Opinion

Heritage Designation for St. Giles a Bad Idea for the Neighbourhood

New Vision United Church carries on the life of St. Giles United Church. New Vision believes heritage designation for the former St. Giles building is a bad idea for our neighbourhood.

By Rev Ian Sloan
Published July 05, 2018

Re: St. Giles Church Threatened With Demolition

St. Giles Church, Main Street East and Holton Avenue South (RTH file photo)
St. Giles Church, Main Street East and Holton Avenue South (RTH file photo)

New Vision United Church is coming back into the neighbourhood of the former St. Giles United Church. Over the last four years, the former St. Giles congregation and former Centenary congregation (24 Main Street West) have been developing and nurturing a vision of a new presence in the lower city. That's us, New Vision. We think of the time we have spent as consolidation, discernment, getting going.

As a faith community we have limited resources. We also have a huge commitment to heritage. Our faith is passed on from generation to generation. It hurts us that the things we cherish and help us to practice our faith like our buildings and their contents are beyond our capacity to maintain. At the same time, new opportunities and calls to community service and care are before us.

New Vision has dedicated itself to a mission of social cohesion - of finding ways to create relationships that are reciprocal, mutual, and life-giving between those who experience and are oppressed by the dominant culture's fears and those who live in safety and privilege within the dominant culture.

We seek to be a safe community for the LGBTQ2S community, we seek to live in the uncomfortable place on the margins, where oppressions include systemic racism, ableism, misogyny, in order to expand the influence of grace in those margins and develop new productivity, self-worth and love.

New Vision United Church carries on the work of the former St. Giles United Church. Rather than New Vision (St. Giles) having left the community, it is far more accurate to say that the neighbourhood community left St. Giles. Declining participation rates there made obsolete the economic model that supported buildings like 85 Holton Avenue South.

While it is painful to have to point beyond the local community and local impact to help illustrate this, the dilemmas New Vision has faced and is facing with the former St. Giles United Church are being played out across Canada.

The congregation of New Vision United Church cares deeply about the outcomes on the lands at 85 Holton Avenue South. It has worked exhaustively to determine a feasible future for them. After four years of intensive soul-searching and research, it concluded that the current building is not a good community fit anymore for the lands.

New Vision took the difficult step, though right step, to apply for a demolition permit for the building. It did this knowing that the City requirements to issue a demolition permit include a review by the City Planning Department's Heritage Planner.

Because New Vision values its heritage - Christian communities like New Vision have been around for something like 400 years in Canada - we are not surprised that the Heritage Planner would feel the building had heritage designation attributes. Yet we and the Hamilton Municipal Heritage Committee do not see eye to eye on a heritage designation. The problem lies in the Ontario Heritage Act.

Property owners of places of worship such as New Vision know how insensitive the Ontario Heritage Act is to the practitioners of religious faith. I am aware of at least once congregation in Hamilton hamstrung by the Act. They have a building that they cannot make accessible. The heritage designation overrides their manifest interest as a Christian faith community. Their hands are tied.

In general, the Heritage Designation processes, by which property owners are required to submit every initiative with respect to any part of the building that carries the heritage designation, is lengthy, costly, and from the many examples I have heard of, arbitrary.

A municipal heritage committee has no accountability regarding the costs of preserving the features they decide are to be designated. Grants which may be available with heritage designation are woefully inadequate. Faith communities consequently find themselves tied to these buildings like indentured servants - directed by the state as to what they can and can't do in practicing their faith.

Perhaps in an age when Christian communities of faith dominated the social order, a Heritage Act that tells the people who own and operate these buildings what they can and can't do might have had some validity. But New Vision does not dominate the social order any more than Christianity does now, and the issue at hand has become one of the protection of faith practitioners' human rights as a basis for a tolerant and civil society. New Vision wants the community to know all this.

The Ontario Heritage Act provides nine categories for evaluation of cultural heritage significance of any building. A municipal heritage committee needs only to identify a building as falling into one of the nine categories for the building to be considered by them worthy of heritage designation.

The result of this "glass bowl" approach to buildings when they are owned by church-going people is that every one of their buildings can be considered heritage. Churches have been at the centre of a social order that is passing and gone. It is understandable that we humans would try to create museums to remind us of that social order.

