Boarded-up windows raise questions about future of Moncton's historic Subway Block
Three-storey brick building constructed more than a century ago has been vacant for years
Peeling paint, windows papered over or boarded up, and homeless people sleeping in tents in the doorways.
The state of Moncton's century-old Subway Block, vacant for years, has led to questions about the three-storey brick building's future.
"It has, I think, come to the point of drawing attention to the building," Moncton Coun. Charles Léger said in an interview.
"The fact that the windows are boarded up — sometimes is what's necessary to really make everyone realize that we have an opportunity here that we don't want to lose."
The building owner says it has no immediate plans for the building but has been trying to sell it.
Brian Steeves, whose company Seville Property Group Ltd. purchased the building in 2008, said he had hoped to keep the facade but replace much of the rest with an eight-storey commercial and residential building.
Steeves said rules around building residential units in close proximity to rail lines scuttled those plans.
"We ran into issues with it being close to the CN (rail) lands," Steeves said. He said the company then tried selling the building.
"We had a couple interested buyers looking to set up downtown because it was pretty vibrant the year before last. We thought we might have a sale, but then COVID hit and the pause button has been hit for everything down along Main Street right now," Steeves said.
The Subway Block is a nationally and municipally registered historic building. The listing describes its Italianate storefront architecture as significant to the development of the city's downtown.
The state of this building is sad.- Coun. Paulette Thériault
The listing says the structure replaced a wooden building on the same site around 1917 to create a better esthetic and modern view of the city for passengers on trains going over the nearby Subway overpass structure, built in 1915.
In better days, the complex had restaurants, shops and a bookstore.
Because of the heritage designation, any proposals to demolish the structure would need to be reviewed and approved by the city's heritage board.
"The state of this building is sad," said Coun. Paulette Thériault, who chairs the heritage board.
"Hopefully someone, the owners, will come up with some idea, and if they cannot salvage the entire building, perhaps they could salvage the facade."
Thériault said the board hasn't heard any proposals about the property.
A two-storey triangular portion of the building is owned by another company, Ed's Submarine Holdings Ltd., and until 2014 had a restaurant in the space. That portion, closest to the railway bridge, is called the Flat Iron Building and it is also a designated heritage property.
Gilles Ratté, listed as the director of the company, told CBC in 2014 that after 20 years on Main Street, he was looking for space elsewhere in the city because of what the story called "renovation issues."
Ratté, who also owns several other restaurants in the city, didn't respond to a request for comment.
Seville purchased the Subway Block in early 2008 after its previous owner went bankrupt, according to property records. It was already vacant and had issues that would be costly to address.
Steeves said his company's previous plans for the Subway Block called for keeping the facade, but replacing much of the structure with new concrete and steel construction.
A restaurant would occupy the main floor, and affordable residential units would make up the seven floors above.
But he said the rail line's proximity was an issue.
Moncton's zoning bylaw requires that any new residential developments abutting rail lines be set back at least 30 metres from the railway right-of-way.
Isabelle LeBlanc, a city spokesperson, said the rule was added to the bylaw sometime after 2014 based on changes to the city's municipal plan.
The changes followed the deadly train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que. on July 6, 2013 that killed 47 people.
A report by the Railway Association of Canada and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities issued just over a month before the derailment had recommended communities across the country implement set-back requirements to reduce risks of derailments, noise and vibrations.
Several city councillors referred to the rail line as an issue.
"I think there are some challenges in meeting certain codes, building codes for today because of the proximity," Léger said. "But I do believe that those types of hurdles can be overcome."
Deputy Mayor Shawn Crossman said the building stands out for anyone going down Main Street and hopes it can be redeveloped into a mixed-use building.
"I think that would be a very high traffic and popular area once COVID-19 has been addressed and we can get back to normal life," Crossman said.
It's not the only building downtown with vacant storefronts along Main Street. Several businesses have closed in recent years, including coffee shops and restaurants. The pandemic has meant many of the office workers who would normally be downtown are instead working from home.
Steeves said he expects that once COVID isn't a concern, downtown will bounce back, in part because of the number of new residential buildings under construction that will add more people in the core.
"We'll hold on to it until the economic situation improves," Steeves said of the Subway Block.
Steeves said they've tried to keep homeless people from setting up shelters in the doorways, but have recently backed off after someone smashed several windows with a hammer.
Steeves said after spending around $20,000 replacing windows, the boards were installed.