Special Report: Heritage

Stop Trading Our City's Future for Napkin Sketches

We can't afford a vacant lot at our most important corner, on our civic square. This affects every Hamiltonian.

By Sean Burak
Published July 08, 2013

This is what it has come to? The Gore Promenade this week will take place just steps away from the destruction of the soul of the Gore itself?

Fencing has gone up around the King Street East streetwall south of Gore Park (Image Credit: Sean Burak)
Fencing has gone up around the King Street East streetwall south of Gore Park (Image Credit: Sean Burak)

Through City Council's unwillingness to use the tools given to them by the Heritage Act, and refusal of the province to intervene, some of Canada's oldest buildings are to disappear - never to incubate another business again.

Last year, I wrote an article for Hamilton Magazine, exploring several development styles in downtown Hamilton. As part of that article, I interviewed David Blanchard.

I urge you to listen to this interview:

It is clear by his own words, they do not have a plan for that parcel. In a downtown with scores of vacant lots waiting for a saviour developer, how can any single councillor allow this - or any - demolition to occur, even if we set aside heritage values?

This is happening today. There is no time left to waffle. We can't afford a vacant lot at our most important corner, on our civic square. This affects every Hamiltonian.

Here is the "rendering" of the "proposal" for which we are allowing the destruction of Gore Park.

Rendering by David Premi Architects Inc. of a restored 18-22 King Street East facade as part of a proposed new development (Image Credit: Wilson Blanchard)
Rendering by David Premi Architects Inc. of a restored 18-22 King Street East facade as part of a proposed new development (Image Credit: Wilson Blanchard)

The image speaks for itself: this is not a plan. It's a back-of-a-napkin sketch.

The demolition must be stopped, even if temporarily - until an actual plan is presented, with building permits, financing and tenants.

Can we please stop trading our city's future for napkin sketches?

Interview Transcript

Sean Burak (SB): I was wondering if you have a couple of minutes to talk.

David Blanchard (DB): We don't have a real solid plan there, so...

SB: I'm just doing more of a general comparison of not only developments that are underway but ideas for the downtown, development in downtown Hamilton and why people are doing it - what their motivations are. I won't need anything specific, I just thought you might want to weigh in on gore park,that corner and that block and I thought it might be nice to chat with you.

DB: Sure, ask away.

SB: First of all I'm curious about what your motivation is for that specific block - why did you choose it? I imagine it's been a long process of collecting properties. What sparked that? Why downtown Hamilton?

DB: I've worked down there for over 30 years and I managed some of these buildings we own and bought them off of bigger companies over time. Other companies started to assemble and then they didn't want to do it and then we bought them out.

SB: So the initial acquisitions weren't necessarily with this big picture in mind, it just sort of came together over time?

DB: Yeah it came together. The first thing we bought was the Hong Kong Bank building. The problem with that was there was no parking. And we bought the parking lots behind, and, you know, this and that. And basically got the whole block over a few years except for two buildings.

SB: And those two... they won't be part of this development?

DB: Well we would talk with the Bank of Nova Scotia and possibly make it part of it, I mean it's up to them if they want to sell it or not - we don't need them but if they want to move, or change what they're doing, we would be interested in putting that into the package.

SB: What about timeframes - I know that you don't have a full plan laid out yet but do you have a wishful timeframe for when you'd like to see construction begin or occupancy?

DB: Well I don't even know if I'm gonna get -- you know they're going to give me trouble maybe demolishing some of that stuff. I'm not optimistic that we'll have construction let alone demolition within a long time. I mean the only reason we are doing anything now is because the interest rates are low and because those buildings have had it. They've just had it. And there's no sense spending any more money on them. They really are done.

SB: So it's basically a good time now to try and secure the financing so that when you're ready to go...

DB: Well it would be a good time to get rid of them because they are just gonna -- we can't rent them and they'll become an eyesore. So it's better to just get rid of them.

SB: So that answers my next question - why make announcements now when there's no real plan in place, but I guess the main concern is the ongoing cost of those existing buildings?

DB: Well we bought them to redevelop and the buildings are shot so if we take them down and work away at planning that's not going to be a problem because when we finally do get a plan and a tenant and financing we'll be able to go forward quickly. So why not?