If everything is heritage, however, then nothing is. With limited resources, churches have to throw their hands up. The economic models that supported these buildings are gone. There are few resources to maintain them. They are very expensive. The consequence for the community is that no one wins. So a good decision about the future of a building like 85 Holton Avenue South comes down to a decision based on more criteria than the Ontario Heritage Act allows municipal heritage committees to consider.

This is the process of decision-making New Vision initiated when it applied for a demolition permit for 85 Holton Avenue South. We are convinced there is some better use for these lands, and to get there, we rightfully have to go through the community discernment work concerning what is best.

We have invited that by applying for the demolition permit. To be clear, we have invited that consultation with the community from the position of our faith convictions. This building is not a fit anymore with the owners' vision, and we own it out of our religious convictions. We expect the community to respect this.

One of those convictions is that such a place of worship like St. Giles should not be adapted to luxury condos. This is about the only alternative use available that might be feasible. New Vision has looked into this, and seen that even this is a marginal possibility given all the factors involved.

New Vision has not sold the building and the lands. A heritage designation might force us to. In this case, a developer might indeed assert as part of a purchase and sale that they were going to build luxury condos and preserve the exterior of the building.

After the sale, they may do a proper building audit, and crunch the numbers, only to find that it is not feasible, and come forward with a plan that reduces the heritage element to a mere gesture. New Vision would be deeply offended by that. But before even that, New Vision finds the prospect of luxury condos abhorrent to its religious vision.

Hence, its application for a demolition permit, as the first step in its engagement with the community about the next use of these significant lands in the heart of a neighbourhood we hold dear to our heart. One has only to read five-generation member Dan Peace's thoughts and feelings in the recent Jeff Mahoney column in the Hamilton Spectator to learn that.

It is still early days. No developer is going seriously to enter into dialogue and negotiation with us until we have had the heritage designation issue resolved. Our vision for the lands is purpose-built rental housing in the mid-market range. Mid-market rental housing is in a crisis in Hamilton and in Ward 3. The need is significant. So that is where we begin our conversations with the community.

I conclude by observing that, if we choose to retain any elements of the building at present on the lands at 85 Holton, it will be out of our convictions about how to symbolize to the community the freedom and love that building has expressed. We will do that because of who we are. No municipal heritage committee can tell us what we need to do to live out these elements of our faith.

New needs that can be met through new developments on these lands at 85 Holton are in front of us. We are excited by the prospects and possibilities, and look forward to engaging with the community about them.

Rev Ian Sloan is minister of New Vision United Church, and a resident of Ward 3.

20 Comments

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By andrew.martin (registered) | Posted July 05, 2018 at 10:14:16

"No developer is going seriously to enter into dialogue and negotiation with us until we have had the heritage designation issue resolved."

Have you even tried? This article is a long meander through congregational history with a frisson of human rights somehow linked to a statute of general application that prejudices the church about as much as the highway traffic act does. Does the church also lament the zoning by-law and official plan? Is the church opposed to the municipal act? All of these acts also limit what the church can do with its lands. How does the church reconcile the prejudice of the heritage act with the benefits given to churches through the assessment act? And yet after all that, it doesn't seem like the church has done a single investigation into all of the designated churches that have been repurposed. Nor has the church apparently considered the development of the site as a mixed use building with rental housing. Hidden under all this seems to be basically the same concern every other developer has with heritage: that it makes things really complicated, a little more expensive, and how dare the government tell me what to do with my land. Guess what? That's called planning. Hire a planner or partner with a developer. This isn't 1990. That stretch of Main is going to absolutely take off in the next few decades and where the church sees impediment they should see opportunity.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted July 05, 2018 at 13:38:35 in reply to Comment 123224

Have you even tried?

Read the article. After four years of research the only possible use they found that could preserve the exterior of the building is conversion to luxury condos. But that is not an acceptable use. "New Vision finds the prospect of luxury condos abhorrent to its religious vision."

Selling the building "as is" means that they have no further control over it. And a subsequent buyer could convert the building to luxury condos. The only way to prevent that is to demolish the building. So that is what they are doing.

If that Jesus guy was subversive when it came to money and property, his mother was even worse. Here is what she said about the relationship between God and people who are rich and powerful.

He has put down the mighty from their seats
and has exalted the humble and meek.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

I'm not seeing how luxury condos fit into that vision.

