Special Report: Heritage

Does the Downtown Hamilton Secondary Plan Matter?

Allowing such a gross departure from the Plan as the Gore streetwall demolition will discourage investors (and others) from trusting Hamilton to abide by its own planning directions, in terms of both downtown redevelopment and other initiatives.

By Sean Burak
Published July 06, 2013

The Downtown Hamilton Secondary Plan [PDF] has the following stated objectives:

  1. Retain and enhance the historic fabric of Downtown Hamilton.

  2. Ensure that new development respects and reflects the design of surrounding heritage buildings.

  3. Conserve and enhance the Gore as the primary landscaped open space and concentration of heritage buildings in Downtown Hamilton.

  4. Create new programs and planning mechanisms for ensuring a higher standard of urban design in Downtown Hamilton.

  5. Ensure that public improvement projects are undertaken within an overall design and implementation program that respects these objectives

Downtown Councillor Jason Farr, Heritage Committee chair Councillor Brian McHattie and City urban renewal and planning staff had an unannounced private meeting with property developer David Blanchard to work out a "deal" where he entirely demolishes two Gore Park buildings and demolishes the back two-thirds of the remaining ones.

18-22 King Street East (RTH file photo)
18-22 King Street East (RTH file photo)

It appears that they were not acting in accordance with the Downtown Plan.

When council voted to approve the deal, how many of the above five objectives were guiding their decision?

When council votes in the opposite direction of the mandates set forth in our planning documents, are they acting in the interests of the voters who have entrusted them with their voting power?

This is not just about art and architecture.

When I purchased a building in Downtown Hamilton, It was with the expectation that the master plan would be followed and that my business would be part of a trajectory of development in the core that leaves vacant lots and silver-bullet solutions (which never materialize) in the past.

How am I expected to operate my business in an environment where I must fear at any moment that the neighbouring buildings may be torn down? How can I be expected to maintain property standards on my building when the absentee speculators continue to let their holdings rot, and are rewarded by the city with tax breaks and demolition permits?

If we can't protect the buildings along the most important business stretch in Hamilton, how can I trust my city to protect the "less important" ones that surround me?

If council lets these buildings come down, how will they handle future demolition permits along the core? Will the precedent be set, creating more vacant lots every year?

24 and 28 King Street East (RTH file photo)
24 and 28 King Street East (RTH file photo)

One of the principles of the Downtown Secondary Plan states:

A desire for quick and simple solutions often nurtures "big project" responses to Downtown decline. In fact, experience across North America suggests that Downtown revitalization most often results from a collection of seemingly modest actions by individuals, small businesses and community organizations.

How many lots do we need to clear in the core before these miracle developers swoop in and build their condo towers and department stores? Blanchard envisions retail and condos on that block - but we can barely get the current condo proposals off the ground here - so who is the mysterious angel investor he has waiting in the wings?

Are we trusting the decisions of the viability of heritage buildings to those who have restored them in the past? Engineers and architects? Or do we make these enormous decisoins based on the feelings of laymen? According to the Spectator, "Blanchard felt it was not economically feasible to redevelop 24 and 28 King, and Councillor Jason Farr says - after touring them - that he agreed."

What is our manager of downtown renewal doing to renew the downtown? Apparently he thinks that his own job is no longer necessary: "Glen Norton, Hamilton's manager of downtown renewal, says the city no longer needs to bang the drum of downtown living because the demand is happening on its own."

Council can still halt this unnecessary destruction by filing an intent to designate. This sends a message to the developer that they will be expected to give consideration to heritage aspects. It does not legally bind them to follow through with designation.

Blanchard refuses to sell the buildings, and is in a hurry to tear them down before historical designation gets in his way. This is 100 percent avoidable and is at the hands of Hamilton council.

Here is a photo of the interior courtyard of the buildings that are at risk to come down starting this coming Monday. These buildings are standing after more than a hundred years, and will continue to stand under the direction of a proper caretaker.

Interior Courtyard
Interior Courtyard

An offer to purchase the buildings was presented to Blanchard last week, and the response was that they aren't for sale: they want the whole block and that this is part of a 20 year long plan to assemble properties. That is the very definition of property speculation, and the 20 years of languish while Wilson-Blanchard "assembles" the block has cost us enough already.

