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This article was published 7/6/2019 (470 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A call to arms from neighbourhood activists, interventions from politicians elected to multiple levels of government, the involvement of a dozen police officers and a last-minute, emergency stop work order have saved a historic mansion from an appointment with a demolition wrecking ball — for now.
A tense, hours-long standoff in the lane behind 514 Wellington Cres. — demonstrators put both their vehicles and their bodies between the property and an excavator hired to knock it down — ended Friday with the building standing.
"The police told the demolition crew they could not do any work with the excavator, that they could just park it there on the property. We’re going to stay here until all the guys with the demolition crew leave," said Christine Skene, a neighbourhood organizer.
The home has been the site of a protracted battle between Jeff Thompson, whose numbered company owns the property, and area residents since he purchased the building for roughly $1.25 million in April 2015.
"If they go ahead and knock it down defying the stop work order, Thompson and the demolition company would be fined $5,000, but I don’t think that would deter Thompson at all," said Skene.
Attempts by the Free Press to reach Thompson Friday were unsuccessful.
Built in 1909, the 8,000-square-foot mansion has been home to numerous prominent Winnipeggers over the years and was previously protected as a municipal historical resource — a designation it lost under mysterious circumstances in 2014.
Thompson has previously indicated his desire to knock down the building and replace it with a condominium complex. Late last week it was revealed the city had issued him a demolition permit April 25.
Activists learned Thursday evening the demolition was to begin Friday, sending them into a frenzy of activity. They contacted politicians, media outlets and organized a demonstration Friday morning in an effort to save the building.
Their efforts paid off when John Kiernan, the director of Winnipeg’s planning, property and development department, issued an emergency conservation order hours before preparatory work for the demolition was scheduled to begin.
By nominating the entirety of the Crescentwood neighbourhood as a historical conservation district, Kiernan effectively suspended all active demolition permits in the area. It could take months, if not years, before the nomination makes its way through the city’s bureaucracy.
"The nomination includes all structures and built features within the proposed heritage conservation district and, as such, the demolition or alteration of 514 Wellington Cres. is hereby prohibited effective immediately," reads the order, a copy of which was obtained by the Free Press.
However, area residents are not convinced a $5,000 fine — which is what Thompson would face if he defies the stop work order and knocks down the house anyway — is sufficient to deter the owner from moving forward with his plans.
"The demolition permit has been rescinded, but he could just say, ‘All right, I’ll go ahead and pay the fine.’ He just wants the building out of there. He considers it the lighting rod," Skene said.
Since the area residents don’t think the possibility of a fine is enough of a deterrence, Skene said they are planning to seek a court-ordered injunction next week.
In an effort to defuse the hours-long standoff between activists and the contractors hired by the owner, the city sent down a bylaw officer and, later, the planning, property and development department manager of inspections Stan Dueck, who was carrying physical copies of the stop work order.
However, Bulldog Demolition manager Eric Fleury refused to stand down or recognize the order since it was not personally addressed to him. He threw the paperwork on the ground and instead demanded the Winnipeg Police Service be dispatched to sort the matter out.
By early afternoon, roughly a dozen WPS officers were at the scene. They ordered the protesters to remove their vehicles from the lane and allowed Bulldog Demolitions to tear down a wooden fence at the rear of the property so they could park the excavator on the back lawn.
Police instructed the contractors that no other work was authorized to take place. After WPS officers left the scene, a handful of contractors and area residents lingered behind.
Diane Scoles, one of the activists, said she would be staying behind until late Friday night to make sure no demolition takes place. If the crews begin to the work in defiance of the order, she said she was prepared to put her body between the machinery and the house once again.
"I think it’s possible they could still try to take it down. I told them I’m not going anywhere, that I’m going to watch the place. The police said we could call them if that happens, but it took them hours to get here the first time around," she said.
"Do you believe (Thompson) is going to listen? The fine is $5,000. To a multimillionaire, that’s nothing."
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.
Updated on Friday, June 7, 2019 at 10:28 PM CDT: fixes typo
June 10, 2019 at 10:58 AM: Clarifies a numbered company owns the property.
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