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By Woods77 (registered) | Posted July 06, 2018 at 23:49:13 in reply to Comment 123227

Here's Kevin again with his narrow-minded either/or thinking. Why is it either luxury condos or naught? You need only look to examples in Toronto or Montreal to see that many heritage buildings have been repurposed for mixed income residential uses, or at least a portion of units below market averages. There is ample opportunity in a building of this size to do a lot and to have more than just a few luxury condos. But, it seems New Vision aren't even willing to entertain the possibility that having some "luxury condos" could offset costs and allow for the latitude to have some affordable housing units in the church.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted July 07, 2018 at 20:02:14 in reply to Comment 123247

Why is it either luxury condos or naught?

It isn't. Read the article. New Vision's discernment of the best use for the community is as purpose-built rental housing in the mid-market range. That's the part of the article where Ian wrote:

Our vision for the lands is purpose-built rental housing in the mid-market range. Mid-market rental housing is in a crisis in Hamilton and in Ward 3. The need is significant.

Purpose-built mid-market rental housing will not be profitable enough to generate enough money to pay for preserving the heritage structure. So in order to provide housing for people, demolition is the way to go.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2018-07-07 20:07:21

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By andrew.martin (registered) | Posted July 05, 2018 at 14:47:29

I missed the connection between the bible and why the heritage act isn't applicable, but if you find it be sure to forward that to Wilson Blanchard, who may pay you a nice consulting fee.

Heritage designation does not make luxury condos the only option. I don't see why New Vision is somehow different from other churches that have been designated and not turned into condos. Here's a guide for them to consult: http://communitycouncil.ca/sites/default...

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted July 05, 2018 at 17:57:39 in reply to Comment 123229

Heritage designation does not make luxury condos the only option.

I suggest that you read the article a little bit more carefully before commenting upon it. Four years of research into alternative uses turned up luxury condos as the only economically viable option. And just barely at that. "New Vision has looked into this, and seen that even this is a marginal possibility given all the factors involved."

I presume that the factors referred to include the asbestos, lead paint, crumbling foundations, leaking roof, etc.

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By ASmith (registered) | Posted July 05, 2018 at 15:16:38 in reply to Comment 123229

The heritage act, the Greenbelt, are forms of taxation. They reduce the market value of the property. Moreover, they are selective in whom they tax.

If the govt thinks a building has a high social value, buy it. Force taxpayers to pony up the cash and make the current owner whole.

Otherwise, your just stealing someone else's property so you can enjoy it at no cost to you.

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By rednic (registered) | Posted July 05, 2018 at 15:10:33

I think New Vision has hired the Tower as their marketing department the arguments seem to be very similar.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted July 05, 2018 at 18:22:26 in reply to Comment 123230

Yes, you are so right! Jesus is such an anarchist. Look at the disrespect that he showed to all forms of power, money and authority. What an anarchist! He kept insisting that people were more important than these things. Particularly people who were poor or sick or members of hated ethnic minorities.

When it comes to heritage structures, in Jesus' time and place the most important one was the famous Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Now King Herod, he had respect for this heritage structure. He fixed it up and kept it in tip-top shape. But that anarchist Jesus condemned it to destruction. "Not one stone will be left upon another."

We should all follow the good example set by King Herod in having proper respect for power, money and the heritage structures that power and money can buy. Herod is the guy whose life and example New Vision really should be following, not that anarchist Jesus.

How dare New Vision follow the bad example of Jesus instead of the good example of King Herod! And I have seen disgusting signs that the beliefs of New Vision are catching on! Can you imagine a world where people are more important than money, power and property? Anarchy!

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2018-07-05 18:37:13

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By Dylan (registered) | Posted July 05, 2018 at 22:09:14

Why is the idea of luxury condos abhorrent?

Comment edited by Dylan on 2018-07-05 22:11:36

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By rednic (registered) | Posted July 05, 2018 at 23:06:05

I realize since I don't goto to church or know the history of Christianty I'm a lesser being. What I do care about is built heritage. If all you can build is 'luxury condos' there why would it be evil? Surely it would be a profitable project and the 'church' could take the money and continue to do the good work they do.

Lets just talk about the church as a business instead and leave Jesus out of it.

•tax free business •cash donations •bought a property without doing do diligence •bought a property with the intention of tearing it down

at least 3 of those are true.

