Heritage advocates argue that the latest crisis for the Gore buildings highlights the need to designate them under the Ontario Heritage Act.
By Ryan McGreal
Published July 22, 2013
Last Friday, the demolition of 18-28 King Street East began. However, after an emergency 3:00 PM meeting between Councillor Jason Farr, Councillor Brian McHattie and Robert Miles, a representative of Wilson-Blanchard, the demolition was halted and the "confusion" behind it was cleared up.
Fencing around Gore streetwall
In a Friday afternoon phone interview, Councillor Farr said the issue was that Ed VanderWindt, the City's chief building official, had sent Wilson-Blanchard a notice that the demolition permit was going to expire on July 25.
Wilson-Blanchard responded to what Farr called a "miscommunication from the building department" by initializing the demolition "to show that there has been commencement of some progress of a demolition within that time frame." This is because a demolition permit does not expire if the property owner can show that the demolition has commenced before the expiry date.
In an update on the situation, Farr added that he had not included the building department at his earlier meeting with Wilson-Blanchard, in which they reached an agreement to hold off on demolishing the buildings.
Farr said that City inspectors had already entered 18-22 and "concluded that there has been commencement so the permit won't expire on the 25th." According to Farr, the reason Wilson-Blanchard wants to maintain the demolition permit is to carry out its plan to demolish the rear portions of the buildings and preserve the fronts.
He also confirmed, "The bulldozer is leaving or has left the site" and no actual demolition has taken place. Wilson-Blanchard is still committed to an independent review of its engineering report on the buildings and an agreement to meet and engage the community on their future, as well as a meeting with heritage staff.
Asked whether he thinks Council may become more receptive to the idea of designating heritage buildings under the Ontario Heritage Act, Farr said, "Up to now, Council has been responsive and willing to work on this issue. After today, my colleagues deserve to be updated on what's going on" before any other response is considered.
He expressed frustration with the "ad-hoc" manner in which the City treats threatened buildings with heritage value. "Why wasn't the Gore designated as a heritage district in the '80s or even '70s?" He noted that the City's Downtown Hamilton Built Heritage Inventory Study is an attempt to take a more comprehensive, proactive approach to heritage buildings.
Acknowledging that Council has not designated any buildings in years, Farr concluded, "Maybe an incident like this may help them to appreciate [heritage] more."
Despite relief that the demolitions are on hold again, heritage advocates maintain that the drama and uncertainty over the buildings is needless and that this latest crisis highlights, once again, the necessity to designate the buildings under the Ontario Heritage Act.
Kieran Dickson, Vice-President of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario (ACO), appealed to Councillor Farr on Saturday:
[T]he events of the past 24 hours have highlighted the volatility of the situation and the immediacy of the threat of demolition. [...] Heritage designation of these buildings under the Ontario Heritage Act is long overdue and I will ask that you please support the requests for Minister Chan to take the appropriate steps in this regard.
Dickson also noted that Wilson-Blanchard had agreed to revoke the demolition permit for 18-22 King Street East under an original compromise agreement in Janury, but still has not done so.
Richard Longley, president of the (ACO), stressed the point that the developer does not need to choose between heritage preservation and profitability:
Far from being detrimental to the as yet undetermined plans of Wilson Blanchard or to the economy, culture and creativity of Gore Park (or to Gore Park's much needed revitalization) ACO is convinced that saving these buildings will prove to be a tremendous asset to both, the city and those who would develop it, in all respects.
Council has not taken any steps to designate the buildings, and heritage advocates continue to appeal to Michael Chan, Ontario Minister of Tourism and Culture, to intervene to protect the buildings. On Friday Afternoon, Councillor Sam Merulla added his voice to the call in an email:
We in the City of Hamilton, are urgently requesting your intervention on the Hamilton Gore Park demolition.
I implore you to take sage action in an attempt to help City Council help assist in a plan to preserve the building in question at the Gore.
I trust you will act accordingly and I thank you in advance.
So far, Minister Chan has refused to get involved, noting that Council already has the legislative tools it needs to designate the buildings municipally.
In an email response to a call for Provincial intvolvement, Liberal MPP Ted McMeekin of Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale wrote, "The province is looking to the city to resolve the issues ... which, as noted, it has the authority to do."
McMeekin expressed deep reluctance to "bypass City Council and all of its authorities" under the Heritage Act, but the Heritage Act grants distinct powers to both the City and the Province to designate a building as a municipal or provincial property. The Act defines a separate list of criteria to determine whether a building qualifies for provincial designation.
If the Province intervenes, it will not "supersede specific and set out municipal authority", as McMeekin wrote. Far from it: the Province will be acting entirely within its rights under the Act to defend an important piece of unquestionable provincial heritage from the threat of demolition that still hangs over it.
It is certainly not the case that the Province should be absolved of its responsibility to protect heritage simply because Council has not carried out its responsibility either. The Act defines two tiers of legislative powers precisely to forestall the threat of cascading neglect.
There is even a local precedent for politicians asking the Province to step in and act where Council will not. After Council voted to grant a demolition permit for the Lister Building in 2006, Councillor McHattie appealed to then-Minister Caroline Di Cocco to save the building.
The Province did not designate the building under the Act despite a report recommending designation, but it did intervene to establish a last-ditch working group and contribute $7 million toward an agreement to save the building.