SB: When you look at downtown Hamilton there's a lot of empty places where there used to be buildings, some of them nice, some of them were, i'm sure, shitholes. But do you have any concerns that if you take these buildings down (even if they are not necessarily contributing to the fabric of gore park in their current incarnation) some would say a streetwall is better than an empty lot. Do you worry about the empty lot being a long term thing? Say they come down and it takes ten years from there...

DB: No I don't want it to be ten years. I want it to be sooner than later. The economic times are such that with low interest rates like this, it makes it more reasonable to build. And I don't know if it's ever going to be this low again.

SB: And is it easier to sell to investors if you have vacant land assembled rather than land that requires demolition permits?

DB: Yeah that helps too.

SB: Another question I have is about the facing onto Gore Park. If the plan as proposed goes forward, those buildings come down and then something in its place (maybe not exactly what we saw in the renderings) goes up, how do you see that space interacting with Gore Park?

DB: We want it to work really well. We own three buildings (two big buildings and the little building on the corner across from the Hamilton Club) and all that land and the Hong Kong Bank and the Union Gas Building so we have a vested interest to make this thing really work. So we want it to enhance those properties and provide something that is missing down there. Potentially a grocery store or a target or... whatever, I don't know.

SB: Like an anchor tenant that acts as a draw?

DB: Yeah.

SB: If you picture a lot of the places that are starting to see a renaissance in downtown Hamilton, they tend to not be the megablock projects. They tend to be little pockets where the narrow century-old style of building (maybe not necessarily the old buildings themselves but the style where it's broken up into 14, 16 or 20 foot chunks) that are easy for smaller businesses to open in. Do you see a potential for that kind of development to replace those buildings? Or are you thinking that it has to be a single "large magnet" type of tenant.

DB: It has to be a large tenant because those small tenants can't afford the kind of rent that is going to have to be charged for a brand new building like that.

SB: So to cover the development costs of something at that scale you need someone who takes a large floor plan.

DB: You need a major tenant, yeah. If you had 600 little wee guys in there it just wouldn't work.

SB: From a management standpoint too I imagine...

DB: Yeah, I mean I'd rather get one cheque for 250,000 a month or something than 50, 70, 80, 200 cheques, you know?

SB: Of course. Well that gives me some perspective. I appreciate your time, thanks very much.

DB: OK Great. Bye

Sean Burak was born in Hamilton but raised elsewhere in Ontario. He returned to his birth town at the turn of the century and has never looked back. Sean is the owner of Downtown Bike Hounds.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted July 08, 2013 at 08:46:03

I think this gets to the heart of the issue. I know heritage properties are important to many folks, but my interests in it a purely aesthetic and structural - I'm more interested in the the city's stable of century-old schools with good bones and beautiful architecture than these ancient blocks. If I knew Blanchard going to tear them down and then start work on a new building with new small retail storefronts... well, as long as it looked better than that toaster-oven bank next door, I'd be happy.

But that's not what's going to happen. This is about property speculation. By tearing down these buildings he's getting out in front of any potential heritage designation in the future. He's also devaluing the neighbouring buildings with a vacant lot eyesore, allowing him to purhase them at a lower price. Eventually he'll be able to buy up a large portion of that block and build his mega-project... but the emphasis is on eventually.

To me, that problem is more important than the number of years these structures have stood. A massive pile of rubble in the heart of our city, year after year. It will hamper the downtown economy, both in terms of lost retail space in a critical location (facing the Gore Park promenade) and also in terms of an eyesore cementing downtown's "sketchy wasteland" appearance. Won't that be grand for the Pan Am Games?

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted July 08, 2013 at 10:06:38

At the very least, can the facades be duplicated, even if there is one occupancy behind what may look like 3 or so older, narrow buildings.

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By PearlStreet (registered) | Posted July 08, 2013 at 10:25:18

A Club Med for cockroaches or to revive the heart of our city in a major way. Why so much RESISTANCE TO CHANGE! Open your eyes and have some VISION! Blanchard made his money because he has vision, you all need to see it too!

