By Ryan McGreal
Published April 21, 2008
Last week, Grant Head of Heritage Watch Hamilton wrote a letter to the Ministry of Culture to request a stop order on demolishing the Balfour building, the building on King William St. adjacent to the Lister Block that began to collapse last week.
In her prompt reply denying the request for a stop order, Culture Minister Aileen Carroll wrote that she understood the historically significant elements of the façade would be preserved in the demolition:
When the Lister Block Working Group issued its report about the buildings at 15/17/21 King William St., it did recommend that elements of those buildings be saved and reused in another building.
I am aware that the City of Hamilton is working closely today with the owner of the buildings, the Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA), who have agreed that during the demolition, the stone elements of the façade are to be hand-removed as much as safely as possible and reserved for future reuse.
This is also consistent with a Spectator article from Saturday, April 19 that claimed, "Lintels (over windows and doorways) will be removed by hand and preserved."
The building was demolished on Saturday.
Kieran Dickson sent a follow-up letter to the minister sent yesterday in which he claimed that the demolition, performed on Saturday, did not appear to preserve the façade after all.
At some point shortly prior to 3 p.m., an excavator was used to demolish the portion of the "Balfour" building immediately connected to its façade, causing immediate and serious damage to the façade itself.
I observed this initial damage from my office, which overlooks the building, and immediately attended at the site. On speaking with persons at the site, I was not able to identify any person in attendance from the City of Hamilton; further, I was not able to identify through enquiry any engineer on site.
It was clear was that no effort had been made to remove any of the Italianate stonework around the south windows and that every effort was being made to demolish the building immediately. The demolition work continued, and within a matter of hours the entire façade had been completely destroyed.
After the building had been demolished, a small landscaping-style trailer was backed up to the rubble. Pieces of lintel were placed onto the trailer; none of these pieces were larger than an individual could easily pick up, all of the pieces were obviously damaged, and the total number of pieces was about a dozen. The excavator, which had been used to demolish the building, was then used to draw back the rubble from the sidewalk, and the site was secured.
Dickson went on to argue that "the current approach of deference and appeasement" to the building owner rather than designation as a provincial heritage building (the Lister already has municipal designation) "is no longer defensible, and if continued will make the Province of Ontario look foolish."
Until now, the provincial ministry of culture has taken a collaborative approach, encouraging the local parties (LIUNA and its partner Hi Rise along with the city and the heritage community) to resolve the impasse with minimal provincial intervention.
In a letter to LIUNA Vice President Joe Mancinelli on June 26, 2006 and made available under a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by Mr. Dickson, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty wrote:
We are confident that the city, the development and the heritage communities will come to a mutually acceptable agreement with the help of Mr. [Alan] Wells [a professional mediator appointed by the province], and with minimal involvement from the minister's office.
Premier McGuinty's letter was a reply to a letter by Mr. Mancinelli (also made available by an FOI request) accusing Ward 1 Councillor Brian McHattie of "imprudent and irresponsible" behaviour for appealing to the province to intervene in the first place:
The Ministry's responsibility is over provincially significant buildings of which this is not. Therefore the provincial government should not get involved in a matter that is a Hamilton issue and which is being dealt with by Hamilton City Council.
Instead of designating the building, the province hammered out a deal with LIUNA/Hi Rise and the city to hold off on demolition and work out a compromise agreement with Mr. Wells. In June 2007, Premier McGuinty announced $7 million in provincial funding to help finance that deal.
That deal fell apart in January, 2008, when Hi Rise suggested that it would cost the city $37 per square foot to rent office space in a restored building, much higher than the original estimate.
After clearing up the confusion over the price, which LIUNA agreed was "not a number LIUNA believes is rational", Mayor Fred Eisenberger launched a series of meetings to work toward a new deal.
A new agreement sketched out last month allowed an extension on the provincial deadline to commit $7 million so negotiations between the city and LIUNA on how best to use the building could continue.
The new plan includes a seniors' residence and condos in two towers behind the building. Under this plan, the Balfour building would be demolished but historically significant elements of its façade would be preserved.
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