Special Report: Heritage

I Want to Believe

Advocates for downtown revitalization may be forgiven for feeling at times like Charlie Brown trying to kick the perennial field goal, our hopes raised again and again, only to be dashed by disappointment and betrayal.

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 18, 2013

This week I interviewed architect David Premi, whose firm is working with Wilson Blanchard on their proposed development for the block bounded by James, Main, Hughson and King, in which they will demolish of 24 and 28 King Street East while preserving the front half of 18-22 King Street East.

18-22 King Street East will be revitalized
18-22 King Street East will be revitalized

Premi argued that skeptical downtown advocates should regard this as "a meaningful step to revitalize the property. This is a first step that's economically sustainable and can spur the next phase of development - how we can fill that hole."

The building at 18-22 has an interior courtyard that you can see from an overhead view of the block:

Block formed by James (left), King, Hughson and Main (Image Credit: Google Earth)
Block formed by James (left), King, Hughson and Main (Image Credit: Google Earth)

According to Premi, the back half of the building, behind the courtyard, is "badly degraded" and has not been occupied since before Wilson Blanchard bought it. Their plan is to remove the back half of the building and restore the front half so that it can once again attract high-quality tenants: retail on the main floor and several apartments on the upper levels.

Number 24 and 28, on the other hand, are in "really bad shape. Number 24 only has a few tenants paying low money because it's such a bad space." Premi's architectural firm, dp.Ai, is currently on the second floor of number 28.

28 King Street East, slated for demolition 24 King Street, slated for demolition
28 and 24 King Street East, slated for demolition

Premi insists, "This whole scenario is very encouraging - it's a good news story."

This Time Will Be Different

Of course, given the history of demolitions in downtown Hamilton, this claim is difficult to accept at face value. We've heard this story before, and even a cursory reading of history indicates deep skepticism toward any claim that a demolition will pave the way for a new development.

The downtown core endures entire city blocks where the only thing being paved is hot-top and the only new structure is a parking kiosk.

Blocks of surface parking in downtown Hamilton
Blocks of surface parking in downtown Hamilton

Advocates for downtown revitalization may be forgiven for feeling at times like Charlie Brown trying to kick the perennial field goal, our hopes raised again and again, only to be dashed by disappointment and betrayal.

It's almost enough to make a person cynical.

Premi argues that this time really will be different. "The thing I would encourage skeptics to think about is, try to look forward rather than to the past. Hamilton is a dramatically and rapidly changing landscape. It's a new economy - $1.5 billion in building permits! Things are changing fast here, but in order to move forward, plans have to be made and they have to be feasible."

He concludes, "In any compromise, there are some wins and losses. Let's focus on the wins and support this thing moving forward."


Today's Spectator reports that the owners of the Royal Connaught are taking another stab at redeveloping the storied old hotel - this time into condos.

Royal Connaught hotel (RTH file photo)
Royal Connaught hotel (RTH file photo)

Again, we've heard this one before. In 2008, the owners partnered with developer Harry Stinson to redevelop the connaught coupled with a tall pyramid tower.

2008 Connaught rendering
Connaught rendering from 2008

In 2009, the owners applied for provincial funding to convert the building into 100 units of affordable housing, which exploded into controversy over the prospect of concentrating more poverty in a community that would benefit from a broader mix of housing. The province eventually rejected the proposal

In 2011, Mayor Bob Bratina leaked yet another proposal, this time to bolt a glass tower onto the east side of the building, a design that I had the temerity at the time to call cargo cult urban design.

Connaught rendering from 2011
Connaught rendering from 2011

The developers quickly distanced themselves from the rendering, saying it was too preliminary for public consumption, but suggested that development could start as early as that autumn.

Maybe this time will be different?

We have yet to see what the current iteration of the long Connaught redevelopment project looks like, but the developers could do worse than borrow an idea from Harry Stinson's One King West development in Toronto:

One King West, Toronto (RTH file photo)
One King West, Toronto (RTH file photo)

An elegant modern tower rises from behind the restored historic corner facade of the old Dominion Bank Building - built in 1914, the same year as the Royal Connaught Hotel - and integrates nicely with it at street level:

I Want to Believe

Like the credulous Agent Mulder in The X-Files, I want to believe. I want to believe that this time really will be different.