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By rednic (registered) | Posted July 08, 2013 at 14:19:09 in reply to Comment 90008

Vision to to tear down a few buildings and have a whole downtown city block to sell?
I guess it's a business model it's not 'vision' as you portray it.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted July 08, 2013 at 12:03:53 in reply to Comment 90008

Look at all of the empty lots in Hamilton. These represent promises for developments that went unfulfilled. We have real development happening RIGHT NOW in buildings exactly like the ones that are at risk of coming down, meanwhile Blanchard has "no real solid plan" (his words) for those lots.

Do you support vacant lots over proven development concepts?

As for your Club Med comment, perhaps you can ask David Premi how he managed to run his architecture firm out of such a roach-infested falling down building up until a month ago.

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By brundlefly (registered) - website | Posted July 08, 2013 at 13:06:47

They sure phoned in the rendering. I'd be firing people for that calibre of photoshop.

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By byron zorzos (anonymous) | Posted July 06, 2014 at 10:47:20 in reply to Comment 90014

Alistair, We will be over-run with this type of garbage with the Design Review Committee in place. Premi - renderer of that 'back of napkin sketch" - is on that panel, and likely was instrumental in lobbying for it. He destroyed the over-priced Farmers Market/ Library project. Goes to show, if you can't make a splash elsewhere, come to Hamilton where you can dupe the small-minded Council into approving anything.
Byron

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By Conrad664 (registered) | Posted July 08, 2013 at 13:18:31

Im saying the same thing that Graham said a 3 way deal Blancard the city BIA and the peoples of the city of Hamilton ward 2 and any-other peoples who want to put the money were there mouth is

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By Connie (registered) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 17:26:54 in reply to Comment 90016

And we all share in WB's profits too?

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By Conrad664 (registered) | Posted October 25, 2013 at 08:53:11 in reply to Comment 90101

Whats with the small talk what is WB

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By BrentChislett (anonymous) | Posted July 08, 2013 at 15:07:35

It is articles like this that lead to stagnation in downtown's development. If it isn't a backwards city council, that loses progress in a complicated and lengthy process, it is citizens who believe their vision of a downtown revival is the ONLY vision worth considering. I would challenge these individuals to consider the options if it were their own development dollars being spent after a careful analysis of the costs.

Mr. Blanchard has proven himself to be a responsible developer in the past, and as one of the few willing to spend real money and make real investments in downtown revival we should be applauding his efforts. The man is not proposing another parking lot, or big box development, but high-density, mixed-use urban development.

Also, I think we should take into consideration the scale and importance of these buildings-- they are neither striking nor important Hamilton landmarks. Indeed, over the years they have been stripped and resurfaced more times than I'm sure anyone in this forum cares to recount. I'm sure the stucco and white-wash were not part of the original style, but alas they are there and I do not recall any hum-drum when these esthetic changes were made. Moreover, I did not hear cries from the streets as these buildings fell into disrepair over the years, slowly degrading to where they are today-- in need of costly repairs. Indeed, it was only when Mr. Blanchard proposed demolishing these building that anyone much cared to take notice of them; they weren't featured on any hamilton postcards, there wasn't lengthy articles about their beauty and history-- they sat there, mostly unnoticed and forgotten.

SO, today I ask the naysayers and rabble-rousers to take a moment to consider whether or not this is worth the battle. Perhaps, we should be focusing our energies on fighting landlords who own dilapated and unused properties (for which there are many). Maybe we should be urging council to adopt measures to encourage these people to recondition such properties, and adopt measures to punish the worst offenders. Perhaps we should be urging council to offer more incentives for developers to invest in Hamilton and rebates for the costs of saving heritage properties.

But alas, I doubt this will happen. I increasingly find us to be a reactive civic population... more intent on fighting battles as they arise, rather than anticipating them and proactively seeking solutions.

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By Connie (registered) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 17:40:56 in reply to Comment 90029

Yes he is proposing 'big box' type development ... eg, "a Target store" facing Gore Park. Clearly, it's appropriate that the city stepped in an HALTED DEMOLITION today.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted July 08, 2013 at 17:21:20 in reply to Comment 90029

Did you listen to the interview? There is no plan. If there was an actual development waiting to put shovels in dirt, it might be a different story.

