The remains of Kerr’s Apartments were demolished Sunday, not quite seven months after fire gutted the century-old building.
Demolition contractor Mike McNally and owner Armand Olender did not immediately return messages Monday, but senior city planner Dave Wahn says while there was talk of preserving the stone walls, “the engineering could not substantiate that. To bring it up to code on a rebuild would have been unfeasible.”
It’s not clear what will become of the debris, nor what might take the building’s place.
Although the Kerr was on the city’s heritage register, that did not afford it any protection from demolition.
“So long as they get a permit, they can do it,” Wahn says. “We can’t do a heck of a lot to stop it. If it was a municipally designated heritage site, we might have been able to do something.”
Wahn explains there are about 175 buildings on the city’s heritage register completed in 1994, while a revised document, which is nearly finished, will have about 200.
Being on the register recognizes a building has heritage value, and may help an owner secure funding for restoration, but doesn’t prevent it from being altered or torn down.
Another 13 buildings — including the courthouse, Touchstones Nelson, and St. Saviour’s church — are designated municipal heritage sites by bylaw.
Wahn says those tend to be municipally or provincially-owned buildings, or else the designation is sought by owners to qualify for grant money.
“They will come to the city to apply to have it municipally designated. If it has that designation, it means they have to go through a much more rigorous redevelopment process and typically follow strict Heritage BC guidelines for retrofit,” he says.
The most recent addition was the CPR station last year, which the Chamber of Commerce is restoring.
These buildings do have some protection: a heritage alteration permit is required before any demolition or rebuild, ensuring changes enhance or protect the structure. The city can also withhold permits for up to 60 days while it negotiates with the owner.
“In the case of the Kerr, if it was a municipally designated building, it would have been an interesting question if we would have been able to save the façade,” Wahn says. “That’s a moot point in that it was merely on the heritage register.”
While the city can designate municipal heritage buildings without being asked, the owner can seek compensation if they feel it diminishes their property value.
“It’s a difficult thing. Council and a community have to be really sure if they want to follow that route,” Wahn says. Even if the Kerr had municipal heritage status and its alteration permit required the façade to be saved, “the owner could come back and say the cost is going to be $200,000 more. Are you willing to compensate me to protect it? That’s where the rubber hits the road.”
There is no specific public process prior to altering or tearing down heritage buildings. City council does not review demolition permits, which primarily regulate the safety of the work and disposal of materials, ensuring they meet WorkSafeBC requirements.
Wahn says they hope the Kerr’s owner stockpiles the stone and uses it “in some sort of design element on new construction on that site, in order that we can have some long term memory of the Kerr building. But we have no ability to force that.”
Mayor John Dooley calls the Kerr’s loss “unfortunate.”
“The structure was compromised pretty bad from the heat of the fire and the stability of the exterior walls,” he says. “It probably would have been extremely expensive to try and support it. I don’t think they took it down on a whim.”
He is optimistic, however, that the site will be put to good use.
“We really hope it won’t be an empty lot in the downtown core. Hopefully what happens there will stimulate the community and create additional housing.”
Although the property’s zoning would allow some other form of redevelopment, he hopes housing is the first option explored.
Meanwhile, local historian Patricia Rogers, who has written about the Kerr’s past, is “concerned that the destruction of this unique part of Nelson’s history and heritage core was a hurried event.
“I am not an engineer, but at first sight the facade of the Kerr seemed to be stable,” she says. “Was it a case of expediency? I don’t know. Could more have been done to save her? We were never given the chance to find out.”
Designed by local architect Alex Carrie and built in 1911 for Edward Kerr, the building was Nelson’s first apartment block, using granite quarried on site.
The January fire that destroyed it and displaced about 80 people began in the basement, but the cause was not established.
Nelson’s municipally designated heritage sites
1979: Gasworks building, 615 Railway Street
1979: Gasworks building, 610 Railway Street
1980: Evangelical Covenant Church, 702 Stanley Street
1980: Touchstones Nelson, 502 Vernon Street
1980: BVN Plumbing & Gas Fitting, 810 Hendryx Street
1982: Preserved Seed Café, 202 Vernon Street
1983: Nelson Star/BIBO restaurant, 514 Hall Street
1985: Courthouse, 320 Ward Street
1990: CP Rail superintendent’s house, 420 Railway Street
1991: Presbyterian Church, 602 Kootenay Street
1991: Anglican Church,723 Ward Street
1995: Kootenay School of the Arts, 606 Victoria Street
2010: CP Rail station, 91 Baker Street