(Sorry about the headline, readers, I couldn’t resist it.
This is a column that ran in the Times shortly after the city purchased the Royal Hotel. I’ll post my thoughts on the current situation as a reply, and I encourage you to do the same.
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell
The city may well take a financial bath on the Royal Hotel, and I know where there is a Jacuzzi big enough for council. At the same time there are some things you can’t put a price tag on.
The Royal wasn’t always the rundown behemoth it is now. Its crumbling and decrepit façade was once the pride of the region, a landmark reflecting the architecture of the reign of Napoleon III in France.
The Royal began as The Royal Excelsior in 1850, and changed to New Royal in 1881, and finally The Royal in 1888.
During the 1950’s and 60’s the Royal was a mainstay for blue collar workers. Mill workers flocked there for lunch and to cash their pays. The weekends were country music, draught beer and dancing.
In the late 80’s the decline of industry near downtown was the beginning of the end for the Royal.
The latest owners, John and Connie Areias, bought the Royal in 1997 and immediately began renovations to return some of its old grandeur. Most people thought it was a joke when they saw “Honeymoon Suite” advertised on the hotel’s cargo van, but in reality it was Arias’ dream. Beneath the tower hid a magnificent room replete with the aforementioned Jacuzzi, matching purple toilet and bidet, and a plush double bed under a large chandelier. Mirrors lined the walls, stairwell and ceiling. Areias spent $29,000 for the mirrors alone.
Sadly, the dreams reflected in the honeymoon suite came crashing into the reality of the streets below. Prostitution and crack cocaine infested the hotel. The police had to do nightly walks through the building. “Crime at the Royal” became a news staple. Safety inspectors called it “an imminent danger to the public and residents.” Police heard rumours someone planned to torch the building.
Ward 4 councilor Ben Tucci did a 2 a.m. walkthrough with the police. “It was death waiting to happen,” Tucci tells me, “and not just the residents. “Police, firefighters…anyone who entered the buildingwas in danger.”
Tucci sounded the alarm and City council dipped into its industrial land reserves (instead of using general tax revenues) to buy the Royal for $650,000. Residents were found other shelter. The building has sat vacant since, at a cost of about $5000 per month for security.
“That building was costing the region a million dollars a year to police,” Dennis Copeland, owner of Giant Tiger, is quoted as saying. “Was it a proactive thing for the city to buy it and leave it empty? The answer is still yes. As a business person, that was the best thing I ever saw the city do for the core.”
Copeland tells me of his own tour of the building, of seeing the floor of one room strewn with used syringes. “What if one of my kids (employees) pricked themselves taking the garbage out?”
‘Nuff said. No price can be put on human life. In my opinion, council made the right move. The only question that remains is “wreck or renovate?” It would be nice to see the exterior saved somehow, even if it means taking a further loss. The city has already taken a bath, what are a few more drops?
Note to Council: I know where you can get a purple Jacuzzi for civic square real cheap for future baths.