It's great that we want to preserve the friezes on 150 Main Street West, but what about the building itself?
By Ryan McGreal
Published February 11, 2011
this article has been updated
We're not seriously going to sit back and watch yet another in a long, ignoble line of heritage buildings get demolished in the name of narrow expediency ... are we?
We already have decades of clear evidence supporting a strong preference for adaptive reuse of existing buildings over demolition, particularly in structurally sound, architecturally significant buildings like the Fed.
This isn't a business vs. heritage argument. Heritage buildings have tangible value for economic uplift, and adaptive reuse confers real net efficiencies and benefits.
Former Revenue Canada Building at Main and Caroline
After the recent annoucement by property developer Darko Vranich that he plans to demolish the former Revenue Canada building at 150 Main Street West (at Caroline St.), the cry went up about Hamilton artist Elizabeth Holbrook's six bas-relief sculptures that adorn the building's facade.
It's great that we want to preserve the friezes - and that Vranich seems willing to allow this to happen - but what about the building itself?
The building is beautiful, structurally sound, emblematic of its time and a good candidate for adaptive reuse. In the hands of an imaginative developer, the L-shaped lee of the building would be perfect for a striking slender tower.
Revenue Canada building view from behind
Vranich has owned the old building since he bought it from the Federal Government in 2004 for $1.2 million, stating his plan to convert it into a condominium with 170 or 180 units.
Vranich quickly submitted plans and a request for $4 million in funding through the Downtown Residential Loan Program. The City approved the request for a conditional loan in September 2004. It sat on the Residential Loan Program books as an as-yet unfunded, pending development project for the next four years.
In late 2006, Vranich applied to the City's "Enterprise Zone Municipal Realty Tax Incentive Grant Program", an incentive program that essentially returns the increased tax assessment on a renovated downtown property back to the owner for several years. For condo developments, the developer is allowed to pass the tax grant onto the buyers of the individual condo units.
In 2008, four years after Vranich bought the building, the City canceled the Downtown Residential Loan offer "due to the owner not proceeding with the residential development project".
In 2009, Vranich applied for a grant through the Canada-Ontario Affordable Housing Program 2009 Extension to build affordable housing in the old Revenue Canada building, but the application did not pass the program's eligibility criteria.
In May 2008, the OPP filed criminal charges against Gord Moodie, the head of the City's Downtown Residential Loan Program, for allegedly accepting a $5,000 bribe from Darko's son Denis on behalf of the elder Vranich.
The alleged bribe was in the form of a check dated November 11, 2005 from the Gown and Gavel Restaurant, a Hess Village pub that Vranich co-owned. The OPP indicated their belief that the cheque was a kickback for considering the municipal loan for the Revenue Canada building.
Denis Vranich and Gord Moodie were both charged under Section 123 of the Criminal Code, which reads:
(1) Every one is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years who directly or indirectly gives, offers or agrees to give or offer to a municipal official or to anyone for the benefit of a municipal official - or, being a municipal official, directly or indirectly demands, accepts or offers or agrees to accept from any person for themselves or another person - a loan, reward, advantage or benefit of any kind as consideration for the official
(a) to abstain from voting at a meeting of the municipal council or a committee of the council;
(b) to vote in favour of or against a measure, motion or resolution;
(c) to aid in procuring or preventing the adoption of a measure, motion or resolution; or
(d) to perform or fail to perform an official act.
Influencing municipal official
(2) Every one is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years who influences or attempts to influence a municipal official to do anything mentioned in paragraphs (1)(a) to (d) by
(a) suppression of the truth, in the case of a person who is under a duty to disclose the truth;
(b) threats or deceit; or
(c) any unlawful means.
In September 2009, Superior Court Justice James Ramsay dismissed the charge against Moodie, concluding Moodie did not qualify as a "municipal official" under the Criminal Code but was merely a municipal employee.
Section 123 defines a "municipal official" as:
a member of a municipal council or a person who holds an office under a municipal government.
By this time, Moodie was no longer working for the City. He was fired in April 2009, after he pleaded guilty to impaired driving and driving with a suspended licence. It was his second drunk driving offence.
At the time of his second arrest, he was driving a vehicle registered to Vrancor Real Estate Corp, a development company owned by Denis Vranich.
The old Revenue Canada building has sat derelict and undeveloped throughout all these affairs.
For several years, it has been on the radar of the Municipal Heritage Committee (LACAC) for years, identified as a Building of Concern.