I believe actually at the end of the day you will get your demo permit Rip it the f*ck down pay no tax let it sit fallow for 10 years then sell it to a developer

You have no exit strategy. That is what worries people

Oh yeah ... I bought a tear down for less than cost of the bricks. (no mention of the land) and fixed it. And I'm far far left of the tower

You can come and check it out for yourself Sept 2 Stupercrawl 2018

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By Big_D (registered) | Posted July 06, 2018 at 15:18:47

"After four years of intensive soul-searching and research, it concluded that the current building is not a good community fit anymore for the lands."

Thank you for your congregations time to 'soul-search' for the past 4 years, but the 'research' you spoke of, is what I am most interested in. I live just blocks away, so can you please inform the local community on what type of research you did to determine that demolition is the ONLY or BEST option, and please indicate all the other options that were exhausted? And did this research include the opinions of the members of not only the church community but also of the neighbourhood community. Afterall, it is confusing when you write "it" being the congregation, concluded that the current building is not a good 'community' fit anymore for the lands.

As shown by the comments, the actual community that lives here, mostly disagrees with the congregation community. So is the congregation community at odds with the neighbourhood community for some reason?

"Rather than New Vision (St. Giles) having left the community, it is far more accurate to say that the neighbourhood community left St. Giles."

This statement further underscores that New Vision view that they are not a part of the actual community; and actually hints that because the local community that 'loves' having the heritage church building in the area, must actually become a member of the church for it to be viable? So is it the local community to blame for the demolition? We must all convert or join New Vision church, if not, demolition is the only alternative? What are you insinuating when you say that the neighbourhood community left St. Giles?

"New Vision has dedicated itself to a mission of social cohesion"

Destroying a historical and beautiful part of a neighbourhood, then blame the members of that community is, in my opinion, not the best way to create social cohesion. Lack of debate with the local community, is once again, in my opinion, not the best way to create social cohesion. It creates division and separation, don't believe me, just read some of the comments from the past week on this website about this issue.

"We seek to be a safe community for the LGBTQ2S community, we seek to live......"

No one is saying that this is not a noble and great deed. But why are you relating the two, creating a false equivalence between a heritage building that the local neighbourhood actually wants to keep, and your overall mission to do good for the Hamilton community as a whole? So the building needs to be razed for the church to be able to help Hamiltonians?

You can tell by the comments, that this building, not in a 'religious sense', but in a 'neighbourhood community sense', very important to the people in the area. We do not want an empty lot in our neighbourhood where once a majestic 106 year old church once stood. And as a Christian myself, I can see how that has very little to do with my religion, but has everything to do with the neighbourhood I live in.

At the very least, you already have the space at the church, why not invite the actual local community to have a discussion about what is possible for the property, and perhaps you can inspire the community to see the vision that New Vision offers, as opposed to just ramming it down our throats. Who knows, we may all agree that demolition is the best option, but without that dialogue, you can expect some animosity.

That being said, Thank you Rev. Ian Sloan for writing your Opinion Piece and letting us know where New Vision stands on the issue.

Countdown now starts, awaiting a sarccastic reply from KevinLove about how Jesus was an anarchist, or about those crazy Christian's at New Vision, or more excerpts from his 2016 piece "Those Christians and their Crazy Priorities." Which is such a shame considering I love reading his articles about the city, road safety, bicycle advocacy, etc....But his current comment tirades is just recycled material he used in December, 2016 when speaking about the James Street Baptist Church. And yes, even with most the church destroyed there, I would rather have that facade standing up then an empty gravel lot there as well.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted July 07, 2018 at 20:40:05 in reply to Comment 123244

New Vision's research and community consultation has led them to the conclusion that the best use for the property is as purpose-built rental housing in the mid-market range. As Ian wrote:

Our vision for the lands is purpose-built rental housing in the mid-market range. Mid-market rental housing is in a crisis in Hamilton and in Ward 3. The need is significant.

For what it is worth, I agree that we are indeed in a housing crisis in Hamilton and in Ward 3. However, the big money is in conversion to luxury condos. Preservation of the heritage structure is so expensive that it is only possible with a luxury condo conversion. In order to construct purpose-built mid-market rental housing, it is necessary for the building to be demolished. So that is the course of action New Vision is taking.

You appear to be of the opinion that preserving neighbourhood aesthetics is more important than addressing the housing crisis. That is a question of values and priorities. New Vision has different values and priorities. Values and priorities that they try to align with that Jesus guy.

