Winnipeg crews demolish Wellington Crescent mansion at centre of heritage status debate
514 Wellington Cres. subject of tension between heritage advocates, developer group in recent years
Crews on Wednesday started tearing down a Wellington Crescent mansion that heritage building advocates have fought for years to save from demolition.
Dust filled the air and debris could be seen crunching under the weight of tractors that were pulling apart the sprawling space at 514 Wellington Cres. before 8 a.m.
After preventing the demolition over a year ago, the city decided this week to allow it to go ahead, said lawyers representing a group that owns the building.
The future of the mansion, which is more than 110 years old, has been a source of tension in recent years between heritage advocates and the developers, who had already gutted the house and wished to redevelop the lot.
In 2016, a group of neighbours in the area came together to oppose demolition plans. Christine Skene, who speaks for the group Save 514 Wellington, said she feels a sense of defeat seeing the old house come down.
"This was a grand old home and to be torn down for someone's need to make a little bit of money is just appalling," Skene said.
WATCH | Raw video of crew demolishing 514 Wellington Cres.:
The developers, led by Winnipeg businessman Jeff Thompson, president and CEO of Leader Equity Partners, planned to build three single-family homes on the property.
But in the summer of 2019, hours before the owner planned to push ahead with those plans, the city rescinded a previously granted demolition order.
That day, the director of the city's property and planning department nominated the entire Crescentwood neighbourhood for heritage district status, following a similar status designation in Armstrong's Point months earlier.
In the fall of last year, the owners took the city to court, hoping a judge would restore the demolition order.
Thompson says the old home had become the scene of trespassing, vandalism and illicit drug use.
"The house was ransacked. I mean, they stole the front door. It was incredible what went on," Thompson told CBC News.
He believes the city made the decision to restore the demolition permit because his group did nothing wrong in applying for it.
"The reason we are where we are today is because we followed all of the rules set out by the city," Thompson said.
Legal representation for the developers confirmed the City of Winnipeg determined the building was in unsafe condition and on Tuesday granted permission to tear it down.
The city's heritage district bylaw typically restricts demolition of buildings in neighbourhoods granted or nominated for heritage status.
Exceptions include buildings in those areas deemed unsafe or that don't live up to the heritage values outlined by the city's historical buildings and resources committee. Another is refusal to issue or lift a suspension of a demolition permit in such a way that causes "undue prejudice" to a developer.
In the official approval letter from the city, shared with CBC News by the developers' lawyer, property and planning director John Kiernan writes that the building lives up to the heritage values spelled out in the conservation district bylaw.
However, it "also represents an unsafe condition such that delaying demolition of the building represents a risk of harm to the health or safety of persons or property," the letter says.
"Refusing to issue the demolition permit, or failing to lift the suspension of the existing demolition permit, would cause undue prejudice to the owner."
The letter goes on to say 514 Wellington meets both of those demolition exception criteria.
The developers have 60 days to complete demolition, six months to start construction and three years to complete the build.
In a statement to CBC News, the city acknowledged the owners "had a legal right to move forward with a demo and building permit secured in April 2019," and pledged to work with Thompson's group to salvage what they can.
"The city regrets the loss of this community landmark and has corresponded with the property owner our intention to work with them on salvaging key elements and materials. Details on those efforts will need to be confirmed by the property owner," a city spokesperson said.
Thompson says they will make every effort to salvage some of the material from the building and use it for the new construction on the property.
The ownership group, Thompson says, intends to "reimagine" what they will build on the land, with consultation from the community.
"What I'm hearing now, loud and clear from the neighbours and the community, is that they want us to go back … and re-engage with the planners and the community, and see if we can build the signature building on the site that everybody can be proud of for the next hundred years," Thompson said.
For now, Skene said the group of neighbours remain focused on securing heritage district status for all of Crescentwood.
"I'm disappointed that we didn't manage to save the house," she said. "Now, our bigger goal is to save the rest of the neighbourhood."
Skene also vowed to pressure the city to change rules that allow property owners to leave buildings vacant until they fall into such disrepair they can't be reused.
"There's a huge loophole in our city planning processes that allow someone to buy a building, [then] purposefully leave it unsecured," Skene said.
With files from Sean Kavanagh and Meaghan Ketcheson