I want to believe that the market fundamentals for downtown redevelopment really have changed. I want to believe that the economy for financing downtown development has shifted since the days when banks and financiers and insurers circled city centres with red markers and shied away from anything that smacked of infill or adaptive reuse.

I want to believe that the political framework for reinvestment in Hamilton's downtown has changed enough since the time, not at all long ago, when the zoning regulations and Economic Development culture seemed tailor-made to kill development dead.

I want to believe that Vrancor broke the seal on big residential projects with their long-awaited redevelopment of the block bounded by Main, Bay, King and Caroline, which they launched after completing the Staybridge Suites hotel at Caroline and Market.

A crane attaches the sign to the side of Staybridge Suites hotel (RTH file photo)
A crane attaches the sign to the side of Staybridge Suites hotel (RTH file photo)

I want to believe that the shameless demolition of the Education Centre on the northeast corner of Main and Bay will be mitigated by a new medical education centre that helps cultivate Hamilton's version of the "eds and meds" approach to urban revitalization.

I want to believe. I really do. Maybe I'll end up on my ass in the turf, looking up at a cloudy sky while Lucy stands to one side, laughing - but I'm not quite ready to throw in the towel just yet.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By James (registered) | Posted January 18, 2013 at 08:20:33

I feel like the people who are interested and engaged in the plight of downtown Hamilton are like battered wives. We keep on saying that this time it'll be different, and now things are going to change, but evidence keeps showing us that there's always another kick in the teeth waiting around the corner.

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By Vod_Kann (registered) | Posted January 18, 2013 at 09:48:57 in reply to Comment 85283

As somebody who has seen the effects of domestic abuse first hand your anology is poor and offensive.

Lamenting over a couple of buildings does not even compare to the horror of spousal abuse

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By Bernie (anonymous) | Posted January 18, 2013 at 10:01:46 in reply to Comment 85285

I totally get your point but the comparison maybe isn't as bad as you make out. It's not just a "couple of buildings", it's the devastation of most of the downtown over decades and the huge toll of misery and despair that has come with that. Real human lives, real families, their communities ruined, their people scattered. Am I being melodramatic? I don't think so. Walk around some of the "sacrifice zones", really take a look. Future generations will look back and wonder how we let such ghettoes grow and fester when we should have known better.

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By Vod_Kann (registered) | Posted January 18, 2013 at 10:42:29 in reply to Comment 85290

This is getting off topic, so I will say my piece and that will be it for me on this..

Firstly, stating a "couple of buildings" can be seen a trivializing this topic so I will give you that. I have walked downtown and I have seen a lot of damage done to its character. I have always supported adaptive reuse and keeping our old building wherever possible.

However, as somebody with a sister who has suffered domestic abuse I saw a glimpse of what she went through and I do not want to imagine the rest.

As much as I love this city I grew up in I cannot bring myself to compare any tangible brick and mortar in this town to what she (or anybody else) went through.

Not to sound to much like a PC thug but we can ALL (including myself) choose our words more carefully at times. It felt James used a poor metaphor and I still do.

I admire the passion people here have for the city but we need to choose our comparisons more wisely. There are people who have problems sor great that the preservation of buildings are the last thing on their minds.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 18, 2013 at 09:32:23

I want to believe to Ryan....I'll consider it a small miracle of the front half of those Gore building don't encounter a 'whoops' while the back half is being taken off. Perhaps Premi knows something we all don't. Anytime I've heard Blanchard talk, he sounds like a guy not really concerned with building anything in the next decade.
I trust Premi though. Great architect who loves downtown and wants the best for our city.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted January 18, 2013 at 09:55:59

I agree with Ryan: I want to believe that the "developers" are not actually "land speculators", but we've been burned so many times in the past that anyone proposing to demolish without a firm plan to re-build in the short term shouldn't be surprised at the backlash. In fact, I thought there was a City by-law that enforces re-development within a year or two of demolition, but if there is, it seems to be pretty ineffective.

