Too Big to Tear Down?

The former Sydney train station, located at 75 Dodd Street, is no stranger to controversy, by which I mean, it used to have the name of a brand of beer emblazoned on one end in letters so large, puzzled travelers thought they’d arrived in the City of Olands.

I knew the station as a going concern because for one memorable year — the last of passenger train service on the island — I worked for VIA Rail in North Sydney and occasionally filled in in Sydney.

Former train station, Dodd Street, Sydney, NS, 6 July 2020.

Former train station, Dodd Street, Sydney, NS, 6 July 2020.

Train stations built at the height of the rail age were architectural gems. Train stations built in 1971…not so much. The Sydney station was a squat (mostly) brick box with an uninspiring interior, the kind of interior that lent itself easily to other purposes when passenger train service between Sydney and Truro was rudely interrupted in 1990. The old station housed Canada Post and Sweeney’s gym, among other tenants, before finally falling into disuse.

I’m not sure when the current owner, 3046975 Nova Scotia Ltd, bought the property (and I can’t go to the Land Registry to find out, because it remains closed due to COVID-19) but it seems fair to say 3046975 Nova Scotia has overseen the old station’s descent from disused to derelict.

Back in 2018, when the Cape Breton Post‘s David Jala first wrote about calls to demolish the building, he was coy about the identity of the owner, explaining 75 Dodd Street was “in the name of a numbered company owned by a local individual.”

Speaking to Jala, Paul Burt, CBRM’s manager of building planning and licensing, went out of his way to defend said local individual against charges of neglect:

“What’s most reasonable and practical for us to do is to keep going back at him to make sure he ensures it’s boarded up and keeps it secured, he’s done a few clean-ups as per our request on the property,” said Burt.

“It’s not him that’s constantly vandalizing the building, it’s not him that constantly breaking in and causing problems, it’s not him that’s littering, but it’s his property so he’s responsible and we’re holding him responsible for it.”

(It hadn’t actually occurred to me that the owner was “constantly” breaking into his own property, causing problems and littering until Burt said he wasn’t, at which point I became fascinated by the possibility that he was, which just goes to show that some defenses are worse than attacks.)

In 2018, the building was still being showcased on a “local, online reality service webpage,” the name of which Jala also declined to divulge. He did, however, quote the realtor’s description of the property, which was pretty funny:

…the property is in a pre-development stage which offers a well-qualified tenant the rare opportunity to offer input regarding the renovation and modernization of this building.

Input like, “I think we should get rid of the pigeons,” and “I think we should put glass back in the windows.”

Jala also, luckily, included an artist’s conception of how the ugly, decrepit building could be transformed into an ugly, refurbished building:

Artists's conception for old Sydney, NS, train station

Artists’s conception for old Sydney, NS, train station

 

 

Burt’s behemoths

Flash forward two years and the old train station was back in the headlines, courtesy of Councilor Eldon MacDonald, who represents District 5, in which the station is located. MacDonald added the following “Motion for council to consider” as an addendum to the June 23 regional council agenda:

Demolition of building and complete clean-up of entire property from corner to corner to corner to corner.

Under “Reason,” MacDonald wrote:

It’s a disgrace and embarrassment to our community.

Former Sydney train station, Dodd Street, 6 July 2020

Former Sydney train station, Dodd Street, 6 July 2020

It is also — in case the gaping holes in its sides didn’t clue you in — “derelict” according to the criteria laid out in the municipality’s Vacant and Derelict Buildings By-Law:

Definition of derelict building from CBRM Vacant and Derelict Buildings By-Law

 

In fact, it’s been “derelict” for some time now. MacDonald said the building has been the subject of complaints for 10 years, and Paul Burt told Jala in 2018:

We get lots of complaints and we have an open file on the property,”…

“We have a go at it every spring, and every time the doors or plywood gets ripped off the building he’s gone in and re-secured the building for us, but he’s fighting a losing battle…”

According to the by-law, owners of properties vacant for more than 30 days must register them with the CBRM and take steps to “secure” them (replace or board up windows, ensure doors are locked, trim surrounding vegetation, etc) but this state of affairs can’t continue indefinitely:

No vacant building within the Cape Breton Regional Municipality may remain secured for a cumulative period exceeding twenty-four (24) months.

So how has 75 Dodd Street managed to remain in a state of dereliction for lo! these many years? That’s a good question. The by-law clearly states:

When a building is deemed to be derelict, the Municipality may direct the owners to remedy the condition as specified in an Order.

Upon the issuance of an Order the owner must within thirty (30) days:

(a) Obtain a Conditional Building Permit to bring the building up to a habitable standard; or

(b) Demolish the building.

So why doesn’t the CBRM just order the owner to fix up the building or demolish it? My guess is that the municipality is pretty sure the owner would refuse to do either and would, as a result, forfeit his title to the municipality which would then have to pay for the demolition. As the Post reported in 2018:

…even though the structure may be considered unsightly, Burt said the municipality simply cannot afford to initiate action that would see it demolished with the CBRM bearing the considerable cost.

