Bulldozers preparing site this week
The next chapter of a key piece of property in central Sarnia is unfolding this week as construction begins on the former Sarnia General Hospital lands.
The property, which was in turns one of the city’s busiest health centres and then one of the city’s worst eyesores, will soon be redeveloped and occupied by 118 residential units in two four-storey apartment buildings.
Site preparation has started on the block skirted by Mitton, George, Essex and MacKenzie streets where Sarnia’s first public hospital was built in 1896.
The historic building was eventually vacated 115 years later in 2011 when Bluewater Health merged two hospitals at its current Sarnia site, the former St. Joseph’s Hospital.
Since the Sarnia General land was owned by the city but the hospital was operated by the province, debate ensued over who should pay the millions of dollars required to safely demolish the old buildings.
Ultimately, the city lost the battle as the province insisted it was up to the municipality.
Without a clear plan and facing huge demolition costs, the city waited for a buyer. Meanwhile, the old hospital site sat empty, became derelict and attracted vandals and squatters.
Finally, in 2017, five local businessmen known as the GFive Inc. purchased the property from the city for $1,000, a real bargain considering the land was valued at $1.4 million at the time. The city also gave the businessmen about $5.4 million to help with demolition costs.
The GFive included Kenn Poore, Alex Jongsma, Mark Lumley, Charles Dally and the late Marty Raaymakers, who died in 2020.
It may have looked like a sweetheart of a deal but the reality was that the city was burdened with ownership of a derelict building in the centre of a residential neighbourhood. No other buyers were on the horizon and demolition costs far outstripped the $5.4 million paid by the city.
At one time, Poore said demolition would cost close to $9 million but he said the GFive were committed to it because it was the right thing to do.
Poore has said he initiated the idea with the GFive because he believes in revitalization and what it can do for the city and its neighbourhoods.
Poore also spearheaded restoration of downtown’s Imperial Theatre. The deteriorating hospital building was blighting a largely residential area and the cost of demolition was increasing the longer it sat there.
The original plan was to leave parts of the hospital intact but vandalism, aging and weather took a toll and it wasn’t possible.
Six years later, the site is cleared and eleven single residential houses have been built along Essex Street.
The GFive have sold the remaining acreage to Skyline Real Estate Holding Inc., which applied for some minor variances last year and is going ahead with construction of the two apartment buildings and a single-storey amenities building this month.
City staff recommended approval of the minor variances to allow for parking relief, reduced side and rear yard setbacks and an increased maximum building height.
Rather than the maximum 10-metre height limitation, Skyline is building 13-metre apartment buildings.
The Ontario Land Tribunal has approved the variances, noting there will be no adverse impact on the neighbouring properties.