In March 2008, the Heritage Committee noticed that in addition to the graffiti and broken windows, the building was now being used to store furniture and mattresses, which were propped up against the window.
Committee member Michael Adkins and then-Ward 2 Councillor Bob Bratina notified the City's Property Standards office about the building's apparent use as a furniture warehouse. By the end of the year, the building had been secured at street level but was still being used to store mattresses.
Finally, in August 2009 the City levied a $10,500 fine for violating the Ontario Fire Code. The office building was not coded as a warehouse, and the sprinkler system was not operational.
Meanwhile, in March 2009 Vranich installed a new parking kiosk near George St.
In June 2010, a proposal was floated to designate the six sculptures on the building as protected heritage features.
In July, the Heritage Committee noted that it was impossible to see into the building to assess whether it was being used to store materials that "may endanger the heritage assets of the building" and moved to ask City staff to investigate.
In August 2010, Vranich claimed that he would start developing the block framed by Main, Bay, King and Caroline if the City went ahead with a West Harbour stadium.
However, the City ultimately committed to a partial rebuild of Ivor Wynne Stadium instead of a new stadium at the West Harbour.
Now Vrancor intends to demolish the building at 150 Main West, ostensibly to build a 140 unit, 20-storey condominium on the site.
The Municipal Heritage Committee submitted a recommendation to the Planning Committee on February 1, 2011 to designate 150 Main Street West as a Municipal Heritage building under the Ontario Heritage Act. They cited the following heritage criteria:
Thanks to the intrepid, tireless volunteers at Citizens at City Hall (CATCH), you can read a full transcript of the Planning Committee meeting.
Tim McCabe, the Director of Planning and Economic Development, noted that the recommendation was "done as a rush to stop a demolition permit that is before us" and argued that issuing a notice to designate "at the ninth hour" would provide "uncertainty to our investment community".
At the Committee meeting, Councillor Terry Whitehead pointed out that the Federal Government sold the property to Vranich along with a covenant committing the owner to "conserve, protect and maintain the heritage features and characteristics" of the building and "not to raze to the ground or otherwise demolish the entire building located on the lands."
Vranich signed the covenant when he bought the property.
Asked directly about this covenant, McCabe said that the covenant is between Vranich and the Federal Government and it is not the City's job to enforce it.
Councillor Whitehead asked whether the City has an "ethical responsibility" to inform the Federal Government about Vranich's intent to demolish the building.
Lisa Pasternak from the City's Legal department responded that the Feds could be involved "informally" if "there was a desire to get them involved", but that the Covenant "can't affect [Vranich's] building code process".
The Committee voted against the Heritage Committee's recommendation to designate the building and agreed to issue the demolition permit.
The next day, Government Services Canada sent a leter to Vranich stating that the building cannot be demolished.
The letter, written by Robert Brick, states:
Please be reminded that the Government of Canada sold the property with a covenant that runs with the land in perpetuity which, in addition to protecting certain designated features and facades, requires that you and subsequent purchasers not 'raze to the ground or otherwise demolish the entire building'.
It adds that the Federal Government will ask the City to refuse the demolition permit request.
150 Main West, view from southeast
Vranich also owns the property just east of the old Revenue Canada building, the site of the old Hamilton Motor Products (HMP) automobile dealership at Main and Bay, which was constructed in 1911 and expanded in 1917-18. (HMP moved to a new dealership at Rymal Rd. and Hwy. 20, but General Motors decided in May 2009 not to renew its sales and service contract as part of a major restructuring.)
Council granted Vranich permission to demolish the building in October 2007 and it was demolished in November in November 2007, ostensibly to make room for a 15-story Hilton Homewood Suites hotel. That has not happened.
According to Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr in an email to RTH, "I have been told by Vrancor the project (ultimately five major projects in one) will be breaking ground very soon."
Farr, who held a press conference with Vranich on February 11 in regards to preserving the bas-relief friezes, concluded:
My intent was to save the Friezes and encourage positive growth in our core. The Vrancor Group have told me they are committed to on both fronts. I am hopeful we (all of us) will be satisfied with the results.
Vranich is apparently negotiating with the Federal Government.
Update: This article originally stated that Vrancor owns the site of an illegal parking lot at the corner of Main Street and Bay Street. This is incorrect: the HMP site, at 132 Main Street West, is an L-shaped lot that wraps to the east and north of the parking lot at the corner, which is at 114 Main Street West and is not owned by Vrancor. RTH regrets the error.