Blanchard himself has a very mixed record: he was involved with the successful Piggot/Sun Life and Bank of Montreal re-developments, but he demolished an office building and the old Royal Bank building and the sites have been vacant lots (or parking lots) for over ten years. And this is just around the corner from his newest demolition project. So we have reason to be skeptical.

As the Lister, Connaught and huge expanses of surface parking lots downtown have shown, premature demolition can set back a whole district for decades as each land owner waits for someone else to make an investment so they can reap a wind-fall profit with no effort (except waiting). Eventually, this will happen, but in the meantime downtown has had several lost decades that have cost billions in missed investment, economic activity and jobs.

As we've seen in the recent debate over the the Gore demolitions, many RTH readers feel personally concerned because they have invested their own money and work into restoring buildings and starting businesses in the core. We know what can be done, and are frustrated by a tendency by those with real resources to do so little, and to seemingly have little respect or love for the built heritage and urban design of the city.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2013-01-18 10:38:44

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted January 18, 2013 at 11:20:14

You paint too many of your wins as losses because you didn't get exactly what you want Ryan.

Urban stadium instead of suburban... win for you, perceived by you as a loss. 30 km/h speed limits established in James N. neighbourhood (except on 2 main arteries) win for you, perceived by you as a loss. Facades to be maintained on Gore building... win for you, again perceived by you as a loss.

The glass is half-empty routine is getting a little tired. If you don't claim these things as wins, it is your loss. People will continue to sit back and say "Well what does the RTH crowd do but complain". If you don't take credit for those positive changes and quit presenting them as negatives don't expect anyone else to give you the credit.

You should be proud to say you helped prevent a suburban stadium from being built but instead you can't see past the fact you didn't get exactly what you wanted to see that you got most of what you wanted.

You need to celebrate your little wins more and tone down the negative vibe a bit. This city isn't all doom and gloom. In fact it is pretty cool. Good restaurants, good book stores, good record stores, galleries, cafes, a respected college and university and nature at our doorstep from botanical gardens to beaches. Perhaps too much complaining about what way traffic flows may be distracting you from some of these very positive things?

Comment edited by Kiely on 2013-01-18 11:20:35

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By RobF (registered) | Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:25:54 in reply to Comment 85292

I understand your sentiment, especially with respect to the comments on the 30km/h speed limits established in the North End, but remember that without pushing back developers seldom do more than the minimum required for their project to succeed (for them). I do wish that Ryan had more to be positive about, but when I see all the empty parking lots downtown and see that we "needed" to lose the District School Board HQ to make room for Mac Downtown, I realize his and others frustration.

Comment edited by RobF on 2013-01-18 12:26:58

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted January 18, 2013 at 15:38:17 in reply to Comment 85296

Of course you have to push back, but you have to take the inches they give you before you can claim the feet.

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By expectations (anonymous) | Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:12:43 in reply to Comment 85300

Ahh, how refreshing. There's nothing quite like setting your sights as low as possible. That way you're never disappointed!

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By Wait, what? (anonymous) | Posted January 18, 2013 at 17:15:12 in reply to Comment 85300

What's this about grabbing your feet and taking some inches and pushing back? I didn't know this was that kind of site.

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By Bernie (anonymous) | Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:17:48 in reply to Comment 85292

They were going to knock down 3 buildings without a plan to replace them, now they're only going to knock down 2.5 buildings without a plan to replace them and there's nothing stopping them from knocking down the last .5 if they change their mind later. Some win, let me break out the bubbly.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:22:51

these are 'wins' like the Leafs winning the last 7 games of their season to go from getting a top 3 draft pick to a 9th or 10th draft pick.

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By SCRAP (anonymous) | Posted January 18, 2013 at 14:28:15

Sometimes I wonder about all this. One thing that is desparately needed is affordable housing, yet that is no where in sight. Yes, I remember the backlash and poor bashing that went on during the campaign to turn the Connaught into affordable housing.I was truly ashamed of many who added their voices into this.

