The demolition of the historic Simpson building at 184-186 Main Street South in the heart of the Heritage Conservation District was a calculated decision by the owner Bob Forrest. It wasn’t inadvertent. (Photo: Bob Forrest in centre with his wife Colleen)
According to Newmarket Today the Simpson Building was demolished overnight on 9-10 October 2019.
The Town was not informed beforehand that the developer was going to demolish the protected building. The Town’s Chief Administrative Officer, Jag Sharma, told councillors on 15 October 2019:
“There was no demolition permit issued for that property.”
The Town has asked Forrest for an explanation and has received some information in reply. We shall learn shortly if the Town is prepared to prosecute. Personally, I don’t see any alternative. A slap on the wrist isn’t enough.
It would cost $100,000 to fix
Dave Hunter, the owner of Lemon and Lime, recollects a site supervisor telling him at 2pm on Thursday 10 October 2019 why 184-186 Main Street South (the Simpson building) was torn down:
“(The building) was unsafe and it would cost $100,000 more to fix it than to take it down. So the owner said take it down.”
Jacques Carrier, from CFCW Construction Inc, told me to my face on Tuesday 15 October 2019 the Simpson building had to come down because it was unsafe. It was being held up by the Clock Tower. He went on to tell me the building next door (188-192 Main Street South) was also unsafe.
From the earliest days, the developer Bob Forrest stressed the economics of his massive Clock Tower project. It had to be financially viable and deliver a profit otherwise he would walk away. In an email on 23 October 2012 he warned (the then) Town CAO Bob Shelton that he was prepared to pull the plug:
“We are spending money to work out issues with Heritage and BIA. The cost of preparing a complete application for zoning is too onerous for us to undertake without having (redacted). Given that we have spent over $100,000 on reports and design in the last 30 days if the above (ie his proposal) is not going to fly we prefer to withdraw right now.”
Condo plan in historic downtown rejected
After years of negotiations with senior Town staff and with elected members Forrest’s condo project in the old downtown was finally rejected by Newmarket Council on 5 December 2016.
By early May 2018 Forrest had reached an accommodation of sorts with the Town. The heritage buildings would remain but some more recent additions at the rear could be demolished. Under the terms of the May 2018 Agreement with the Town he undertook to act in good faith - a promise which seems risible now.
In April 2019 the Forrests announced they were going to sell all the properties they owned on Main Street South once the restoration work had been completed – lubricated with a grant of up to $100,000 from the Town.
Pouring money into the project.
Bob Forrest’s wife, Colleen, who is Vice President (Operations) of the Forrest Group, told Newmarket Today:
“We’re stripping out the interiors of those buildings and we’re doing restoration. We’re working with a heritage architect and heritage contractor who we’ve worked with in the past and, following that, we’ll be selling those buildings.”
“There’s an economics that comes into play for a developer. You have to be able to make it work. To renovate and to do what was there before (at the clock tower) doesn’t work.”
“It’s the best exit plan we can get for our partners because we can’t continue to pour money into the project.”
Bob and Colleen Forrest were acutely aware of all the constraints which applied when building (and demolishing) properties within a Heritage Conservation District.
They cannot claim ignorance.
Heritage Impact Assessments
On 2 October 2013 Forrest gave notice to his business tenants in the Main Street properties that he wanted them out citing demolition and redevelopment as a reason. This was premature. Senior Town staff told Forrest on 25 October 2013 that
“Council have final say (unless appealed to the OMB) on demolition of buildings within a Heritage District…”
Bob Forrest knew all about demolition in a Heritage Conservation District. Indeed, he had commissioned Heritage Impact Assessments on the Main Street properties he owned. And he brought an appeal to the OMB intending that his
"redevelopment application should not be subject to Part V of the Ontario Heritage Act"
which rather suggests he was familiar with the legislation.
Demolition by neglect
Over the years the Janus-faced Forrest allowed his heritage properties to rot and decay while pretending otherwise. When he gave a presentation to councillors on 9 May 2016 he had second thoughts about showing them a slide which would have told them:
“The roofs leak. The roofs and floors sag.”
At the last moment he pulled the slide, continuing with the pretence that he was maintaining his heritage properties, protecting them from the elements.
Section 69 of the Ontario Heritage Act makes it an offence to demolish without permission a property in a Heritage Conservation District with fines up to $1,000,000 and imprisonment. The law makes it crystal clear that the illegal demolition of a designated heritage property is a very serious offence.
Above the law
Over the years, across the Province prosecutions have been brought by Toronto, Kingston, Hamilton and many other municipalities against property owners who believe they are above the law or claim ignorance of it.
A Brampton case resulted in a fine of $25,000 for the owner of a 1913 heritage building “on course” to being designated. At the other end of the scale, a Scugog builder was fined $800 for demolishing a heritage home without a permit.
A century home in Unionville Heritage Conservation District was demolished after a fire. The Municipality (Markham) ordered the owner to repair the structure. Instead it was razed to the ground, leaving only the façade and a few beams.
Here in Newmarket we have a more egregious example where demolition in a Heritage Conservation District was brazenly ordered by a developer with intimate knowledge of the law on heritage properties.
What was the choice facing the Forrests?
(a) The possibility of being fined for the unlawful demolition of a protected building they claimed was unsafe or (b) Spending $100,000 to make the building safe again after years of deliberate neglect.
For the Forrests it was a no-brainer. It made financial sense to pull the old building down.
And give two fingers to the Ontario Heritage Act.