Burned row house owner blames squatters for damage

The man who owns the gutted remains of a historical building that burned down Thursday blames his problems on squatters and denies being uncooperative with city safety orders.
CBC's Genevieve Tomney talks to the property owner, the city and those forced out by the flames. 2:11

The man who owns the gutted remains of 301 George Street, the Toronto row house that went up in flames Thursday, is defending himself against allegations that he hasn’t cooperated with city safety orders.

Frank Mancini admits his properties are in bad shape and that he hasn’t "looked after them that well," but blames their condition on those who are squatting in the vacant homes.

"If I covered them up today, it’s not out of the question for them to go and break in again," he said in an exclusive interview with the CBC’s Genevieve Tomney.

Mancini said he originally wanted to redevelop the five properties he owns on George Street, but he doesn’t know what to do with them at the moment.

The city counters that this kind of indecision is nothing short of negligence, and claims Mancini has been ignoring work orders to secure the buildings since 2003. If he doesn’t act soon, Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam suggested the city may "escalate the matter and take him to court."

"Certainly, I wouldn’t want to be this particular property owner right now," she said Friday.

Demolition by neglect

Wong-Tam recently held a private meeting with Mancini — one she said was scheduled before 301 George Street was engulfed in flames. The property, located near Jarvis and Dundas streets, began burning around 4:20 a.m. ET. Thursday morning.

It took firefighters until 8:20 a.m. to get the blaze under control, and the weakened structure of the house complicated their efforts. They had to bring in cranes, for instance, because the houses’ upper floors posed a safety hazard.

"It’s called demolition by neglect," said Catherine Nasmith, president of the Toronto Architectural Conservancy and a board member with Heritage Canada. "It happens when somebody owns the property but wants to tear them down, and if they can’t get permission to tear them down they just don’t maintain them."

Nasmith, who surveyed the aftermath of the fire Friday morning said such old buildings could make lovely homes if restored and cared for correctly.

In an interview with CBC’s Metro Morning on Friday, Wong-Tam said the building that was gutted was, in fact, a heritage-designated property.

Without naming the owner, Wong-Tam implied that he has not been cooperating with city demands to secure the property and look after its upkeep.

"He’s very much known to the city of Toronto," she said, adding that they city has had a file on the owner for some time.

"There have been numerous meetings with city departments trying to get him to comply.  It has not been successful."

Fire may have been accidental or arson

Wong-Tam said the owner's efforts to secure the property have been "minimal at best" and that the city is ready to pursue a more aggressive strategy. She added that if he can’t afford to care for the property he should sell or find investors.

Wong-Tam also said that the row houses, which all have historical and cultural value, share floorboard infrastructure. Tearing them down would not be simple.

She noted, however, that the property owner has not filed a request to demolish the houses.

The destroyed property is now the subject of a criminal investigation as police, working with the fire marshall, are working to determine if the fire resulted from arson.