What about living wage jobs? Do not seem to be many them either and even if hotels are built, they are low wage jobs, with no access to pensions or benefits. That is why hotel workers in Toronto organized.

With Hudak's new messaging, that all people on OW, who cannot find jobs, will be cut off, leaving them to basically die in the streets, he is also calling for the privatization of all adminstration of social benefits.

How many of you out there will vote for this clown, meanwhile, if he did get elected, how many of your fellow citizens will be left with nothing.

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By MPPs in Hamilton (anonymous) | Posted January 18, 2013 at 14:33:27 in reply to Comment 85297

"How many of you out there will vote for this clown"

Ancaster Dundas Flamborough Westdale - Ted McMeekin, Liberal

Hamilton Centre - Andrea Horwath, NDP

Hamilton East-Stoney Creek - Paul Miller, NDP

Hamilton Mountain - Monique Taylor, NDP

You have to go to Niagara West to find a Conservative (Tim Hudak himself, infact.)

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted January 18, 2013 at 15:19:17 in reply to Comment 85298

If the ridings re-structure to follow the federal plans, Westdale/Dundas may be rejiggered into West Hamilton and Ancaster-Flamborough-Glanbrook might be a riding, and that would likely elect a conservative.

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By Dane (registered) | Posted January 18, 2013 at 18:33:04

When has a developer ultimately lost? This is a bad concept that rewards absentee unimaginative property owners. For example, the Lister Block should have been taken out of the hands of those who were flagrantly and systematically destroying a historic site. What ended up happening, they changed their tune (its falling down/apart) to we love heritage. Why? Because we gave them tens of millions of dollars. Lets not go down that road again.

Blanchard should be considered a failed businessman. He bought the buildings did nothing but undermine their integrity by apparently (I would argue Premi exaggerates or blatantly lies)not doing any renovation or maintenance. Now they sit, arguably, financially unviable so he wants to tear them down. This makes no sense. Preservation outweighs personal profit here.

Otherwise Blanchard should, put the buildings up for sale. He bought buildings not just the lots. Let the "market" decide whether these need to be torn down. The city is much different now and there are new interests and perspectives in town. Its time the Blanchards, Premi's wake up to this. These ridiculous ideas need to be dismissed and real quality projects supported.

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:23:07

Is it possible to duplicate the original facades of the buildings that will be razed with new materials?

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By bad math (anonymous) | Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:57:14 in reply to Comment 85306

Anything's possible. But why would you? The only way that would make economic sense is if the replacement was utter crap. If you replace it with the same quality of construction, it costs you more. It's simple math.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:07:26 in reply to Comment 85306

Of course it is. They were talking about doing just that initially with the Lister block.

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted January 19, 2013 at 17:44:33

Imagine living in this city for two or three generations before the advent of social media, bearing witness to these demolitions one after another. Do so and you will never be quick to begrudge lifelong Hamiltonians their hide of pessimism.

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By Hail Mary (anonymous) | Posted January 19, 2013 at 20:47:20

"Basically what the neighbours get is a view of parking...Ideally, the plaza would fit into a grander vision for that part of the city...I think it’s surprising how utilitarian it looks."


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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted January 19, 2013 at 22:56:23

I was bored, so I started messing around with some free photo software. Here are the results...

1.) Main St as a two way, with tracks for streetcars/LRT.


2.) Two way Main St with streetcar.


3.) Main and James with streetcars.


4.) King and James new investment.


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By Franklin Terrace (anonymous) | Posted January 20, 2013 at 14:26:23

"...somewhere in the neighbourhood of 900 units."


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By Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted January 20, 2013 at 14:41:49 in reply to Comment 85337

I thought they had decided against gambling as a revitalization strategy.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted January 20, 2013 at 16:13:05

In a neighbouring downtown, plans for a 22-storey condo with an eight-storey, four-star Delta hotel containing 152 luxury suites next door. TBC: 2016


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By erskinec (registered) - website | Posted January 21, 2013 at 08:27:32

I am willing to believe but I want to act!