Up until a few months ago, there were functioning businesses in those buildings - businesses kicked out by WB.

If there was a clamour for building big box main floor tenants with towers atop, any number of the pre-existing empty lots in Hamilton would be in the shadows of cranes.

Until the demand for towers is truly here, demolition is a true detriment to the real development happening right now throughout the core in existing buildings.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted July 08, 2013 at 16:49:38 in reply to Comment 90029

The man is not proposing another parking lot, or big box development, but high-density, mixed-use urban development.

Actually, he isn't proposing anything. He has no tangible plans for the property, there is no guarantee he will build what you suggest he will.

Also, I think we should take into consideration the scale and importance of these buildings-- they are neither striking nor important Hamilton landmarks.

Actually, they make up a sizable percentage of the street-wall that borders Gore park. They may not be architecturally striking or especially historical, but they have been a part of that street-wall for over a century, and they are being replaced by empty lots.

Comment edited by AnjoMan on 2013-07-08 16:57:30

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted July 08, 2013 at 16:42:22

We shouldn't forget that there are successful examples of adaptive re-use of large commercial buildings that were at one time considered "decrepit" and of no commercial value, including the Pigott building right around the corner.

The Pigott building is still standing because it was designated and then restored.

As a recent Spec article point out:

http://www.thespec.com/news-story/252536...

"The condo board members want people to realize the once derelict structure is very much back on its feet and merged with the Sun Life building next door, making 110 condos. And the residents, through the board, have made enormous improvements including $677,000 to restore the exterior, and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of work inside."

The building had been stripped of its stained glass and other features and was a prime candidate for demolition. One can also point to Sandyford Place as an example a building that has been successfully renovated, but only narrowly escaped demolition. It is in fact one of the few National Historic Sites in Hamilton, and yet the original "developer" could see no value in it.

http://www.cbc.ca/hamilton/talk/story/20...

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By Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 19:02:56 in reply to Comment 90034

Tasteful stucco accents on the parking rotunda! http://goo.gl/maps/Bsy7O

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By tenni (anonymous) | Posted July 08, 2013 at 19:06:07

I have had business interaction with David Blanchard. I found him to be a reasonable man. I was in Montreal last week and noticed at least one eight to ten story facade that was clearly from 1700 or 1800. The stone facade remained while the actual modern building was behind the facade with all the updates. Has there been any discussion or encouraging city hall to create bylaws about preserving facades of our old buildings that "have had it"?

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By vanity (anonymous) | Posted July 08, 2013 at 19:18:18

Anyone had Jeff Feswick comment on this. He said you have to find the right ear. Maybe he should call David Blanchard and show him his grand vision of Treble.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted July 11, 2013 at 10:02:50 in reply to Comment 90039

"Everybody's doing this pro bono," Feswick says. "No money is changing hands at all... The Hall is a cool place, with almost a haunted feel. The recording will be professional, but with an edge to it. Not too slick."

Feswick does want to have Treble Hall paying its own way a couple of years from now. There are the storefronts at ground level. On the second floor, with high ceilings and generous windows constructed before the lightbulb, he sees loft offices and studios. As for the third floor, site of the music sessions, he's still thinking on that.

Look up, way up, and you'll see dormers. Yes, Treble Hall has a fourth floor. "Maybe I'll live there one day," Feswick says, "king of the castle."

http://www.cbc.ca/hamilton/talk/story/2012/05/22/hamilton-treble-music-restoration-downtown.html

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted July 11, 2013 at 06:16:22 in reply to Comment 90039

The idea for the cafe/store that opens March 12 came from Micky Stanoi, his girlfriend of seven years. “When I described it to him, he said ‘do it,’” says Stanoi, who left a job as a property manager in Toronto to steer the project.... There are also empty buildings, absent landlords and a methadone clinic, but Feswick says “it’s all part of the culture of the city.”

http://www.thespec.com/living-story/2525740-treble-hall-s-windows-glow-with-life-in-revival-of-city-landmark/

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