And if you think that my writings are a repetitious tirade, I strongly recommend that you stay far, far away from reading what that Jesus guy said. He ranted on about the same things, over and over and over again on many different occasions. At least I have not called anyone a bunch of snakes.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2018-07-07 20:41:13

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By Big_D (registered) | Posted July 08, 2018 at 19:59:23 in reply to Comment 123259

That is not a very nice thing to say. I am a Christian and I will continue to read the bible...and just because I choose not to interpret it quite the way you do...how dare you question my faith or anyone else's faith. All because you can't have an adult conversation about a heritage building. Shame on you!!

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By Dylan (registered) | Posted July 08, 2018 at 07:31:14 in reply to Comment 123259

The church apparently doesn’t have the money to maintain the building, and yet they can afford to tear it down and build a new multi-unit mid rise apartment building?

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By Woods77 (registered) | Posted July 07, 2018 at 00:08:30

Designation under the Heritage Act is not the boogeyman that Sloan is trying to create. It simply means that to alter or remove a heritage feature (such as stain glass windows for example...which it seems have been hastily put up for auction by New Vision) the church would need to apply for a heritage permit. There is no cost despite Sloan calling it a "costly process".

Designation does not freeze a building in time but simply acts a necessary guiderail so that the City and professionals have oversight as the building changes. Designation would not necessarily prevent any adaptive reuse of the building. In fact, that would be encouraged. There are many strawmen put forward.

In the end, the United Church (chiefly amongst Christian denominations in Canada) will be dealing with this problem in the future on a recurrent basis. The UCC and the Anglican Church of Canada have almost exclusively dwindling, aging populations with very little money. There are some Xian communities that are growing, namely evangelical and some charismatic churches. The UCC needs to look at a deeper level as to why their churches are dying while others are growing and ask if they are truly offering any salt to the culture at all.

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By Dylan (registered) | Posted July 07, 2018 at 08:18:28

I really would like to understand why turning it into condos is so “abhorrent”. I image it’s because of one of two reasons.

  1. It’s the notion of the building somehow being sullied by the conversion to condos. I can’t image that this is the case though, because the congregation seems fine with tearing the it down. It’s also literally sold off crosses and bibles to the highest bidders, so I doubt they’re big on the sanctity of objects.

  2. It’s the spector of gentrification. I recently lived a block away from this church. It’s one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city. Tons of rundown rentals. The area could use some gentrification. It could use more businesses than laundromats, discount pizza joints, and sketchy bars. That’s only going to happen by bringing in some people with disposable income that’s can support more diverse businesses that the existing community can all reap the benefits of, on occasion.

So again, what is this benevolent reason for the distaste of condos in this building?

Comment edited by Dylan on 2018-07-07 08:19:51

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By rednic (registered) | Posted July 08, 2018 at 11:58:28

I really hope that Mathew Greens support for this hangs over the rest of his opportunistic political career. Own it. Wear It.

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By AlHuizenga (registered) | Posted July 13, 2018 at 16:20:41

Reverend Sloan, what, exactly, are you going to do with the property? What are the 'new needs' that you intend to meet, and how are you going to meet them? Doesn't it seem reasonable to you that the neighborhood would want to hear specifics about this before you tear the old church down?

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By LanceDarrenCole (registered) | Posted July 28, 2018 at 23:23:53

As many individuals know, architecture is one of the seven lively arts ( painting, music, dance, drama, literature, sculpture & architecture.) At the end of World War Two, Hamilton remained unscathed as European cities rebuilt. Why is it that we have been 'bombed from within' ever since? My Great Aunt and Uncle were major contributors to the building of St Giles Church. I live half a block away and heard nothing of your community involvement when looking for solutions. Not until the auction banner was slapped across the front. Demolision permit in your hands. The decision to demolish every part of the structure is short-sighted as your congregation found no acceptable solutions for adaptive re-use. Did you actually believe, if your congregation of limited resources can't fix it, no-one can. The lobby alone is better than anything we are likely to see on the suggested apartment building. We have no choice but to forgive you for this impending path of destruction - no vision. People are upset because you dismiss the value of good architecture in our community. If your humble congregation was unable to see the options perhaps asking the actual community may have appeased these feeling and brought a more agreeable conclusion. These are not merely bricks & mortar as Councilor Green suggested.. It's more than that. Your stated commitment to heritage & social cohesion is a failure. May your future endeavours lead to a more pleasing outcome.

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