Rather than spending exorbitant sums fixing up 71 Main Street West, the City can purchase City Centre and transform it into a downtown City Hall that immerses Council and staff in the city.
By Sean Burak
Published November 26, 2008
Editor's note: this article comes a day after publication, but it fits nicely with the emphasis on City Hall in the current RTH issue, and it represents a bold, creative approach that acknowledges the connections between several challenges and opportunities facing the city.
It is becoming apparent that our City Hall controversy is to go on interminably until all of this generation is dead and buried.
--quip regarding the selection of a new city hall site, c.1950.
With recent focus aimed squarely at the materials cladding our city hall, perhaps it is time to take a step back and re-evaluate not only the building, but the location itself.
Until 1960, Hamilton's local government was housed in a majestic stone building, complete with a clock tower and bell. Completed in 1890, it was located on James Street North at King William in the heart of Hamilton's business district and, coincidentally, at the same spot where Council currently occupies its temporary office space.
After 60 years in service, our original City Hall was showing signs of age, and the site proved too small for expansion. A multi-year argument over its relocation resulted in the selection of the current Main Street West site, next to what was then the downtown public library. The old Hall was demolished to make way for the Eaton's department store.
The usual controversies over architecture and expenditures finally gave way to completion of our current City Hall, which began operating on the morning of Hallowe'en, 1960.
Since city hall opened, much has changed in our core, with many old buildings replaced by new:
This three-decade building spree opened up many new spaces to businesses, but the massive size of each of these projects served to drive a physical wedge between the human-scaled business areas of downtown (King Street and James Street) and the centre of our civic government at 71 Main Street West.
According to geography, City Hall is located downtown, but in reality, the Main Street West site is seriously separated from the true core of Hamilton: the corner of King and James. It sits in the middle of a barren courtyard that never quite turned into the public space it was meant to be. Gore park has historically been the true public centre of Hamilton, and will continue to be no matter what improvements are made to the city hall forecourt.
It lies across five busy traffic lanes from the back side of Hamilton's business district. It takes less time to reach City Hall by car from the 403 than it does to walk there from Gore Park. Simply put, City Hall separates Council and staff from the core of Hamilton, both physically and emotionally.
Ample parking and easy vehicular access to 71 Main Street West encourages Councillors and staff to live on the outskirts of the city, take the highway in, occupy their offices for eight hours, and zoom back out. Each day, our public servants could perform their duties without ever visiting a downtown business, walking a downtown street, passing a downtown resident, or giving a thought to the true heart of our city.
Out of the minds of most staffers, is it surprising that our core has crumbled?
Fate, luck, and a lack of maintenance over the years has brought us to a turning point. In July of 2007, city staff began the move to their temporary offices at City Centre (formerly Eaton's Centre, and before that, original City Hall). Since that move, we have seen a flurry of activity in downtown hamilton:
After decades of steady decline, the core is sparking back to life. It is no accident that during the last year-and-a-half, City Councillors and staff have been housed in the City Centre - in the true heart of downtown Hamilton. Our public servants must now travel to the heart of our city to get to work.
They park a short walk from their offices, just like thousands of downtown workers. They interact with citizens on the streets. They patronize local businesses. They see firsthand the state of our city, and as a result they are starting to care for the downtown - something that has been long forgotten.
How can we maintain this momentum? We would all agree that our government cannot be housed in a mall forever, lest we become the laughing stock of the country. But City Centre does not have to be a mall. Rather than spending exorbitant sums fixing up 71 Main Street West, the City can purchase City Centre and perform some much-needed transformations there.
For starters, a grand stone facade could be built at the entrance across from King William. This could pay homage to our original City Hall, and the original clock and bell can be removed from the hokey Disneyesque tower at York, and moved to the new majestic tower freshly erected across from the Lister.
The rest of the building along James can be given a facelift, with ground floor street-facing retail space. This space could be offerred to current City Centre retailers at a discount, and would result in stretching the streetwall along James, linking the fresh activity of the arts district with the economic centre of the city.
From the street view, we would have transformed a bland, uninviting cement wall to a majestic City Hall entrance flanked by inviting retail spaces.
Inside, the building can be completely de-malled. On the upper levels, office space can be built up to the railing, with windows looking down to an atrium below. The lower level atrium can serve as public space, and all public service kiosks can be located there.
Converting City Centre into City Hall would carry some major benefits. The costs of renovation would be significantly lower than at Main Street. All city hall offices can be in the same location (including the ones slated to move to Lister, which would be directly across the street). Local businesses will continue to enjoy the benefits of hundreds of well paid workers within walking distance of their shops. A current blight on the James North streetwall will be renovated.
But most importantly, all City Councillors and staff will continue to be a part of downtown life daily, and this will be reflected in their attitudes and decisions, benefiting the entire city.
But what of the current city hall? Rather than mothball or demolish it, the historical building can be passed on to another institution for a very fair price. It could be leased to McMaster University, which would enjoy the benefits of its grand spaces, surrounding courtyard, and even the ample parking.
In return, Mac would agree to maintain the historical features. McMaster's current downtown location (the courthouse) would be freed up. Rather than put it to waste, it could become Hamilton's equivalent to Union Station. Bus bays and an LRT station could be housed there, with a covered pedestrian link to the nearby Hunter Go terminal.
Spending huge dollars on renovating City Hall, and moving staff into the ivory (marble? limestone? concrete?) tower would represent a huge step backwards. We have moved forward into a time where the downtown has meaning again.
We cannot afford to empty out the City centre, remove our public servants from the heart of the city, and send them back to the suburban mentality fostered by 71 Main Street West over the past 50 years.
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