'Irresponsible' city officials let 2 heritage buildings rot, advocates say
The health services building and War Memorial Children's Hospital have heritage designations
City officials let two heritage buildings fall into major disrepair, costing the buyers converting the properties in London, Ont., into affordable housing at least $1 million in repairs.
It was an "irresponsible" neglect on the part of the city, which needs to lead by example when it comes to maintaining heritage properties, said one heritage advocate.
"The condition of the properties weren't quite as advertised. Unfortunately, they were very poorly maintained by the city, leaving them to deteriorate much quicker than if they had been stabilized properly," said Graham Cubitt, director of projects and development at Indwell, which is redeveloping the Children's War Memorial Hospital and the health services building, part of the former South Street hospital complex in SoHo.
"They're still salvageable and we're happy to be working on them, but it just makes it much more costly and complicated than it could have been. It's frustrating.... As a public entity, the city could do better to maintain its heritage assets for the future."
Indwell is part of the Vision SoHo Alliance, a group of six non-profit housing developers that will create more than 682 units, many of them affordable, on the site. The city's contribution to the project will be $14 million.
"If you don't spend the modest amount it takes to keep minimal heat and maintain a building, then of course it costs a heck of a lot more down to road to restore it and bring it back to life. It was irresponsible," said Susan Bentley, a former president of the Heritage London Foundation, which runs two heritage properties for the city, and a member of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario.
The city bought the former hospital lands and buildings on it in 2020. The buildings were already in poor condition, and the city replaced the roofs and "took steps to secure" the heritage structures, a city spokesperson said. Their poor condition was disclosed to Vision SoHo Alliance, officials say.
But it appears roof replacement and security was not enough. When Indwell bought the properties — they took possession last month — the roofs were leaking, there was a lot of water in the basement, and moisture had created mould throughout, Cubitt said.
The South Street site of Victoria Hospital was created in 1875. The War Memorial Children's Hospital was constructed in 1922 and the health services building, which features an auditorium, in 1932. Both are listed as heritage properties by the City of London. The rest of site's buildings were torn down by the city to make way for the rest of the development.
"Unfortunately, the big issue that we have is water," said Cubitt. "The roof was not maintained adequately and a lot of metal salvagers have gone in and stripped out a lot of the cast iron drains, leaving any water that does come down the roof drains to just find a way into the building."
Underground, a lot of the drains that were connected to sewers were disconnected during the demolition, leaving the basements to fill up with water, he added.
"We often had five or six feet of water standing in the basement, which obviously creates a huge amount of humidity and moisture issues, so those are the key drivers for the deterioration in the building."
History is important
Those that go into the building have to be trained to use special respirators because of the mould, Cubitt said. The issues were known at closing, but could have been prevented, he added. On Friday, there will be a groundbreaking ceremony to mark the start of construction on the project.
"I was very disappointed when I heard about this neglect," Bentley said. "Anyone should have had the foresight to see that allowing water to accumulate in a basement was going to threaten the integrity of the building."
It's important to honour the history of the site and it's exciting the two buildings are being redeveloped, she said.
"I think it's wonderful that these buildings can be salvaged. History is so important. It gives a richness to our environment."