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Mysterious fire guts Toronto heritage building

Members of the Toronto Fire Department take a break from battling a blaze at Yonge Street and Gould Street, just a block North of Yonge and Dundas Square, in Toronto Monday, January 3, 2011. The six-alarm blaze in an empty heritage building has closed the city's main street, disrupted transit service and closed Ryerson University.

Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

For more than a hundred years, a red brick building sat at the corner of Yonge and Gould Streets, its distinctive corner tower receding from sight amid the encroaching development of HMVs, H&Ms and cineplexes.

Built in 1888 by a baker who sold his wares from the corner lot, the three-storey building with its corbelled corners and round-arched windows has been home to the Empress Hotel, undertakers, baby-carriage makers and, more recently, a beloved Thai restaurant.

It survived the evolution of the downtown core and the collapse, last spring, of its northern facade, which forced the evacuation of its tenants.

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But just six months after being designated a heritage building, and one week before its owners were scheduled to meet with city officials to fast track its restoration, 335 Yonge St. was felled Monday by a mysterious six-alarm fire.

As recently as two weeks ago, city officials had been pressing the owners of the building known as the William Reynolds Block to accelerate its repair. The historic site in a prime downtown location was empty, unsafe and crumbling, and a request to tear it down to build a condominium tower had been denied by the city.

On Monday, its distinctive red brick corner tower crumbled in flames, as 125 firefighters fought a blaze that broke out around 4 a.m., just north of Yonge-Dundas Square. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries.

Surveying the damage from across the street, Kristyn Wong-Tam, the new councillor for Toronto Centre Rosedale, expressed doubt the building could be saved.

"I'd be very surprised if they haven't decided to bring in the bulldozers," she said.

The cause of the fire has not been established, and representatives of the Fire Marshal's Office began combing through the debris Monday looking for anyone who may have been inside when the blaze began.

The gas and hydro had been turned off in April, when a section of the building's brick facade crumbled onto Gould Street, closing the surrounding sidewalks. The building was sealed behind security fences and in November an engineering report commissioned by the building's owners concluded that its structural integrity had been compromised.

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"The elements of combustion were not there," said Ms. Wong-Tam. "You don't have gas, you don't have hydro, you don't have anyone on the premises. How did this happen?"

Until Monday, the newly elected councillor had been convinced the building would be restored to its former glory.

A report recommending the building's official designation as a heritage site described it as a "well-crafted example of a late 19th-century commercial building that blends elements of the popular Second Empire and Romanesque Revival styles."

"The designation of the property would enable City Council to control alterations to the site, enforce heritage property standards and maintenance and refuse demolition," the report concluded.

But recognizing its historical significance did little to accelerate its repair, said Ms. Wong-Tam.

Since her election in November, she had engaged in frequent e-mail exchanges with the owners trying to set a timeline for construction.

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"Literally the last conversation I had before the holidays was telling city employees we have to get tougher with enforcement on this specific building," she said. "I thought we were finally making progress."

A meeting between the building owners and city officials had been set for Jan. 10.

Ms. Wong-Tam said she had planned to fast-track permits to help restore the building's exterior and reopen the sections of sidewalk surrounding it on Yonge and Gould streets.

She met with the owners at the scene of the fire on Monday, and said they were "stunned" by the destruction.

A lawyer for the owners – a numbered company reportedly controlled by a businessman named Noorali Lalani and his family – said his client had assembled an "expert team" to assess how to restore and redevelop the site.

According to the e-mail from Stephen Waqué, a partner with Borden Ladner Gervais in Toronto, engineering reports have been shared with the city, and a "respected heritage architect" along with MMM Group, a construction management firm, had been brought in to lead the project. Before Christmas, tenders were sought on the work needed to shore up the building's remaining facades, the e-mail says.

"Access to the site since the accidental collapse has been challenging, but work on the future of the site has continued till now," reads the e-mail. " ... The fire has complicated an already difficult and challenging situation."

Mr. Waqué said his client now needs "fresh advice" from the architect and engineers about "what can be done, if anything," with what is left of the building.

According to a search of property records, a company called Lalani Group International Inc. bought the property for $2.35-million in 1996. A numbered company, 2160943 Ontario Ltd., purchased it in 2008 for $7-million.

Ms. Wong-Tam said she had asked the owners about their plans for the building and they had indicated they still wanted to build a condominium tower, after restoring the heritage facade.

Ernest Liu, owner of the popular Thai restaurant Salad King, had operated out of the building for more than a decade until last spring, and said he does not know why it had fallen into such a state of disrepair.

He paid for the renovation of his restaurant out of pocket, while the rest of the building deteriorated.

Forced out of the building by the exterior damage last spring, Mr. Liu estimated that he lost about $40,000 a month in net profit since April. He is opening a new location across the street later this month.

"Maybe there's some problem I don't know about. It's an old building so there could be a lot of things wrong with it," he said.

Kyle Rae, a former city councillor who recalled frequenting a second-floor gay bar in the building during the 1980s, said, "It's a disgrace that a building of that beauty, that everyone saw as a landmark, was unable to be maintained properly.

"The city once again showed how toothless they are. [It]failed to manage the affairs of a heritage building."

The city offers a property tax-rebate program to encourage conservation of heritage properties. Eligible owners are entitled to up to a 40-per-cent rebate on repairs to heritage portions of a property.

In late August, mayoral candidate George Smitherman stood in front of 335 Yonge St. to announce his plan to cut taxes for heritage property owners as further incentive to care for their buildings. He also promised an "early warning system" to save at-risk properties.

"I think the city needs to own up to its lack of priorities when it comes to heritage conservation and preservation," said Ms. Wong-Tam. "This building probably should have been on the city's radar a lot sooner."

The site is not the only heritage building to succumb to fire in recent years. In February, 2008, a string of heritage buildings on Queen Street West were destroyed in a fire that also broke out in the early hours of the morning, and which required 150 firefighters to extinguish. An investigation by the Fire Marshal was unable to determine the cause of the fire.

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