Public Safety Building to be demolished, no date yet

Winnipeg's Public Safety Building is coming down.

Architect, heritage advocates lose battle to save brutalist building

The PSB will be fully vacant by July, once the police service has entirely moved to its new headquarters on Graham Avenue. (Google Streetview)

Winnipeg's Public Safety Building is coming down.

The architect and heritage advocates made last-ditch attempts to save the 51-year-old building at city hall on Tuesday, but they were unsuccessful. After lengthy discussion and debate, the property and development committee voted to send in the wrecking ball.

But that won't happen until a firm plan is in place for the property, which is bordered by William and James avenues and King and Princess streets.

Public feedback will be taken on options for the land and then a redevelopment plan will be presented for approval.

PSB architect Les Stecheson, who's battling a flu bug, made his way to city hall in an effort to convince councillors to preserve the building. The old police headquarters will become vacant by July, after the police service has entirely moved into its new location on Graham Avenue.

Stecheson described the PSB as "one of the most important buildings I've worked on in my career" and disagreed with a city-commissioned report that called for its demolition.

"It's an important style of that era — the '60s — and probably one of the best in the country," he said. "It's a gross exaggeration to say that since the building is experiencing some structural issues that the building is unsound."

Architect Les Stecheson, 81, describes the Public Safety Building as one of the most important buildings he's ever worked on. (Erin Brohman/CBC)
Clad in Tyndall limestone and designed in the brutalist style of modernism, the PSB was built in 1965, but Winnipeg's extreme weather and years of freezing and thawing have taken a toll on it.

Since 2006, a plywood-covered walkway has lined the street outside the building to protect pedestrians from the risk of limestone cladding falling from the facade.

The city commissioned a $275,000 report to consider options for the building and its attached parkade across King Street from city hall. The parkade has been closed since August 2012 after engineering reports raised structural concerns.

The report recommending demolition was presented to the property and development committee last month. Preserving or renovating the building would be cost prohibitive and the land could instead be used to create a small public space, it states.

It's a suggestion that Mayor Brian Bowman has supported.

"What we've been advised is it's essentially beyond repair. The costs that we would have to incur in order to save it … is one that I don't favour," he said last month.

The property and development committee first considered the PSB's future at a meeting in March but held off making a decision in order to get opinions on its heritage value.

Heritage Winnipeg executive director Cindy Tugwell also spoke to the committee on Tuesday and called the PSB one of the top five examples of brutalist modern architecture in Canada.

She urged the city to do a proper assessment of the building so it can be placed on the historic buildings list.

"Every privately owned building, every publicly owned building that is suspected of having historical significance goes through this transparent process with an evaluation on recommendations of historical significance, and this building deserves that," she said.

She insisted it was sound and it would only take $8.7 million to restore it. City administration has previously estimated the cost to renovate the building at $40 million, which includes the cost of demolishing the parkade.

'It's almost like a bad dream'

Coun. Russ Wyatt wasn't impressed with the decision.

"We have over 100,000 square feet in this building. We spent millions in the last number of years just trying to maintain that building, and now, we're going to knock it down?" Wyatt said after the vote. "It seems somewhat disastrous. It's almost like a bad dream."

Wyatt said the city purchased a "fiasco of a building" to replace the police headquarters.

"Now, you're knocking down a perfectly good building? You couldn't write a book [about this] and sell it. Nobody would buy it. It's such a bad story," he said.

Wyatt said the public engagement portion of the redevelopment should happen soon.

He also suggested there still may be some hope for the building if other alternatives come forward through that process.

"There was no information in that report provided to council advising them that they technically couldn't dispose of PSB building because the PSB is sitting on land that we are restricted to in terms of a revisionary right that goes back over 100 years," said Wyatt. "That information should have been made to council so they could've made a proper decision. I think it would've been a different decision had they had that information."

​Recommendations from report

The report presents three options for reusing the space once the PSB and parkade and removed. They include:

  • Large public space/private development

This option recommends the city create a public space on portions of the land, with surplus land sold to a private sector developer.

  • Civic campus

This option recommends the development of a small public space, the construction of a new building for the planning, property and development department, the construction of a small, 95-stall parking structure with office space for the Winnipeg Parking Authority and the sale of surplus land.

  • Large parking structure

This option recommends the development of a small public space, the construction of a 520-stall parking structure with office space at grade for the parking authority and the sale of surplus land.

with files from Erin Brohman


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