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ONTARIO: Sault's chief building official afraid to enter old hospital (17 photos)

'Unless the owner goes in there with a crew and cleans stuff up . . . I have reservations about going into that building' - Freddie Pozzebon
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Eight years after its last patient was bussed up Great Northern Road, the old General Hospital building at 941 Queen St. E. is so damp and filthy there's grass growing inside.

Freddie Pozzebon hasn't been to the place since last October.

The silver-maned chief building official and property standards officer has held virtually every job in the city's building division.

Over 31 years of inspecting our seediest, most run-down, dangerous structures, he's seen it all.

Even so, Pozzebon isn't sure he's up to visiting the old General again. 

"I don't know if we'd be safely able to walk through that building at this point," he was saying last week, testifying under oath before the city's property standards appeal committee.

"There's a serious concern about whether we should even access the building. Unless the owner goes in there with a crew and cleans stuff up and brings it back to some level of safety, I have reservations about going into that building, or sending anybody into that building."

The "owner" Pozzebon mentioned would be Amit Sofer, the president of TVM Group, seated on the other side of the hearing room.

Pozzebon's been riding Sofer hard ever since last June, when City Council passed a resolution demanding a property standards crackdown on the waterfront site.

Sofer, whose TVM Group picked up the property in 2013 for $65,000 and has since renovated the former Plummer site into condominiums, has been slapped with compliance orders for the remaining General and former renal unit structures.

Pozzebon is so concerned about the amount of water accumulating in the old General and the former Plummer Hospital renal wing nearby, that among other things, he's ordered Sofer to commission a structural stability report from a professional engineer, certifying that the structures aren't about to collapse.

For his part, Sofer has been appealing the orders, angling relentlessly for more time to get his residential project back on track.

If the mood at last week's appeal hearing was any indication, the city has pretty much lost patience with the Toronto-based developer.

"Mr. Sofer tells me 'I don't want to be Public Enemy #1.' You know, if you don't want to be Public Enemy #1, then let's stop with the trickery," said lawyer Steven Shoemaker, representing the city.

"It's one thing after another. That's what it is. It's delay, delay, delay so that we attempt to never hear this matter," Shoemaker chided.

Sofer had already succeeded in getting the appeal hearing delayed once, because of issues with his lawyer.

On Friday, he was seeking another adjournment.

This time, his lawyer Paul Johnson argued that Sofer's local property manager, James Mergaert, was unable to attend on a day he'd previously said he'd be available.

Other arguments Sofer and Johnson cited for needing an adjournment included:

  • there may be a business transaction brewing for the two properties

  • the city has refused to turn over to Sofer a massive collection of files showing how other vacant properties have historically been handled by local property standards officers

  • the property standards appeal committee failed to give proper notice of the hearing and lacks jurisdiction to hear the case because mandatory preconditions weren't met

Steven Shoemaker, arguing for the city, wasn't buying any of it.

So what if the properties are sold? Any remediation order will equally apply to the new owners, he said.

"The order is to remedy. The order is to comply, remediate these buildings."

"It doesn't matter. You can transfer five times between now and future hearing dates."

"Next time, it'll be, well, the new owner isn't prepared . . . It'll be more of the same. More excuses," Shoemaker told the committee.

"They say we haven't produced certain documents. We've refused, as if we're somehow obstructing in some way. There's only obstruction from one side here. Obstacles being put in place, of having to hear that nothing's being done with this building that's in a state of disrepair . . . If there's anything vague and ambiguous today, it's this request."

"They seem to be afraid of having the evidence heard," Shoemaker said. "We say that the adjournments are not timely. We respectfully ask that the committee not fall for these sorts of efforts to evade and put obstacles up to hearing the evidence because the evidence is not favourable."

The committee unanimously agreed to side with the city, insisting that Friday's hearing proceed anyway.

Darin Rossetto from City Police and Dan Fraser from Sault Ste. Marie Fire Services were standing by to testify, but there was only enough time to hear from one witness, Freddie Pozzebon.

Pozzebon talked about conditions he found at the old hospital sites.

He talked particularly about water literally flowing in cracks through the entire General Hospital building, top to bottom.

"There was a lot of water on the floor. Ceiling tiles were hanging down. There was a lot of very hazardous building materials hanging. There was a lot of leakage from the ceiling," Pozzebon said.

"There were several areas, for whatever reason, where there was actually grass growing in some areas, because of moisture and all the dirt that's inside the building."

"The building basement is full of water, which is one of the detrimental parts to the structural integrity," he said.

"The more moisture gets into steel columns and connections, the more susceptible they are to collapse."

Sofer's property standards appeal is expected to continue next month.

The appeal committee is comprised of three members: Elizabeth Filice, Martin Poirer and Michael Szczepaniak.




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David Helwig

About the Author: David Helwig

David Helwig's journalism career spans six decades beginning in the 1960s. His work has been recognized with national and international awards.
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