Has Shmuel Farhi closed the book on developing London's former library?
Paragraph stroked out of purchase agreement that would have allowed city to buy back if it sat empty
It's a sight that bothers Susan Bentley each time she drives by London's former public library building at 305 Queens Ave
"It's a disappointment and a waste of very valuable space," said Bentley, a heritage advocate and past chair of the Heritage London Foundation. "If you had asked me about the significant buildings in London that we're worried about, that would be one of them. This isn't just a brick box, it's a beautifully constructed building. It was a building that was meant to last, a grand building."
Although it's idle and empty much of that grandeur is still there in the library's striking Art Deco facade, with 10-foot tall windows and Queenston limestone exterior walls.
And while Bentley can't help but see the immense potential that could be unleased with a thoughtful restoration of the 80-year-old building, nothing has happened since 2002 when the downtown library was moved to a bigger space in what's now Citi Plaza.
Council voted to accept a purchase offer for the library from landlord Shmuel Farhi in May 2005.
The sale happened with what a member of council at the time described as a "firm commitment" from Farhi to retain the library's facade while adding a modern tower to the rear portion of the building.
"It will be grand" was how Farhi described his planned development to the London Free Press. Coloured mockups presented to council showed a modern tower rising out of the back of the library building.
Sale price reduced
Farhi, who owns more than 100 properties in London, agreed to a price of $2.4 million but wound up paying $1 million after getting a $1.4 million credit on the price to remove asbestos from the interior. The deal required Farhi to allow a heritage easement to be registered on the title so that any redevelopment would have to maintain the building's facade and other architecturally significant details. That has been done.
But a paragraph stroked out of the purchase agreement would have allowed the city to buy back the library from Farhi at the sale price if the purchaser hadn't started "significant renovations, improvements or alterations" two years after the purchase date.
Council passed a re-zoning bylaw clearing the way for the development, but nothing happened.
In an interview with CBC News in October, Shmuel Farhi said Citi Financial was interested in coming to the library in 2006 but that plan fell apart over a lack of parking.
When asked why another tenant hasn't been found since, Farhi points to three factors which he says are holding up the development of downtown and hindering his ability to lease or redevelop the library and other properties in the core:
- A perception that London's downtown isn't safe due to its drug-using population.
- A lack of parking, in particular parking close to his properties.
- An abundance of cheaper real estate with available parking in areas outside downtown.
"The heritage buildings I own in the core are all at risk because I am unable to find tenants to fill them and keep them alive, in large part because I cannot provide parking for them," he wrote in a submission to council in 2012 as part of a discussion about another heritage building. "I want full buildings downtown," he said. "I want downtown to thrive more than anyone else."
Gordon Hume, a former city councillor who sat on London's board of control when the library deal was signed, says the building's sale and long vacancy amounts to a "missed opportunity," one that could have helped spur growth in London's downtown core.
"That building could have been one of the first of the new downtown residences and I think would have been highly successful," he said. "So it was a missed business opportunity for the new owner, as well as a lack of an opportunity for expanding housing in downtown."
Hume said he was excited by the prospect of the former library being transformed into something new with a re-development that retained its original heritage exterior, not unlike the Delta Armouries Hotel. That building features a modern tower built inside the preserved walls of London's former armoury.
"If I was doing it again I think I would want greater legal protections for the city, perhaps a firmer timeline for development and if development did not go forward, the city would have some recourse," said Hume.
Library sold for 'next to nothing,' former planning head says
Vic Cote feels the city should never have sold the library in the first place.
Now retired, Cote headed the city's planning department and held other senior finance positions with the city.
In the mid-2000s Cote saw space running out at city hall and felt the library building could be retrofitted as a second city hall site.
"We sold it for next to nothing, and you had a need at the time for space at city hall," he said. "The city would have been a good custodian, it would have been a good fit."
He points out that while the city collected $1 million on the sale of 305 Queens Ave., it now spends about $3 million a year to lease various satellite offices.
Harold Usher was on council when Farhi bought the library and before his time on council, served on the library board.
He said it's a "great disappointment" nothing's happened to a building many Londoners have fond memories of, and he worries what might happen if it continues to sit empty.
"What I always fear about these buildings is that they're gonna deteriorate to an extent that the owners will want to demolish it," he said. "Anything can happen."
It's a concern Susan Bentley shares not only for the former library but also another long-vacant Farhi-owned Wright Building at 424 Wellington St.
"All of these vacant buildings, they are going to look like missing teeth very soon in the grin of downtown," she said.
Since Farhi took ownership of the former library building sixteen years ago, half a dozen building permits have been submitted to the city for review.
Two were granted in 2012 and 2016 to allow for signage to be erected. The vacant building is also inspected on an ongoing basis for fire prevention purposes.