Extreme neglect: Montreal powerless to act as heritage greystones on de l'Esplanade crumble
How fines, evacuation notices, injunction have failed to rescue pair of once stately, century-old buildings
This is Part 1 in a CBC Montreal Investigates series, Extreme Neglect.
It's hard not to gape when you see the empty, rundown buildings on Avenue de l'Esplanade. Built in the early 1900s, the pair of once-stately greystones have long been the talk of the neighbourhood.
The arched stone staircases, a rarity here in Montreal, are all but ruins.
The balconies have disintegrated, and much of the brick is crumbling.
"This is a sad story that has dragged on for decades," said Opposition Projet Montréal councillor Alex Norris, who lives in the same neighbourhood as the derelict buildings.
The city's efforts to rescue the heritage buildings on de l'Esplanade have failed, exemplifying why Norris thinks municipal authorities need stronger powers to intervene.
Inspections, fines, legal action
Guy Desrosiers has owned 4413-4423 avenue de l'Esplanade since 1978, as well as the mirror-image greystone next door at 4403-4407, where he still lives on the ground floor.
Desrosiers refused to go on camera, but he did tell CBC Investigates that he had a coup de coeur when he bought the buildings all those decades ago. He insists he still loves them.
But as far back as 1984, the city fined Desrosiers for failing to maintain his buildings, which at the time still had tenants.
More than a decade later, in 1996, after continual complaints from neighbours, city inspectors declared the buildings unsafe, forcing the tenants to move out.
Driving down property values
Since then, countless developers and the city itself have tried unsuccessfully to buy the buildings.
Realtor Jeffrey Baker approached Desrosiers about a potential investor a few years ago.
It was "someone who knows the area, who does quality work," Baker said. "But there was a categorical refusal."
In the intervening years, Baker says the buildings' condition have deteriorated further, dragging down the property value of the whole block.
In 2008, afraid the buildings might collapse, the city demanded the protective fencing be put up.
The Plateau–Mont-Royal borough considered expropriating Desrosiers, however, municipal lawyers advised borough officials to abandon the idea.
Expropriation is usually done because it's in the public interest. The lawyers said it was hard to justify saving a heritage building in order to make way for private condominiums, said Norris.
Injunction filed 3 years ago
In 2009, Desrosiers said he wanted to restore the buildings and proposed a condo project.
But the building's heritage designation means he has to salvage the facade in a way he claims is too expensive.
In 2013, the Plateau filed an injunction to force Desrosiers to act, which carries the threat of jail time.
There is a precedent: The borough went the injunction route a few years earlier to force an owner to repair an abandoned heritage building on the corner of St. Laurent Boulevards and des Pins Avenue.
In the injunction request against Desrosiers, the city included excerpts from an engineering study that declared 4413-4423 "irreparable" and "dangerous."
The report says a heavy snowfall or earthquake could lead to the building's partial or total collapse.
The inside is said to be so contaminated by mould and humidity, demolition was recommended to avoid "unnecessary risk" to people's health.
Controlled demolition prescribed
To preserve the facade and the building's heritage value, nothing short of a controlled demolition is recommended.
As for the southern building, it, too, is poorly maintained, but in their 2013 report, the engineers felt it could still be saved if measures were taken quickly.
However, three years later, the city hasn't been able to act on that injunction request. The engineering firm which Desrosiers retained suggested a different way to retain the facade, demolish the rest and rebuild.
So, with two different engineering opinions, the demolition work is stalled.
This year, the Plateau put a list of vacant buildings online, in the hope of encouraging investors to make an offer to buy and develop them.
4413-4423 de l'Esplanade - the more dilapidated of Desrosiers's two properties - is on that list, but Desrosiers says he's not interested in selling.
Norris, who says he's pleaded with Desrosiers personally, says the situation on de l'Esplanade Avenue is a glaring example of the city's lack of power.
"I believe the city should have the power to simply seize a building that is abandoned for a certain amount of time with no compensation to the owner," said Norris, who thinks such powers would scare a lot of negligent property owners into fixing up their buildings.
For those who wonder if it's worth the borough's efforts, Norris insists that it is. These may be private properties, but he says Desrosiers has an obligation to maintain them.
"They represent the history. They represent what came before, and they represent what's special about this neighbourhood," said Norris. "If we lose them, the neighbourhood turns into something else much less interesting."
Explore more stories in the CBC Montreal Investigates series Extreme Neglect:
- Plateau-Mont-Royal borough council to force demolition of St-Dominique St. building
- On St-Dominique St., neighbours angered by Montreal's inaction
- Aftermath of Roy St. fire leaves neighbours coping with squatters, mould, vermin
Velvet glove vs. iron fist
The policy director of the non-profit group Heritage Montreal, Dinu Bumbaru, says most owners do their best to maintain heritage buildings.
When the provincial Liberal government was elected in 2014, it promised Montreal would get new powers under a new municipal charter.
Bumbaru said with those new powers, the city could offer tax credits to encourage property owners to make repairs or renovations, similar to the credits the provincial government offers homeowners for making their property more energy-efficient.
"What one owner does benefits the whole street," said Bumbaru. "It has to be seen as a plus ... and rewarded."
In the case of the buildings on de l'Esplanade Avenue, nothing has worked. In Desrosiers's case, the collective benefit of saving the building may outweigh the owner's individual rights, said Bumbaru.
"We are all part of a streetscape," he said. "You can't say I am in my bubble, and that's it."
Province has role to play, too
For properties such as de l'Esplanade Avenue, giving the city the power to seize derelict buildings, as Norris suggests, may be the only option, said Bumbaru.
He also points out that the addresses in question on de l'Esplanade Avenue, situated as they are just in the immediate vicinity of Mount Royal, aren't only designated heritage properties by the borough – they also have provincial heritage designation.
"It calls on the government of Quebec to perhaps play a role and maybe flex its muscle," said Bumbaru. "Otherwise, we are just passive spectators of a [pending] disaster."
- A previous version of this story quoted realtor Jeffrey Baker as saying Desrosiers's building was the source of water infiltration to a neighbouring home. Baker now says he was mistaken, and the water infiltration was not related to the condition of Desrosiers's property.Sep 21, 2016 4:47 PM ET