Cynthia Hamlin called 650 Parliament St. home for 30 years, but after a major fire and 18 months of displacement, the Toronto building she once loved and lived in with her mother only inspires fear and stress.
“I don't think I'll ever feel the same way that I did before this fire,” she said. “I think I will always feel unsafe.”
Beginning March 2, 650 Parliament St.’s roughly 1,500 tenants will be welcomed back after a catastrophic electrical fire that forced their evacuation in August, 2018.
But move-in day will be bittersweet; while the building went through repairs, residents were shuffled through temporary lodgings, and were originally told that part of the two-tower complex might be ready for reoccupancy as early as Thanksgiving, 2018.
“Upheaval is the only word I can use to describe the process,” said Ms. Hamlin, who was evacuated along with her 83-year-old mother.
“It was just untenable, not knowing what was going to happen,” she said. “Since the fire, we moved, I would say, seven times.”
Ms. Hamlin, along with her mother, who was recovering from hip replacement surgery, bounced between hotels, Airbnbs, the homes of friends and other apartments as the reoccupancy date was postponed again and again. “We were kind of left at the whims of whatever 650 told us,” she said.
The 22-storey residential high-rise was evacuated on Aug. 21, 2018, by Toronto Fire Services after residents reported hearing explosions coming from the basement, and the hallways filled with smoke.
Tenants were placed in hotels and other temporary lodgings while the extent of the damage was investigated and repaired.
“I think [building management] handled this pretty poorly,” resident Mark Slapinski said of the displacement and subsequent delays. “They did a good job of relocating people after a certain point, but there was a total lack of communication.”
“We would have been able to make better decisions, but we weren’t given accurate information,” Ms. Hamlin said.
Residents were given at least four other tentative completion dates for the building’s restoration between October, 2018, and January, 2020.
“We tried to give an estimate of when we were anticipating a return, but we always were diligent and tried to resist the urge to make promises,” said Danny Roth, the spokesperson for Wellesley Parliament Square Management, the third-party management company in charge of the building. Mr. Roth added that the announcements were “never a firm reoccupancy date.”
“There was tremendous pressure from politicians and residents who wanted some sense of return, but the problem always was to meet the desire for certainty with an uncertain condition,” he said.
He said about $15-million has been spent to date on tenant assistance and relocation efforts.
Some residents chose to break their leases rather than deal with that uncertainty. Tenants from about 60 units cancelled their agreements during the 18-month displacement period, according to Mr. Roth.
“We couldn’t take it any more,” former resident Hekate Arnold Cobos said. He and his boyfriend broke their lease in last May.
“After the alarm went off and we vacated the apartment, the nightmare began for us,” he said. At the time of the fire, Mr. Cobos was scheduled for surgery and was wearing a catheter. Moving through hotels, Airbnbs and friends’ houses, even postsurgery, was exhausting and they eventually decided to find a new place to live.
“We needed our space. We had no choice but to cancel our lease,” Mr. Cobos said.
The cause of the building’s six-alarm fire was determined to be a failure of the electrical system. The incident began with explosions in the electrical room in the basement and then spread, causing smaller explosions and fires in the electrical cabinets on floors throughout the building.
The high-rise is located in Toronto’s St. James Town neighbourhood, a hamlet of apartment complexes predominantly built in the 1960s. Electrical issues have plagued other buildings in the area. In 2019, residents at 260 Wellesley St. E were left without power for three days after a pipe burst, flooding the electrical room.
A third building, 280 Wellesley St. E., had its electrical system inspected in February, 2019, as part of a sweep of inspections on aging apartment buildings following the other incidents.
Wellesley Parliament Square Management is in charge of all three properties, as well as two other St. James Town apartment buildings. Mr. Roth declined to comment on whether the building’s age and lack of maintenance caused the fire, as indicated by a fire report from the Ontario fire marshal’s office.
With all the renovations, including new electrical, HVAC and plumbing systems, Mr. Roth said 650 Parliament St. might now be “one of the safest buildings in Toronto.”
As residents prepare to move back in, however, hesitation remains.
“It won’t be the same,” Ms. Hamlin said.
“Now, I don’t go into a building without knowing where all of the exits are. I don’t like being in buildings above maybe the sixth or seventh floor in case I have to leave," she said. "It won’t be the same, but at least it I’ll be back.”