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Decades after the last passenger train pulled out of Sydney, the unsightly state of the former railway station bears little resemblance to the venue that was the setting for countless tearful goodbyes and heartfelt welcomes.
Situated at the edge of downtown on a 2.2-acre parcel of land between Dodd Street and the now unused tracks, the 18,840-square-foot building sits vacant, its old windows and doors covered with plywood and its exterior a home for the work of local graffiti artists.
Indeed, the dilapidated-looking structure has garnered more than a few complaints from local residents, many of whom view the building’s backside while walking on the trails of Open Hearth Park.
“We get lots of complaints and we have an open file on the property,” said Paul Burt, the Cape Breton Regional Municipality’s manager of building, planning and licensing, who confirmed the property is in the name of a numbered company owned by a local individual.
“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 — it’s no different from the old Cape Breton Post building up on Dorchester Street or any of the other old behemoths in our community.”
The building was constructed in 1971 and would serve as the eastern terminus for Via Rail passenger service until the Sydney-Truro route was axed by the federal government in 1990 after it was deemed inefficient to operate.
When the former Canada Post Office closed its doors on Dorchester Street, operations were moved to the former train station before taking up residence in its current home at the corner of Charlotte and Pitt streets. A number of other businesses, including a gym, would use parts of the building before it fell into disuse.
But 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.”
That’s not exactly positive news for Steven van Nostrand, who owns and operates Belmac Supply, an equipment, supplies and uniform retailer located directly across the street from the former station.
“If that building caught fire and the wind was blowing in the wrong direction the smoke would destroy my clothing inventory,” he said.
“If they want to have a positive environment for the community and for business, then they have to either get more aggressive with the owners about doing something with those kinds of buildings or demolish them and charge the owner.”
And, while van Nostrand doesn’t require extra space at this time he said he would consider looking at purchasing the building sometime in the future if his business needs the room and if the selling price is reasonable.
The Cape Breton Post was unable to reach the owner, but it did learn that the building is showcased on a local, online realty service webpage. The site describes the property as “an exciting commercial rental opportunity available in the heart of downtown Sydney” and that the building offers “a commanding view of the beautiful Open Heath Park.”
The webpage, which also displays a conceptual drawing of what building might look like if renovated, went on to state that “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.”
Meanwhile, Deputy Mayor Eldon MacDonald, who represents the area, said he has also been besieged with complaints over the past few years about the building’s dire appearance.
“I’ve heard lots of complaints about these kind of buildings — I’d say it’s a toss-up between that building and the old Cape Breton Post building for most complaints,” said MacDonald.
“Both need to either be developed or torn down, in my opinion,” said MacDonald, adding that he would prefer to see the property developed.
“It would be great if the new graduated tax system is approved by council to redevelop them for residential housing, but if nothing is done soon they should come down.”
In the meantime, Burt said the CBRM will continue to monitor the property to ensure the necessary measures are taken to keep the property safe.
“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.”
This article first appeared on www.capebretonpost.com
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