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Train station conundrum

With demolition of Humboldt's historic train station unlikely, questions remain about its future
The windows of Humboldt's historic train station were boarded up in June, in an effort to reduce further deterioration of the building. Despite its poor condition, however, it is unlikely that demolition of the structure will be allowed.

There are only two real options when it comes to the future of the historic CN Rail station in Humboldt.
The first is for someone to take on the task of fixing it up - either a group of volunteers, or a business - in order for it to be used in another way.
The second is to do nothing and watch it slowly fall apart, becoming an eyesore in the downtown area.
What many may see as a third option - demolishing the building - would be pretty much impossible.
This information was revealed at a public meeting regarding the station held on October 19.
Fourteen people - mostly those connected with the City of Humboldt, the Humboldt and District Museum and Gallery (HDMG), and other historic sites in Humboldt - attended the meeting, which was organized by the City of Humboldt to begin a process to see what's to become of the station.
Also among the 14 was Blythe MacInnis, Heritage Programs coordinator with Parks Canada, and a representative of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.
The historic CN Rail station in Humboldt, which was first built in 1905 with later additions, is protected under the federal Heritage Railway Stations Protection Act, and so any changes to the building, including ownership, have to go through the Historic Sites and Monuments Board.
And according to MacInnis, it's very unlikely that the board will agree to the demolition of the structure, despite its poor condition.
A station in Ontario, she explained, remains protected though it no longer has a roof or a floor.
"It's not going to be demolished soon or easily," said Mayor Malcolm Eaton. "So we need to find some group or organization to get a project going. That's one option.
"Another option is that someone sees business potential in this and has some money to invest. The third option is that it's going to sit there for an awful long time and deteriorate."
In Humboldt, CN Rail stopped using the old station late last year, when they built a new station next door.
CN then approached the City, to see if they would be interested in taking over ownership of the old building, and leasing the land it sits on.
Members of city council and staff had a look at the building, and were shocked by its condition.
The building, which is 2,400 square feet on the main floor, with a small apartment upstairs, is in "rough shape," Eaton said.
Eaton said he feels the condition of the station took "numerous years of neglect," and that it appeared as though a chainsaw had been used to run duct work for a new furnace inside.
That and other changes to the building's interior were not officially requested, nor were they approved by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board; they were just made, it was noted.
The City's Leisure Services Department investigated the state of the building, and the local building inspector had a look at it as well.
"There are lots of issues with the building," Eaton said.
The main structure sits on wood piles, and the floor is uneven throughout the building, indicating rot within the floor and piles.
A small basement which once contained the boiler was flooded, and there are severe cracks in the concrete walls.
The roof, soffits and fascia are in poor condition, as is the electrical system, and there is interior water damage throughout the building.
There are also rodent issues, the windows and doors were in poor shape and have been boarded up, and the heat has been turned off.
The city estimated that to renovate the building for occupancy will take between $500,000 and $840,000. An electrical and structural engineer's report for the building would likely cost $20,000 to $30,000 alone.
And while these issues could be found in any old railways station, the City doesn't have the capacity to deal with it, Eaton claimed.
"We are not prepared to undertake a restoration project for the CN station," Eaton said, "given the extensive physical condition and deterioration of the building, and the other heritage development projects we have committed to support."
Those projects include changes to the Merchant's Bank of Canada building downtown, further development of the Original Humboldt site, and continued support of the HDMG. The restoration of Humboldt's historic water tower, though not a city project, has also received city funding in the past.
In the future, the mayor said, they are also aware that they may have to take on the courthouse.
"An opportunity for the City to be involved with the courthouse may not be far away," he said. "We're interested in that building, of course."
But the City is open to considering offering some form of support to a group or organization willing to take on the train station project, it was noted.
"We would encourage and support... in small ways," Eaton said, much as they do with the water tower project.
"From city council's perspective, would we like to see the CN station turn into something? Absolutely," said Eaton. "As we look to the future, we'd hate to see this piece of the community leave us, or not be developed."
They are concerned about the further deterioration of the building, Eaton noted.
"The longer it sits there empty, the further it deteriorates. If no one is willing to take it on, it will become an eyesore in the centre of the city. That's not good for us, or CN."
In talking to people in the community about this project, Eaton says he's heard both sides, from the opinion that the city should save the building, to telling him to have it bulldozed.
But the bulldozing, according to MacInnis, is not really an option.
"We don't authorize the demolition of buildings. It would have to be heaps of bricks on the ground," she said.
Right now, the building, in the eyes of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board, is closer to the side of being saved than it is to demolition. The longer it sits there, the closer it gets to the other side, but it will take decades to get to the point where they even consider knocking it down.
