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Saint John Tool Library chooses structure for next community build

WATCH: A vacant building in Saint John’s north end will be gutted and restored.

The Saint John Tool Library has announced its next community build.

On the weekend of Sept. 13 to 15, volunteers will gut the building at 96 Victoria St. in the city’s old north end. As part of the project, which is in partnership with the Saint John Land Bank and ONE Change, the vacant building will be stripped to its bones to see if it can be salvaged and eventually transformed into a residential property.

The library is looking for 40 volunteers for that weekend.

“Our part, for sure, is like a labour bank,” said Tool Library founder Brent Harris.

“We’ve been good at mobilizing volunteers that want to get their hands dirty in the community and who want to own the development of the city. We can’t wait for somebody to come and save us with these buildings — we really do have to try and take care of it ourselves.”

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READ MORE: Saint John throwing away ‘millions’ through demolition instead of deconstruction, former heritage planner says

The Saint John Land Bank has been acquiring buildings along the same stretch of Victoria Street, which is home to a large concentration of abandoned buildings and has seen its fair share of fires, including one building across the street that burned down last winter. The hope is to one day revitalize a large portion of the street, and 96 Victoria St. will act as a test to see if some of these buildings can be saved.

Harris says that from what he’s seen of the building, it can likely be saved but that his organization won’t know for sure until it’s gutted.

“The only thing we don’t know so far is if it’s salvageable. Based on an outside inspection and what we can see of the inside, it looks like it is, but, of course, you never know till it’s ripped back to the bare bones,” Harris said of the structure.

“There’s no sagging floors, really, and it still looks fairly plumb for a 100-year-old building, and when we got inside, there’s just a lot of garbage, a lot of stuff left behind. The animals have gotten in there and made a mess, but there doesn’t seem to be any water damage so that tells us the roof is probably OK.”

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Harris says he hopes the library can partner with the Land Bank in the long term to begin turning some of these old buildings back into livable units.

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“When the Tool Library started, we didn’t just set out here’s what we need to break even and make it financially, we also set out impact goals. Some of those impact goals were stuff like fixing up 100 broken windows and 100 broken doors,” he said.

“It was an obvious partnership for the Tool Library and the community build project because we were just starting to get our feet under us. We don’t have funding streams, we’ve only been around for a year, we don’t have a lot of major partnerships yet, and they’ve sort of stepped out and done a lot of research already.”

READ MORE: ‘Do you see it as an asset or a liability?’ — Saint John mulls future of vacant north-end houses

It’s exactly the type of partnership that heritage salvage expert Jim Bezanson would like to see more often. A former heritage planner for the City of Saint John, Bezanson says the current city approach of tearing down vacant buildings and hoping developers will start from scratch isn’t working.

“For 50 years, we’ve been trying this, and it has not worked so let’s try a slightly different approach,” he said.

“It’s high time for a new approach so let’s not tear it down. Let’s rework it, upgrade it, get the thermal performance, meet the environmental requirements, reuse, recycle, repurpose, rather than demolish.”

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