The Board of Education and the City of Hamilton consider squandering heritage and vision for expediency.
By Graham Crawford
Published December 13, 2010
Okay, so the stadium didn't end up in the west harbour. The current buzz I hear is it won't end up anywhere. We're still playing a game of "Guess the Budget" for the Longwood site, and the guesses are getting pretty high. As the circus in the west end continues its run, let's all turn our attention to yet another circus that's also in town.
According to the Spectator, the Board of Education has initiated discussions with the City of Hamilton and McMaster University to sell its downtown site to them for the Braley-sponsored family medical centre they said would be built at Innovation Park.
Located there, one presumes it would have catered to families who drive cars, or who don't mind taking their kids on very long walks, since the MIP site is hardly a public transit hub.
This news item raises a couple of concerns for me.
One - what will happen to the Joe Singer-designed Board of Education building?
Two - what impact will an office building, and its related surface parking, have on our vision for the West Harbour lands the City assembled?
First, a declared bias. I'm a self-confessed heritage proponent. I value our built heritage as much as I do our social heritage. I embrace the symbolism of civic architecture. Of what it says about the people who chose to build it the way they did, when they did.
The Board of Education building is part of our built and social heritage. To say, "They don't build them like that anymore," is to state the obvious. Joe Singer, a still living Hamilton architect, chose to make a statement about the place learning had in our society.
From its classical Greek allusions, to its pride of place across from our seat of government and next to our Art Gallery and citizen-owned theatre, to its use of timeless and elegant materials of marble and copper, to its evocative statuary, to what it said about Hamilton as the Ambitious City when it was constructed in 1967, the year of Canada's 100th birthday - all contribute to the messages this building expresses so eloquently, that learning is important and education is at the heart of all we do.
Some may remember the debate that took place in early 2008 when the Board of Education first suggested the building was no longer suitable for their needs. Their plan? Although nothing was finalized, it looked as if they were willing to tear it down to make way for "progress".
If you saw the architectural renderings for what kind of progress they had in mind, you would have been permitted to question just how educated our educators were, at least in terms of quality of design and value of built heritage.
Mercifully, for a host of good and bad reasons, the discussions with McMaster broke down and nothing was done. In my admittedly biased heritage opinion, that breakdown had one positive result. We didn't tear down the Education Centre!
Let's fast forward a couple of years to today.
The City of Hamilton, in what later became a misguided belief their partner, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, was on side to build a stadium in the West Harbour, strong-armed the Hamilton Future Fund Board to commit $60 million of Future Fund money, some of which would be used to assemble a parcel of land in the West Harbour.
They used Future Fund money to acquire defunct and healthy businesses, as well as occupied homes. What you see now are vacant and boarded up properties. What you don't see is a stadium.
To see the stadium, you'd have to look skyward because apparently only God knows where, or even whether, it will it be built.
Now that the City of Hamilton has assembled land in the West Harbour for which they have no immediate use, they've been busy talking to the Board of Education about buying the land. It seems our City Manager, Chris Murray, can't get this parcel of land off the books fast enough.
First, he said he wanted to tear down the Rheem building ASAP to show Hamilton was ready for development. Now, he wants to cut a deal to put a single-purpose office building on prime harbour-side land.
I've got one word for Mr. Murray. Vision! As in, where is your vision? I fear a quick sale may have more to do with providing a fast few million dollars to help offset rising projected costs for the Ti-Cat stadium than it does with real fiscal responsibility.
I'm worried. The reasons, perhaps, are obvious. We vacate a grand and elegant heritage building and let it be torn down and replaced with a generic piece of architecture.
You know the kind - a glass box with a clumsily designed protrusion at or near the entrance that purports to be a design statement. Look at the renderings if you're not yet feeling my pain.
As if that weren't egregious enough, we propose to take precious public land on our magnificent harbour and squander it on a generic office building with attached on-site parking that will be empty on weekends and every night after 5 PM.
Like I said, vision! As in, where is it?
What's my recommendation? Well, I'd start by recommending we take a breath. That we look not at a short-term sale, but instead at a long-term vision. We've already spent the money to acquire the land - "we" being every single citizen in this city.
While I don't want the site to sit vacant for the next 20 years any more than do City Manager Chris Murray or Mayor Bob Bratina, I recommend we focus on articulating a long-term vision for this remarkably precious harbour-side parcel of land.
A vision for the acres of land that overlook our harbour. A vision for the acres of land that connect the harbour to our urban core. A vision which honours this and every future generation of Hamiltonians.
At the moment, that vision appears to be an office building. Really? Why?
Many people loved it. Others didn't. But the common ground for all was that this was an opportunity for Hamilton to do something really important, something lasting as part of the continued redevelopment of our harbour.
People told me they could indeed "see it." What they didn't see was an office building. What they did see was a place for all citizens. Some would live there. Some would play there. Some would do business there. Some would just visit and enjoy.
Once again, Hamilton looks like it might select the "lowest and worst use" choice from a list of "highest and best use" options. Expediency kills greatness. Expediency kills spirit. Expediency kills hope. And vision. And we're about to do it again.
Let's stop lowering our goals, silently. Instead, let's demand excellence, loudly.
Let's tell our councillors and our bureaucrats that we do in fact "see it." Let's tell them we are able to see greatness, even if they see only mediocrity. Let's tell them that we see and are inspired by the forest, not just the trees.
And based on past experience, let's be sure to tell them forcefully and often.
As Pier Giorgio Di Cocco, Toronto's Poet Laureate, said so poignantly when speaking at an event in Hamilton, "Our city is a poem we are all writing."
Please, together let's make sure the next few verses in the evolving poem we call Hamilton are as eloquent as we are capable of writing. Let's be sure our love for our city drives us to demand excellence.
Let's not allow those for whom expediency is the measure of success dim our vision.
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