Should CN decide to bulldoze the building without permission, they could face a fine up to $1 million. So it's unlikely they would go down that road, even though they have let the station deteriorate to this point.
The Heritage Railway Stations Protections Act, while it requires the board to approve alterations to the building, and transfers of ownership, can't proscribe maintenance, MacInnis explained.
"We hate to see buildings fall into neglect or not be used," she said, but they can't demand that a rail company repair an old building.
It can get neglected; it can sit there and crumble into the ground, she noted.
"One of the lessons we're learning is that maybe we have to be more aggressive or assertive in communicating with (rail companies)," she said. "They are affecting future decisions by neglecting buildings at an early stage."
There is a list of requirements for the sale of or any changes made to a heritage building, MacInnis said.
For instance, there has to be a fence installed between the building and the tracks, and the building would have to be designated a municipal or provincial heritage site, as when it is no longer owned by a rail company, it is not covered by the federal act.
Also, anyone interested in the old station must provide a development plan to Parks Canada, and that plan must respect the heritage component of the building. Approval of the plan, which has to go through the Historic Sites and Monuments Board, could take between six months to two years.
Once the development plan is approved - a process that does involve public notice and input - CN indicated they would turn over the building for $1. The land, however, would have to be leased - the amount of that lease would vary depending on the organization involved, the use of the building, and market value.
"It's quite a process for any sale or changes (to the building)," MacInnis said.
A long-term lease of the building is an option, she noted - and because ownership of the building would not be transferred, it would still be considered a national historic site. An application for any changes to the building, however, would have to come from CN.
As for what the building could turn into, MacInnis seemed in favour of a commercial building.
"We have lots of commercial companies who have adapted stations for use as restaurants and other uses. It's very common.... Buildings survive... by being used, and adapted, so they are part of the community, (and) as important as they were when they were first built," she said.
Parks Canada likes to see the stations being used - if not for their original purpose, than in some other way.
"This station, in the heart of the city, has great potential for that type of use," MacInnis said.
"You can adapt a (heritage) building for (another) use," said Jennifer Hoesgen, curator of the HDMG, listing the museum building as an example.
"It takes time and planning and money.... but so does building a new building," she added.
The station's location right next to an active rail line does complicate things. It's unlikely it would be allowed to be moved off site, MacInnis indicated.
"Relocation is really rare. There has only been one to date," she said.
The Humboldt station is "quite a pretty little building," she noted. However, it was not designated because of its architecture - its design is specialized, but it's not far from standard plans - but because of its importance in the development of Humboldt, so moving it would affects its impact. It may be possible, however, to move the site just a bit to the north, further from the tracks.
Others at the meeting noted that since the structure needs a new foundation anyway, it makes sense to move the station away from the tracks and the fence, which would have to be installed about three feet from the doors, not at the end of the platform, and perhaps turn it around, so that the doors on the south side face the avenue to the north.
There are plans to change some streets in the vicinity of the station, in order to deal with the off-set corner of 5th Ave. and Main St. However, the city would work on those plans with whatever is happening at the station, Eaton noted.
The general feeling at the meeting, Eaton noted, was that no one was saying the station should be bulldozed tomorrow. To buy some time to consider their options, he indicated that the city may be willing to do some small things to winterize the building, which is no longer heated, to prevent more damage over the winter, it was noted.
There is no timeline for interest to be shown in the station, at least according to what CN has told the city, it was noted, but it is believed the company will only wait so long before they board it up more, fence it, and let it fall apart.
The city is concerned about it turning into an eyesore, Eaton said.
They have had this issue with other sites in town, which have been fenced and now sit vacant, and don't seem to want to add another to their list.
"If we push (the owners of those vacant properties) hard enough, they do things, just enough to get us off their back for a while," Eaton said. "We are not the only community to have this happen."
There is a lesson to be learned from this situation, indicated HDMG board chair Carol Oleksyn at the meeting.
"This is the second meeting I've been at in a week about tearing down old buildings," she said. The other meeting centred around the old Humboldt Public School and its demolition.
"We need to learn from this and keep (these buildings) up," she said.
The city is interested in community input about the future of the old CN Rail station. They've created a sheet for the public to fill out, listing pros and cons, questions, issues and concerns. The forms can be found and dropped off at City Hall before November 9.
"We'd like to hear from the community," said Eaton.
Anyone interested in developing the train station into a business or for some other use can also contact City Hall.
"It's a real conundrum," Eaton noted at the meeting. "There are some really interesting projects (involving old rail stations) around the province. We'd love to see that (in Humboldt). I can imagine it. At the same time, I can also see an eyesore sitting there for a long time, and us not having the resources (to fix it)."

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