Architect didn’t want parking on Elliot Lake mall roof

ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. – The owner of the doomed Algo Centre Mall insisted on the novel idea of putting a parking deck above the shopping centre despite the reservations of the building’s architect, a public inquiry heard Monday.

James Keywan, who designed the shopping centre, told the hearing into the deadly collapse of the garage that the owner-developer decided rooftop parking was the cheapest option.

“I’m very uncomfortable with that because there’s retail space below,” Keywan testified at the inquiry into the collapse last June that killed two women.

“I had never done it. It’s not a common thing to do.”

During at times testy exchanges, the architect said it was the late Nick Hirt, vice-president of mall owner Algocen Realty, who made the decision to put parking above the retail space.

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Keywan, 87, said he expressed his concerns and went through several options with Hirt – all of which were rejected as impractical or too costly.

It was difficult to build underground parking given the rock on which the mall was being constructed in 1979, there was no useful land nearby, and there was no space for a garage tower.

Hirt, who was an engineer and experienced developer, concluded it was “absolutely necessary” to have rooftop parking, Keywan said.

“I was concerned because I didn’t know anything about it and I didn’t know anybody who knew anything about it.”

Testifying via videolink from Hamilton, Keywan said he suggested to Hirt they should build the mall in such a way as to allow for future construction of a roof over the garage.

Another option, he proposed, was to allow for building more retail space above the parking deck.

“He agreed with me on all these points, but the cost would have been too high,” Keywan said. “I can’t spend his money.”

Hirt told Keywan that a firm with a strong reputation – Michigan-based Harry S. Peterson Co. – had assured him it could waterproof the roof deck using a new, cheaper approach.

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Keywan accepted no responsibility for the waterproofing. He said he assumed Hirt did due diligence on the system and never tracked the terrible leaking that beset the building – dubbed by some residents as “Algo Falls.”

“I didn’t design any leaks,” Keywan said.

Asked if the now-retired architect would have designed something unsafe just because the owner demanded it, Keywan was indignant.

“Absolutely not, not, not,” Keywan responded.

“I can be concerned about any building I designed. If its not taken care of, it will fall down and kill somebody.”

Keywan insisted he adhered to the Ontario building code as his “bible,” and believed everything was done to code, although he admitted that was essentially an assumption.

Ultimately, he signed off on the project on Hirt’s say-so, without seeing or inspecting the building himself, he said.

Commission counsel Bruce Carr-Harris seemed incredulous the architect did not do more to protect himself from legal ramifications by satisfying himself the work had been done properly.

“It may be lawyer talk, but it’s not architect-client talk,” Keywan said.

In cross-examination, he said he was aware of problems during construction – including that beams weren’t vertical – but said he left it to others to fix the problem.

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“My dear sir, I wasn’t going to lean against the column and straighten it,” he said.

“The people who knew what they were doing did it.”

The architect said he thought it a “very good-looking building” although he said he never saw it completed.

At the start of her testimony late Monday, the town’s former chief librarian said the library ended up moving to the mall because the location it was in was “not physically safe.”

There was a lot of leaking, Barbara Fazekas testified.

“This has been my career,” she said ruefully.

In the fall of 1989, the library moved into the Algo Centre, despite trepidation among board members aware of the mall’s water problems.

Still, with the city paying the freight, the library became a mall anchor tenant on a 20-year lease.

Fazekas continues testifying on Tuesday.

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