“There is a large number of people who would like to have the building knocked down, and we probably would, too, but the CBRM can’t afford to do it,” he said.

“It’s a big commercial structure, which means we would have to go in and do a complete hazardous materials assessment and do a remediation before we could knock it down — these aren’t excuses, these are the facts and we just can’t afford to deal with them.”

Michael Ruus, the CBRM’s director of planning, echoed that sentiment last month, during council’s discussion of Councilor MacDonald’s motion:

“With our current budget we are not in a position to take on a project of this size, so unless council wants to allocate additional funds we are probably not in a position where we can proceed with the demolition of a property of that size,” said Ruus, adding that the CBRM demolition policy is based on a “worst-first” scenario.

The by-law does state that “expense that may be incurred in carrying out work specified in an Order given, by the Municipality, may be recouped as a lien placed against the property” but according to the Center for Community Progress, a US non-profit “specifically dedicated to building a future in which vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties no longer exist,” a demolition lien is:

…a lien on a vacant lot, often in an area with little or no market demand; as a result, most are effectively uncollectable. There are enough exceptions to justify the practice, but they will be relatively rare. Having the ability to foreclose on those liens, however, is useful as it enables the city to take control of properties and determine their use, rather than have them remain in limbo. Still, demolition liens are usually not a powerful tool for cost recovery.

Clearly, the municipality believes the owner would stiff it for the demolition costs. Before we meet the owner, let’s take a moment to consider the buildings that are ordered demolished by the CBRM. Here are the ones that were ordered demolished during an Appeals Standing Committee meeting on June 23:

 

The message, clearly, is that if you’re going to let a building fall to pieces in the CBRM, make sure it’s a very large building — a “behemoth,” as Burt put it, in reference to both the train station and another famous local fright, the old Cape Breton Post building on Dorchester Street, which has also been derelict far longer than 24 months, and which was so poorly “secured” by its new owners it was accidentally set on fire in February.

 

All in the Family

So who is this “local individual” who owns the train station? He remained anonymous during council’s most recent discussion of the state of the building but Jala named him in his subsequent coverage and anyone who takes the time to look up 3046975 NS Ltd in the Joint Stocks Registry will find him: he’s Patrick Donovan, and he’s the company president, while his wife, Kiki Kachafanas, is the recognized agent.

Kiki Kachafanas is the sister of the regional solicitor, Demetri Kachanfanas, and the Spectator reported on another Kachafanas-Donovan property in 2017: the old Department of Fisheries building on the government wharf in Sydney. After the Port of Sydney’s offer on the building was turned down, Kachafanas and Donovan stepped in to purchase it, renovate it, and rent some of its offices to — you guessed it — the Port of Sydney.

Donovan, who has other real estate holdings in the CBRM, was also a generous donor to Mayor Cecil Clarke’s 2016 re-election campaign:

 

According to Jala’s coverage of the recent train station discussion, “word…surfaced” of a “rumor” that the Donovan had found a buyer for the property and a sale would be completed in August.

I checked the ownership of the property via ViewPoint and as of June 26, 3046975 NS Ltd was still listed as the owner.

I then went back to watch the council discussion to refresh my memory about what actually happened and what actually happened was that in his opening remarks on his motion, Councilor MacDonald noted that earlier that day, during that meeting of the Appeals Standing Committee, an individual whose house was scheduled for demolition earned a reprieve by explaining he had a sales agreement in place and that the building’s new owner would do the necessary repairs. MacDonald said if there were any similar deal in the works for the station property, he’d be happy to hear about it.

Paul Burt was not present at the meeting, so the question went to Ruus who said he had no information on any potential sale.

But Mayor Clarke did:

I do know, in speaking to Manager Burt, he’s been in contact with the current owner and that a purchase and a sale agreement is being arranged, I believe to be executed in the month of August.

What’s interesting about this is that Councilor MacDonald said he’d been working with staff on the issue for some time and yet, he had not heard this information from Manager Burt (neither, apparently, had Ruus.) Nor was MacDonald particularly mollified to hear it from the mayor:

I don’t want to hear that there’s a possible sale or hear that there might be a sale or hear there might be a development. I want factual documentation supplied to our staff.

Clarke announced it would be added as a “follow-up agenda item,” and they would ask Manager Burt to “provide that information.” (Why Burt couldn’t have provided that information to Councilor MacDonald and the planning department at the same time he was providing it to the mayor was a subject left, sadly, unexplored.)

Nor did anyone think to ask Demetri Kachafanas, who was in attendance at the meeting (he had an addendum item listed right under MacDonald’s) if he knew what his brother-in-law was up to.

Instead, council kicked the issue around a bit before ordering up an Issue Paper “regarding the request for demolition of the former train station on Dodd Street, Sydney.”

Additionally “it was suggested that the building be boarded up.”

As of Monday, when I took these pictures, it hadn’t been.

Former train station, 75 Dodd Street, Sydney, NS.