New Brunswick

One of Saint John's oldest buildings still in jeopardy

One of Saint John’s oldest buildings remains vacant and increasingly dilapidated — contrary to the city’s “legal obligation” to take possession of the site, according to lawyer and New Brunswick Historical Society committee co-chair John Barry.

City is 'considering' acquiring 191-year-old Sydney Street courthouse after rejecting 2016 offer

The 191-year-old Sydney Street courthouse was promoted as a tourist attraction until it closed in 2013. It houses a unique, three-storey circular staircase and is a designated National Historic Site. (Julia Wright /CBC)

One of Saint John's oldest buildings remains vacant and increasingly dilapidated — contrary to the city's "legal obligation" to take possession of the site, according to lawyer and NB Historical Society committee co-chair John Barry.

The 191-year-old Sydney Street courthouse was a tourist attraction until it closed in 2013. It houses a unique, three-storey circular staircase, and was designated as a National Historic Site in 1974.

One year after its initial request to common council, the society is "frustrated" by the city's failure to act on its obligation to buy the building back from the province, according to Barry, whose father and grandfather sat as judges in the courthouse.

He co-chairs the special committee with fellow lawyer Frank Leger.

The building has sat vacant — although heated — since 2013. 

"We have done a fantastic amount of research and right-to-information applications, and they have only solidified our original view," Barry said. 

City 'considering' taking possession

The Historical Society sees the courthouse as a potential solution to council's current dilemma: finding a more suitable space than its present outdated, oversized 1970s chambers at City Hall.

"[The building's] original designation in 1826 was as municipal council chambers," Barry said in an interview with Information Morning Saint John. "If [the city] wanted to convert it and use it for common council meetings, they could do that."

Common council is looking to move out of the chambers it's been using at City Hall, pictured, since the 1970s. Mayor Don Darling says the old courthouse is an option. (Connell Smith)

Saint John Mayor Don Darling said the old courthouse is one of many possibilities.

"We can certainly consider this as we move forward on our city hall location search," Darling said.

But it comes down to how much work the building would require — and whether repurposing it would make fiscal sense.

"Cost savings are what is driving me," Darling said. "We've been in City Hall for 40 years, and we have a lot of space that we don't need. We're looking to reduce our footprint."

He added that the City Market Tower, now under renovations after a 2014 flood, is another potential option for city office space.

Council is expected to decide where to relocate by the end of 2017.

$25,000 or less?

If the City of Saint John does take possession of the courthouse, it could get a better deal on the property than previously believed.

According to documents the committee submitted to council in 2016, the city failed to exercise its right of first refusal to buy back the property back from the province for $25,000, triggered when the city transferred ownership to the province in 1981, Barry said.

The Sydney Street courthouse, pictured in 1980, was designated a National Historic Site in 1974. (Parks Canada Agency/ Agence Parcs Canada)

In 2013, the province offered to sell the property back to the city for more than $400,000.

According to Barry, the province's asking price was unfair.

The province also subdivided the property and sold the King Street East portion for "a substantial amount of money —over a million dollars," Barry said, to be used as parking for the new Irving Oil headquarters.  

By that reasoning, the city could acquire the property for even less than $25,000.

Others have suggested that private companies could step up to take possession of the building

But even if city council can't use the building as council chambers, Barry said, the city has a "legal obligation" to buy the former courthouse.  

"These is an interest in the property from developers," Barry said. "We've had approaches from community citizens. All are positive.

"We can't lose this. This is our heritage."

with files from Information Morning Saint John