02/12/2013 07:41 EST | Updated 04/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Historic Préfontaine Centre demolished to make way for condos

Demolition crews have begun tearing down the historic Préfontaine Centre in Montreal's Rosemont district, after engineers found it too badly damaged to be saved.

Conceptions Rachel Julien Inc., the property development company that recently acquired the site on Rachel Street East, had planned to restore the original building and incorporate it into a condominium complex.

Company president Denis Robitaille said demolishing the 127-year-old building — once a hospital for smallpox patients — had not been part of the plan.

"We had to get engineers in the building, and they finally decided it was too dangerous for us to work inside," said Robitaille.

The developer said he and his team still hope to save the building's façade.

A squatters' haven

The building, long owned by the City of Montreal, had sat abandoned for years.

It gained notoriety in 2001, when the former mayor of Montreal, Pierre Bourque, invited squatters upset by the lack of affordable housing in Montreal to take up residence on the premises. They were kicked out by police not long after.

The Montreal bureaucrat in charge of real estate transactions, Michel Nadeau, said the deteriorating building had "low architectural value," and the city simply doesn't have the funds to save every building.

"When you don't have all the money you wish you had, you have to decide where you're going to invest," Nadeau said. "Obviously services to our citizens [are] our foremost occupation. This building was not in that scope."

The policy director of Heritage Montreal, Dinu Bumbaru, blames the city's neglect of the 19th century building for its state of disrepair and says it shows a need for better management of heritage buildings.

"How come a property that was in city hands for so many years was left to decay?" Bumbaru asked.

He said what happened to the Préfontaine Centre does not bode well for other Victorian hospitals that are destined to be vacated when the two new university super-hospitals are completed.

"We hope it's not the path that the Royal Vic or Hotel Dieu [is] going to follow, because it would be a shame for Montreal," he said.