I am willing to believe that the developer is a good guy with the best intentions for the downtown. He appears to have saved and restored a number of buildings in the downtown area. He is willing to be flexible and change some of his plans for two of the four historical buildings on King Street East. He is willing to invest millions of dollars in development when many properties generate almost no income or stand vacate until they decay or burn down.

I am willing to believe that the City’s Economic Planning Council and City Council as a whole wants the very best for the people of Hamilton. They want to bring people back to the core and raise their families and enjoy the many great things that this ambitious city has to offer. They want both small and large businesses to thrive. They want people to find good paying jobs that allow them to generate more jobs and more taxes and more services.

I want to believe and I do believe.

So, why are we surprised when the Planning Council or City Council want to say yes to developers who are willing to invest millions of dollars in our City?

Are we really so surprised that developers, who have grand visions and act with the best intentions, run into problems caused by unexpected costs, hidden structural problems, and hiccups with financial backing?

Anyone who buys an old house or renovates a bathroom knows that nothing turns out as originally planned.

Crap happens!

Does this mean losing two 1870's buildings is acceptable?

My answer is no!

The buildings of Gore Park are the physical and spiritual heart of this City. Any changes to this area must be given careful consideration, particularly when it affects buildings with history.

Buildings matters, architecture matters, landscape matters, and history matters!

Even trees matter, and if you doubt this just go to the library and look at the reaction of folks in the Hamilton Spectator to the cutting down of century old trees in 1983.

Urban landscapes matters because it affects our experience of that space and as a result, we are all stakeholders and we have a right to say how that space is used.

If you believe that we should leave it to the developers or the politician, you simply don’t know your history of the city, particularly when it comes to Gore Park.

Ask yourself, what happens if the condo market goes bust and we are left with a bunch of empty glass boxes? Was that worth the destroying of our history?

My family has lived or worked in this city more than 100 years and I want to know that before you destroy something that it will be replaced by something of greater value.

Turning our backs on the past is not the solution. It actually robs the character that many urban dwellers are seeking. We used to live on Bold Street for a number of years in a 1850's stone and brick building with twelve foot ceilings, two great fireplaces and thick, thick walls. We had a nice little coffee shop around the corner and the YMCA five minutes away.

When we sat on the porch we were surrounded by beautiful 1860's to 1910's buildings that had been modernized into apartments units that are now attracting top rents. The developer of these buildings knew their value and knew that his investment in saving these buildings would pay off.

This is one vision for the City; another is the countless 1970's apartment buildings just up the street.

It is our city, the kind of development we get is our choice – all we need to do is act!

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By RenaissanceWatcher (registered) | Posted January 21, 2013 at 18:55:42

According to an article by Teri Pecoskie posted on thespec.com this afternoon, The Residences of Royal Connaught condominium project will commence this year and the first phase will be done by 2015: http://www.thespec.com/news/local/articl...

Here is a link to the latest rendering: http://media.thespec.com/images/dd/0b/43...

Comment edited by RenaissanceWatcher on 2013-01-21 19:03:24

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By Hesiod (anonymous) | Posted January 21, 2013 at 21:36:35 in reply to Comment 85370

"Valeri and Spallacci say they plan to open a presentation centre for The Residences of Royal Connaught in the hotel’s three-storey lobby this summer."

Wasn't this a two-storey lobby?

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By Conrad66 (registered) | Posted January 22, 2013 at 12:06:42

The Staybrige looks like an Offivce biulding .. lol

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By Kickstarter (anonymous) | Posted January 30, 2013 at 18:39:50


Rather than all this natter about wanting to "believe" why doesn't the RTH community actually do something about it?

Start a kickstarter.com campaign, raise a million bucks. Take it to the bank and get mortgage financing and buy one of these old Hamilton buildings.

Then negotiate a deal with a developer, and build something you think will enhance our community?

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