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If those walls could talk

Tony Flynn does it all at the Lobel Management store in in Forteau, from cutting fabric and selling craft materials to cutting meat to serving customers.
Tony Flynn does it all at the Lobel Management store in in Forteau, from cutting fabric and selling craft materials to cutting meat to serving customers.

BUILDING ON SUCCESS When the whole economy of Forteau, Labrador centred on the fishery, Harbour Drive was the heart of the community. Everything was located here, including the community wharf, the fish plant, the hospital, the welfare office and, right in the centre of it all, Mick Organ’s store.

A seven-storey problem. And a problem that municipal planners across this region know well.

The problem is the Maritime Building, the tallest building in town, which opened in 1915. It’s being demolished by the town of New Glasgow after a developer redoing the building ran out of cash. It was stores and six floors of apartments, but after the reno went bad and the fire marshal stepped in and the developer went bankrupt, the town had to start putting up barricades around the building to keep chunks of concrete from falling on pedestrians.

Any homeowner doing a renovation, however small, on an older home can tell you the problem: start opening up walls and you have to bring everything you find up to current building codes.

There’s nothing wrong with that: it’s how older buildings can be brought up to current code. But it’s expensive, and that expense is multiplied for building owners with every square foot of commercial space.

In some places, building owners have made a successful switch: there are success stories, but that’s only half of the story.

A former book publisher’s heritage building on Water Street in St. John’s stands empty. Down the street, a former jewelry store does the same. Head along Water Street and count, and you’ll see there are empty older buildings dotted around like bad teeth in a jaw that’s never seen a dentist.

At one point, St. John’s developer Fortis Properties wanted to take down a whole string of older buildings, in part because they wanted to build a new office tower, and in part, they said, because bringing the existing older buildings up to current fire codes was an expense they could never recover

At the Maritime Building, a developer had great plans — they were great plans in 2009, though, and five years later, the town has had to act, budgeting $1 million to tear the building down this fall. There are plenty of Nova Scotia towns in just the same quandary about their downtown cores — buildings built during small-town glory years no longer have the tenants needed to keep the space rented. Perhaps that’s why a 5,000 square foot brick and sandstone former post office in Annapolis Royal, N.S. hasn’t found a buyer, even at $199,000. (You can look at it here — http://www.tradewindsrealty.com/cgi-bin/listings.cgi?key=8764— but it looks better in person.)

It is, in fact, rare to find Atlantic towns that don’t have churches or former commercial buildings that are gradually mouldering away, and that, sometimes, have to be torn down, for safety reasons if nothing else.

You can say it’s just a kind of progress, an evolution from what was needed then to what is needed now.

At the same time, although I hate the overly bureaucratic concept “built heritage,” there’s something clearly being lost.

And it will never, ever come back.

 

Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic Regional columnist. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@tc.tc; his column appears on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in TC Media’s daily papers. Join Russell in discussion on the Truro Daily News website, www.trurodaily.com, Oct. 31 at noon (Atlantic Time) and 12:30 p.m. (N

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