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Victoria Hall for sale

Property at the heart of rapidly changing neighbourhood

by Hilary Beaumont

Building administrator Donna Merriam says goodbye to Victoria Hall. (Photo by Hilary Beaumont.)
Building administrator Donna Merriam says goodbye to Victoria Hall. (Photo by Hilary Beaumont.)
The exterior of Victoria Hall. (Photo via the Heritage Trust.)
The exterior of Victoria Hall. (Photo via the Heritage Trust.)

It was a place of tea parties and sing-alongs.

After 128 years of housing senior women on low incomes, Victoria Hall goes up for sale this afternoon.

The asking price is nearly $3 million—more than three times the property’s assessed value of $905,400.

The money from the sale will go to the Victoria Hall trust, which subsidizes assisted living for senior women with disabilities.

So far half a dozen prospective buyers have expressed interest, building administrator Donna Merriam said Monday.

The charity’s chief goal in selling the building is to get the greatest financial return on the property. Concerns for the Hall’s heritage are secondary.

Wonder what it's like inside Victoria Hall? View a slideshow here.

 

Rising costs prompted sale

The nearly 33,000 square-foot French chateau-style manor was finished in 1885. The Gottingen Street landmark has 50 bedrooms, seven washrooms, two kitchens, a parlour and a dining room.

“There were 950 ladies whose hands have touched those banisters,” Merriam said. “Thinking about it gives me chills.”

“There’s no life to it without those ladies.”

The final 29 residents moved out in January. Fifteen of them are scattered at nursing homes across the city, and 14 are at the Caritas retirement home.

The average age of the residents was about 88, she said.

Trustees made the tough decision to sell after it became clear upkeep was costing too much.

Costs outpaced revenues by about $200,000 each year between 2009 and 2011, according to the charity’s tax returns.

“With the downward turn of the market five years ago, that didn’t do the trust any good either,” she said.

In 2008, a new roof combined with a worsening financial crisis lost the charity $545,000.

The cost of rent had risen by $100 to $200 per year since Merriam became building administrator eight years ago, while the number of residents decreased each year.

The charity subsidized up to half of the cost per person.

“This decision has been coming for many years,” the administrator said.

“Every year we would do the budget and say, my heavens, we’re eating into the capital of our trust, which puts in jeopardy future generations.”

 

Sale raises questions about gentrification

When Victoria Hall was built, its neighbourhood was one of the richest in the city. Manors built around the same time still line Brunswick Street east of the Hall and Gottingen Street to the north.

The neighbourhood fell into its most recent decline in the late ‘70s. Lured by cheaper real estate in the suburbs, businesses including the area’s only grocery store left the street. The area’s wealthier residents followed.

Now, things are changing rapidly.

“The commercial revival of the neighbourhood has been developing over the last several years,” the realtor’s report on Victoria Hall states.

“The growing commercial base has coincided with a residential revival. Artists, retailers, and young professionals have moved into the north-end Halifax neighbourhood, increasing the value of single-family homes, new buildings and multi-residential developments.”

“Halifax’s north-end is a growing market for young professionals and families looking for affordable housing options on the peninsula,” the CBRE report states.

In 1998, according to a Royal LePage Survey of Canadian House Prices, a detached bungalow in the north end cost $86,000.

In 2013, according to Royal LePage, it costs $275,000. That’s triple the value.

Between 1998 and 2007, the rate of increase was higher than the average for HRM as a whole.

Between 1997 and 2006, according to the CMHC Rental Market Report, average rental rates in the north end increased from $563 to $734.

“This whole northern part of the city, but particularly this neighbourhood, has become quite gentrified, I’ve noticed, just in the eight and a half years I’ve been [at Victoria Hall],” the administrator says.

Merriam has worked on Gottingen Street since the mid-‘90s. Around that time, middle-income residents began buying property in the north end, she recalls.

Houses were available for as low as $50,000 back then, she said.

In the last two or three years, she’s noticed “a huge decrease in gunfire at night.”

“I know there’s a downside to this, but it’s nice to see the buildings looking better. The sad part is: Where do poor people rent? Where do they go? They have to go to other parts of the city.”

As long as there is subsidized housing in the neighbourhood, the area will continue to be mixed-income, she said.

“We’ve often theorized what might happen to this building, and there’s no way of knowing until it is purchased what the plan is.”

 

The future of Victoria Hall

The landmark building is an “excellent opportunity” for developers and landlords, the CBRE report explains.

The property’s R3 zoning allows for high-density development, meaning the building could be used as a rooming house, hotel or offices, among other things.

There are no height restrictions.

The building’s $905,000 assessed value is based on its present use as subsidized housing, while the $3 million asking price reflects the property’s potential.

That’s a price of $83.36 per square foot.

Vacant land in the north end is selling for “substantially less,” Phil Pacey of the Heritage Trust points out.

“We are hopeful that means somebody thinks the most valuable part of this property is the building,” Pacey said.

The Heritage Property Act protects the building to some degree.

The new owner would need approval from the municipality if they wanted to demolish or substantially alter the building.

The city could deny the request, negotiate with the property owner or expropriate the building if that were the only way to protect it, Pacey said.

It’s hard to say how the sale might affect the surrounding neighbourhood, Pacey said.

“I suppose if it were sold for condos and converted into expensive condos, then that might be part of a trend toward gentrification. If it were sold for community use, then that might be less so. But it’s difficult to speculate on that at the moment.”

Merriam hopes the new owners will keep as much of the original building as possible.

Now the Hall is closed, she’s retiring, and moving from her apartment on the third floor to a new home in Dartmouth.

“It’s sad, very sad that it’s closing. And we’re all recognizing that. No one denies that it’s sad. It was a very tough decision that had to be made for fiscal reasons.”

“However, it doesn’t change our mission, which since 1860 has been to assist elderly women in supporting their shelter needs.”


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Comments

Great piece, many stories within this story.

Thanks so much for this in-depth piece, on an issue that's very personal for me as my mother was a resident at Victoria Hall in the last year before its closing. This story touches on so many issues - heritage buildings, aging populations, poverty, affordable housing, gentrification - to name a few. And a repeating theme, the struggle of conscious, ethical individuals and organizations striving to do the right thing, but existing within the boundaries set by a market driven economy where bottom line trumps all priorities, forcing difficult decisions and compromises.
 
There are so many questions and ironies that come to mind. This heritage home was a remnant of another era, when the Gottingen area was one of the most prosperous in Halifax. Yet it was home for senior women mostly living off small pensions, many of whom never lived in such comfort in their lives. Still, Victoria Hall was not filled to capacity, something I could never understand. It had a beautiful interior environment and garden, amazing staff who went above and beyond the call of duty, and affordable, subsidized fees. The board for living at Victoria Hall was no more costly than conventional nursing homes, which often have waiting lists up to two years!
 
In recent decades the surrounding neighbourhood became one of the most economically disadvantaged in the city. And now some of these residents are also being forced to relocate, due to rising rent costs ie 'gentrification'.
 
Then there's the inevitable cost of maintaining and heating century old buildings. I cant imagine how many thousands of dollars were eaten up every winter month by Victoria Hall's antiquated heating system. Or how much time and expense would be involved in upgrading it.
 
Still, I'd love to believe that the building can be kept reasonable close to its original architecture, upgraded where needed, and made good use of. In the right hands there is great potential. Another irony not yet mentioned yet is that Morris House, another of Halifax's treasures, landed almost in Victoria Hall's back garden (a couple lots away across Creighton Street) at exactly the time when Victoria Hall was closing operations. I cant help wondering if there's a way to coordinate community use of both heritage buildings.
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