Manitoba

City appeal to decide fate of cavernous, gutted Wellington Crescent mansion

The owner of a century-old house on Wellington Crescent says he and his investors have followed all the rules and should be allowed to tear down the home and build on the lot.

Developers' plans foiled by concerned residents, neighbourhood heritage designation

Owners of 514 Wellington Cres. say there is misleading information about their intentions and undue influence in the process. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Jeff Thompson says he learned growing up in the North End not to look for fights, but not to back away if pushed to the wall.

He and his fellow investors in a property at 514 Wellington Cres. are in a fight now. At stake is millions they've invested to develop a signature piece of property in the city.

Since the property was bought in April 2016, Thompson says there have been misleading statements in the media, outright lies about his intentions and political interference in the process to develop it.

"I absolutely didn't want this. I didn't have a choice. We are going to be in the public over this, so we don't have a choice," Thompson said in an interview at his lawyer's office on Wednesday.

An appeal Thursday in front of the city's property and planning committee may determine the fate of the massive old house on one of Winnipeg's most exclusive streets.

It also may mean the city may end up in court with Thompson's group, says their lawyer.

Heritage conservation district

"I think as a group we've got to mount what we would think is our significant legal challenges to this," said Jamie Kagan with TDS Law. "The reality of it is no one is going to accept that building sitting vacant either in the community or at law."

Kagan and Thompson say the process that gave them permits and then took them away is punishing economic growth all over the city.

Councillors will review a nomination of a part of the Crescentwood neighbourhood for a heritage conservation district and the house on Wellington Crescent is at the centre of that effort.

The destruction of the home is being vocally opposed by the Save 514 Wellington and the Crescentwood heritage district conservation committee.

The nomination suspended a demolition and building permit Thompson's group had for the 8,000-square-foot home and plans to replace the structure with the first of three new homes.

Thompson says that wasn't the original plan when he and a group of friends bought the sprawling mansion from Royal Canadian Properties — a company owned by the Everett family, who operate the Domo Gas outlets, among other businesses. 

The group envisioned eight to 10 units in a building they would all take a suite in and live with their families.

"It wasn't a development to sell to the public," Thompson said.

According to Thompson, the house was filled with antiquated wiring, water and heating systems and plagued by asbestos. 

A redevelopment appeared to have little pushback from city planners. 

'They loved what we were doing'

Thompson showed CBC News correspondence from a senior planner at the city of Winnipeg in September of 2016 endorsing the project, registering "no concerns with the density or massing/height of the building." 

"They loved what we were doing … they wanted an elegant modern building that fit in with the neighbourhood," Thompson said. And, he says, it fit with the city's Our Winnipeg development guidelines for encouraging density in older neighbourhoods.

Thompson says the OK from the city didn't encourage some of the residents nearby or placate the area councillor, John Orlikow.

"It was clear he wasn't happy with the city planners," Thompson said.

Nor were some residents in the neighborhood, who began challenging the proposal.

514 Wellington owner Jeff Thompson says a heritage district designation will take property owners' rights away and devalue their investment. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

What evolved, according to Thompson, was a series of changes to the original plan that morphed from putting the house back on the market to finding an interested party with a conditional offer to develop office space in the existing building.  

Thompson says the businessman who looked at the house for his headquarters couldn't get his contractors to sign off on a firm figure for the work. It would cost millions.

Floors would have to be torn up and their joists replaced, adding more to the costs of conversion.

"They couldn't even get to [an] end number [for converting the house], which happened in a couple of occasions in this process. No one was willing to commit to one," Thompson said.

As months rolled by, film production companies rented the period home as a set for movies.

Another option was planned where the lot would be split into three single-family homes.

In January and February of 2019, Thompson says the group felt they had done everything they could or needed to do to comply with the city's process for a demolition and building permit to build the first of the three houses.

CBC News reviewed the correspondence from the city's planning department provided by Thompson and his lawyer.

Prepped for demolition

In April this year the city signed off on 10 separate processes the owners were required to follow, including historic building clearance, and issued the documents to tear down the building and build.

"We did this to the letter of what was required of us … no special favours; we just did it," Thompson said.

A crew started prepping the old house for demolition. They removed the water, gas and electrical systems. The building was a massive challenge to decommission before demolition. According to Thompson, the asbestos throughout the structure was wrapped around pipes in walls. 

Thompson says everything for the demolition was done "by the book."

But things ground to a halt late in the evening of June 6. An email from the city landed in Thompson's inbox at 10:46 p.m.

The director of the Property and Planning department, John Kiernan, had nominated that area of Crescentwood as a heritage conservation district and the building and demolition permits were suspended.

The property owners say the home would take millions to restore and is a hazard while it sits empty and unused. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Thompson said pressure applied on Orlikow by some area residents resulted in the late-night order by the director of the planning department.

"A small group of wealthy people that believe that they have an opinion and their opinion is the only opinion," Thompson said. 

Orlikow, for his part, acknowledges he phoned the planning department just before the house was to be torn down. 

"Is political interference me telling the director this is happening? I wouldn't call that political interference," Orlikow said.

The city councillor says the heritage conservation nomination was not a surprise.

"Before you rip the house down, let us go through the process," Orlikow said.

See you at City Hall

Christine Skene with the Save 514 Wellington campaign also says the designation certainly "never came out of the blue," and is ready for this week's appeal at City Hall.

"A heritage conservation district is the only way to provide full protection for a neighborhood. The city's other by-laws don't do it," Skene said.

Skene questions the accuracy of some of the information Thompson provided in his appeal, but she told CBC News things will be made clear in front of the committee.

She's says she's coming to the appeal with a petition with over 5,000 signatures and some of the nearby residents in opposition to the demolition.

In the meantime, the once-grand mansion sits gutted from the inside, boarded up from the outside and fenced around the property.

Thompson says the project is deep into red ink, but his group's resolve hasn't waned. 

"It cost us a fortune. But again I say that I don't care what the opposition says or what any of the officials say. The one thing they can't do is say we've done anything wrong," he said.

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