Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Double standards and old buildings

Nothing like an assisted living complex designed by a McArchitect to make Chinatown an exciting place!

I love how the City's Property and Development Committee doesn't need to wait for an engineers' report to deem the building is "at risk of falling apart;" they just take the word of the architect/cartoonist Ray Wan, who would be hired to draw up a seniors' housing plan in order for the building to be demolished Yup, no conflict of interest there.

When owners want to take an old building that has not been properly maintained and upgraded over the years, and reuse it, they have to go to Property Planning and Development and argue for some kind of building code equivalency. Old buildings in Winnipeg obviously do not meet 100% of the building standard (since these buildings were built long before contemporary standards were created, and the economics of bringing a building up to 100% is often not there).

PP&D will often work with the owner to achieve code equivalency, and to bring the building up to a reasonable standard (say, 60%).

Developer X: "I own Building X, which is very old and has not been properly upgraded over the years. I plan to redevelop the building to earn a profit, but I will be unable to recoup the costs of doing so. So I am trying to take advantage of tax credits, etc. and develop part of the building for now. In the future I will make further improvements and develop the rest. Hopefully the market improves to make these later expenses more feasible."

PP&D: "Redeveloping old buildings downtown fits with the City's long-term planning documents. While in a perfect world, this entire building be completely repaired and upgraded, we recognize the economic realities. A couple of upgrades need to be done before occupancy, and if we can expect you to make further upgrades over time, that would be great. It might take a long time and seem really arbitrary at times, and you may want to start making friends with important people, but we will, ultimately work with you toward a solution that allows you to develop your building."

Most if not all century-old buildings in downtown Winnipeg are not at 100%, yet they are allowed to house uses like loft condos, offices, boutique retail shops, and cafes. Yet when an owner wants to knock a building down, they can argue that their building is not up to standard and it is not financially feasible to bring it up to standard. In that case, PP&D throws equivalency and 60% out the window. Threatened buildings thus face a higher standard than non-threatened ones. If the same standard that applied to the Coronation Block applied everywhere, the entire Exchange District would also be "at risk of falling apart."

Developer Y: "I own Building Y, which is very old and has not been properly upgraded over the years. Because the City told me I cannot demolish the building to earn a profit, I am now scrambling to put together some kind of credible-looking plan to build a geriatric ward on the site."

PP&D: "Demolishing old buildings downtown does not fit with the City's long-term planning documents. This entire building needs to be completely repaired and upgraded, 100%. That's all there is to it. We can't expect you to make all of these improvements at once, so there must be no other option but demolition. You might get some opposition from our Historical Buildings Committee, but we will, ultimately work with you toward a solution that allows you to demolish, especially if you can make friends with suburban councillors often determine the fate of downtown Winnipeg's built environment (a step you've obviously already taken)."

So it seems that the "it may as well come down because it needs alot of work" argument coming from the City is not based in objectivity. This is a matter of will. Of course it needs alot of work--it's an old building.

But demolition of a 19th century building in the Exchange District for a parking lot and no definite plan to build is not without recent precedent. Don't hold your breath waiting for this case to be any different.

Coronation Building, circa 1920. Credit: Buflyer 200