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Toronto police charge man in 2011 blaze at heritage Empress Hotel

Firefighters work to extinguish a blaze that destroyed a heritage building at Yonge and Gould Streets on Jan. 3, 2011.

Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

A year and a half after a fire destroyed the site of the historic Empress Hotel, a Toronto man who police have linked to other arsons has been charged in connection with the blaze.

The 122-year-old building at the corner of Yonge and Gould Streets was already crumbling when police say it was set on fire in the early hours of Jan. 3, 2011. Investigators quickly ruled the fire to be an arson, and the downtown Toronto community grappled with the loss of the heritage property, which was in ruins and later demolished.

No arrests were made until last Friday morning, when police detained 53-year-old Stewart Poirier downtown. Detective Debbie Harris, the lead investigator, said Mr. Poirier was arrested on outstanding warrants for failing to comply with bail conditions and threatening death.

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Police said in a news conference that officers then linked him to a fire last Thursday at a Sackville Street community housing residence where he had lived, and the Empress Hotel arson. Investigators said Mr. Poirier was out on bail after being convicted in an arson at the Jarvis Street Inglewood Arms Hotel, which took place little more than a month after the Empress Hotel blaze.

"There was an extensive interview that was conducted with him and in that he definitely gave insight into why he lights the fires, but that's not something, at this point, that I can divulge," Det. Harris said in an interview.

Investigators said before the arrest that the fire at Yonge and Gould was planned, and there are security images of a hooded person entering the premises three times on the day leading up to the fire.

Det. Harris said Mr. Poirier "acted alone in numerous arsons" and the Empress Hotel fire investigation continues. "I think that there will be more charges pending," she said. "Against him, possibly others."

Another officer working on the case, Detective Constable Mark Kennedy, said Mr. Poirier was born in Cornwall, Ont., and has been in Toronto since at least 2008, where he has not always had a fixed address.

The nine charges laid against Mr. Poirier on Monday, which include arson, attempted murder in relation to the recent Sackville Street fire, and failing to comply with probation, have offered some relief for downtown councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam.

"There's been a cloud of uncertainty about the future of Yonge Street even preceding the fire," she said, "and the destruction of the Empress Hotel."

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Part of the building's brick facade crumbled onto Gould Street in April, 2010, making it unsafe and forcing out businesses operating, there including Salad King, a popular Thai restaurant. The fire happened just six months after the three-storey building was given a heritage designation, and about one week before its owners were scheduled to meet with Ms. Wong-Tam to fast-track its restoration.

"It brought a lot of attention onto Yonge Street, which is not the type of attention we would like," Ms. Wong-Tam said. "We don't want to be known as a street where buildings are falling down or buildings are being set on fire."

For now, the site is fenced off, with only gravel remaining where the building stood. The Lalani family, which owns the property and did not respond to interview requests on Monday, used the lot for food-truck events at least twice in the past year.

Ms. Wong-Tam said the owners recently struck a deal with Ryerson University, which is immediately adjacent, to let the institution temporarily use the property as a storage area for construction equipment for the nearby Student Learning Centre this fall.

Mr. Poirier's arrest was also key for police. "It's a significant arrest because it has an impact on the infrastructure and the impact it had on the downtown core and commercial sector," Inspector Gary Meissner told reporters on Monday, adding that firefighters had to be taken to hospital.

He said police are now probing whether other fires are connected to Mr. Poirier, including one in April at the Sackville Street community housing residence that hasn't been ruled arson.

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Inspector Meissner said the building had just been refurbished and Mr. Poirier moved back in days before last week's fire.

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