The future of the Trites-Leroux mansion in Fernie has been thrown into doubt, after City of Fernie councillors voted on Aug. 10 to defer a decision on approving an agreement with the developers by suspending public hearings by over a month.
The ailing mansion, which is owned by three local businessmen who bought the property in 2018 in order to restore it to its former glory, has been the subject of back-and-forth negotiations with the city on how to restore it while also allowing the owners to get a return on their investment.
The plan that the owners came up with – and they say was worked on alongside city staff – would see the mansion restored while adding two additional buildings to the lot that would increase the number of units from six to 12, allowing the financing of the restoration through their sale.
According to one of the owners, Dr Amos Kahane, the decision by the city to defer on voting on the agreement could prove fatal to the project as it caused uncertainty and pushed much-required work further towards winter.
He explained that restoring the mansion required significant work on the roof, and committing money to that (and works well beyond) only made sense if they could make a return on their investment. No work on the roof meant higher costs, putting restoration out of reach, and demolition on the table.
“We want the city to know that we do not want to demolish it,” said Kahane. “The whole purpose was to save the structure.”
The mansion, which was built in 1912, is a rare example of the Craftsman style in Western Canada.
“(We have been working on) what we have to do in order to save it; how do we have to finish the exterior; how do we have to maintain the interior,” said Kahane.
The agreement would allow relaxation on a number of building codes that would see the additional units added to the property in a way that would not take away from the heritage value of the mansion.
“What we came up with (was something) that would satisfy the preservation of this building and not block it, and keep it as is, as much as we can.
“We went over everything. We answered all the questions. It seemed to be that everything was going to be OK.”
Another of the owners, Gerald Price, told The Free Press that he and his partners had expected the agreement (formally called a Heritage Revitalization Agreement, or HRA) to be passed because it had already been through a first and second reading in previous council meetings with little discussion.
But then during the City of Fernie council meeting on Aug. 10, councillors voted to defer a final vote on allowing the agreement to Sep. 14, citing a need for more information after public input.
Mayor Ange Qualizza told The Free Press that while she and the city councillors appreciated the short timelines at stake, “Council felt it was important to allow time for more community engagement since the applicants were not available to answer questions at the hearing itself.”
While the owners had not taken the opportunity to speak at the Aug. 10 meeting, both Kahane and Price explained that concerns raised by the public had simply gone over previous issues which had already been dealt with, or addressed in a city staff presentation to the council, that explained city staff reasoning for supporting the third reading of the agreement.
Another issue raised on Aug. 10 was the need for affordable housing in Fernie – something which Dr Kahane said was not something they could cater to given the huge costs of restoring Trites-Leroux.
Qualizza said that it was important for any developer to participate in public hearings anyway.
“There is an opportunity for the applicant to respond to neighbourhood concerns, and in the past I have seen this to be very worthwhile for both the applicant and concerned citizens,” she said.
Members of the public present at the Aug. 10 meeting, along with the Mayor and Councillors who spoke had all said that they were in favor of preserving the mansion as a piece of Fernie history, but neighbours consistently raised issues with parking and traffic as a result of higher density.
But therein lay the rub: restoring the mansion alone, with no extra units, was not an affordable project according to the owners.
Basically: all or nothing.
Price explained that he and his partners had been stressing the need for expediency to allow them enough time to get the mansion buttoned-up for winter – time that they would be hard pressed to scrape together if the agreement was passed on Sep. 14 – more than a month later than they had hoped.
“We need to know before we spend any more money on this structure that we will be able to do the additional buildings so we can at least make a return on our money,” said Price.
“Without the approval of the HRA then we either have to renovate the existing building, which means we would be lucky to break even, or we’ve got to knock the existing building down and build enough structures that we can get a return on our capital.”
Price said that the deferral “increased the possibility” that the future of the mansion was demolition due to damage done over winter because even with an agreement, they might not have enough time left.
The timing issue, Price and Kahane explained, was all to do with the roof.
The top two units at the mansion are on the top floor – and in order to get those units up to modern building standards, the roof of the mansion would need to be raised in order to make the space livable.
Alternatively, if the council chose to reject the agreement, the businessmen are faced with two options: restore the mansion and break even on their investment if they are lucky, or demolish it and build new structures.
The land is zoned to allow for 19 units, up from the existing six, and the proposed 12.
Kahane said that it was the intention of him and his partners to fully restore the mansion.
“We’re trying. We’re now almost two years into tying to save it.”
The owners and the City of Fernie will be meeting in coming days to discuss potential ways forward.