’s owner said fully protecting the 110-year-old structure could threaten a supportive housing project.
Elected officials were originally asked to protect the entire exterior of the McLaren Hotel on Main Street, but wound up voting to designate only its east and north facades, as well as its flag pole.
Such additions to the city’s historical resources list protect a building and/or some of its elements against demolition.
The hotel’s owner, Rubi Gill, said engineering estimates show a full heritage designation would add about $1 million to the price of his $20-million renovation-and-expansion project, which is designed to support both affordable and transitional housing.
"It would be so prohibitive… we would not (be able to add new units) at the parking lot next door. Our focus would go back into the old building to make it look like it did in 1910," said Gill.
He plans to revamp 150 current affordable housing units within the McLaren Hotel, where tenants can receive transitional housing supports. A separate, new 108-suite housing space is also proposed within a mixed-use building planned for the surface parking lot beside the hotel.
About one-third of those new housing units are expected to offer affordable housing, said Gill.
Rick Lees, executive director of Main Street Project, lobbied council to accept the modified protection level, arguing the new homes are desperately needed.
"(The owner) needs to be able to have a clear designation through heritage, so he can actually do the things he wants to do at an affordable price… So we really do support that, because we need new housing in the downtown core," he said.
Lees said his organization opened socially-distanced shelter beds at its Disraeli Street building about five weeks ago, as part of its COVID-19 response. Many clients who relied on that space are now ready to move on to transitional housing but Winnipeg lacks enough spaces to meet that demand, he said.
The non-profit charitable community health agency already provides some services to residents at the McLaren, Lees added.
Voicing opposition was Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg, who said council must avoid "facadism," which leaves major portions of historic buildings unprotected.
"The whole building should be preserved and it can be preserved," said Tugwell.
Built in 1910, the McLaren is an example of the pre-First World War era and Chicago School style, a city heritage report notes.
Tugwell said she’s concerned tying a heritage designation to a future construction project will set a precedent.
"What happens to the community, if the building project doesn’t go forward?" she asked.
Council approved the reduced heritage designation Friday, with several councillors expressing a wish to support the housing project.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.
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