By PATRICK MALONEY, SUN MEDIA
London Free Press
Wed October 3, 2007
The final bell is ringing at Alma College, with a deal between its owners and St. Thomas city council essentially clearing the way for the landmark's demolition. Advocates of the historic former girls' school -- hailed as one of Canada's most endangered places -- were stunned by the deal and are fuming at councillors, who in turn blame the imminent loss of the 130-year-old structure on the province.
"The most disappointing thing . . . is the absolute unwillingness of the City of St. Thomas to protect this building," said Andrew Gunn of the Alma College Foundation, a group pushing for the site's preservation. "It's absolutely shameful that they would allow this to happen."
The protracted fight over the building's future heated up in 2006, when its owner, the Zubick family of London, was denied a demolition permit by the city. The Zubicks appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board. That OMB hearing, which started two days ago, was essentially upstaged by last week's deal, in which council agreed to allow the demolition on two main conditions:
- The building's original entranceway be preserved.
- The front facade be replicated in any new structure.
The Zubicks have agreed to those terms. One St. Thomas alderman, Dave Warden, called it the "best deal" the city could manage.
But Warden also called out the Ontario Liberals, noting they intervened in another nearby heritage dispute -- blocking the destruction Moore House in Sparta -- and could do likewise here.
"We didn't feel we were going to win this fight. It's somebody else's property," Warden said. "Somebody, (MPP Steve) Peters or somebody, will have to move on it. Look what happened in Sparta. Was that an election thing or what? I want to see if they'll move in on Alma College."
The costly spectre of a protracted OMB hearing -- it was slated to last three weeks -- put pressure on the city to settle the matter.
The hearing did continue with a public-input session last night but it's unclear if it will continue beyond that.
Dawn Doty, who has lived next to the building for 25 years and planned to attend last night's meeting, was staying positive.
"You don't give up," she said. "We're hoping for . . . anybody that can show leadership qualities to preserve Alma College."
The city has agreed to issue the demolition permit and the OMB still has to
accept the deal. If it does, said Ald. Heather Jackson-Chapman, "That's
it. It's the end of Alma."
Noting his clients have worked with the city, lawyer Alan Patton said yesterday he sees no reason for the OMB to "alter the terms of a fairly negotiated settlement." The Zubicks bought the building nearly a decade ago and have said it's beyond repair. Their plans may include turning the site into a retirement home. "They feel the settlement is fair and equitable to the municipality, to themselves and to protect the part of the property that has some intrinsic value to the community," Patton said.
Opened in 1881, the Moore Street school drew girls from around the world until it closed in 1988.