Councillor Farr is quoted in the Spec saying, "It's never a happy day when you have some history disappear." But the power to prevent this from happening is in Farr's hands, if he and his Council colleagues choose to use it!

Postscript by Kieran Dickson

Fundamentally, the decision to allow demolition is totally inconsistent with the Downtown Secondary Plan. Sean Burak has identified the Plan's objectives, but I commend a reading of the Plan in its entirety [PDF] for an appreciation of how the pending demolition is not only contrary to the Plan, but will make further progress towards the objectives much more difficult.

The decision to allow demolition came about in a way that effectively excluded discourse on whether this demolition was consistent with the Downtown Secondary Plan. Rather than having staff input regarding consistency with the Plan, and an opportunity for the public (including key stakeholders) to discuss and debate this, the deal with the owner came about as a result of a private meeting.

The proposal was then withheld from the public until it was before the committee that adopted it.

Because the meeting was in private, it is not known whether the brokers of the deal were unaware of the Downtown Hamilton Secondary Plan or decided that the Plan should not be followed. It is inconceivable that the agreement was made within the framework of the Plan.

It is not too late to deal with the proposal of demolition properly, through a full process of staff review and public engagement. Both Council and the responsible Minister - Michael Chan, Ontario Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport - are able to effectively stay demolition of the buildings through the tools available under the Ontario Heritage Act.

Addressing another of Sean's points, I concur that dealing with this matter in a way that turns a blind eye to the Downtown Secondary Plan is most unfair to those who have invested time and energy in redeveloping our core in a way that is consistent with the Plan.

Allowing the owner of these buildings to demolish part of the Gore's most important heritage asset, its streetwall, will significantly affect the investments of those who have banked on the vision of this district as our primary landscaped open space and concentration of heritage buildings.

Allowing such a gross departure from the Plan will also discourage investors (and others) from trusting Hamilton to abide by its own planning directions, in terms of both downtown redevelopment and other initiatives.

Sean Burak was born in Hamilton but raised elsewhere in Ontario. He returned to his birth town at the turn of the century and has never looked back. Sean is the owner of Downtown Bike Hounds.


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By DavidColacci (registered) | Posted July 06, 2013 at 17:51:40

I have watched this particular story with great interest. -IF- the buildings are beyond repair, which would be up to engineers to decide, I wouldn't have any substantial problem with them coming down.

Having said that, why do they have to come down now? Why, with no concrete plans for imminent replacement, is Blanchard insisting on demolition immediately? They are stable and of no danger to the public and were inhabited until just weeks ago. Is there a particular reason he wants to leave a gargantuan hole in an otherwise well preserved block and further damage Hamilton's delicate psyche regarding its downtown?

At least with the school board headquarters debacle, MAC moved in and immediately started construction on the new health campus.

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By KieranC.Dickson (registered) | Posted July 06, 2013 at 19:09:26 in reply to Comment 89983

This is complicated by the fact that what is beyond economic repair turns on the permitted use of the property – and whether demolition is allowed.

If there are no major structural issues -- and I do not believe that there has been any serious suggestion that there are -- then these buildings are suited for rehabilitation into residential and retail and perhaps small office/studio units. There is good (and growing) demand for quality spaces in Hamilton’s core. Based on my own experience with renovating somewhat-similar buildings, and using conservative per-square-foot renovation cost and lease rate estimates, these buildings could be renovated to a high standard in a profitable way… but only if the buildings are acquired at a reasonable price.

And this is where the problem arises. If the owner of these buildings, or ANY owner of heritage building stock in the core, has demolition as an option, then the question of what is economically feasible or reasonable has to take into account the alternative use of the property as (say) the footprint of a large retail store, office tour, condominium, parking lot, or whatever. While the Downtown Secondary Plan says that these alternatives should not be on the table, they clearly are.

With these alternatives, the land may be so valuable for some alternative use that renovation could not possibly be the most economic option, as one would have to pay far more to acquire the unrenovated building than could be justified for a decent return on investment. Even having to throw a coat of paint on might be “uneconomic,” in the sense that even if the renovation cost was ZERO one would be further ahead to clear the land for alternative use.

This is why we have the Ontario Heritage Act and higher-order planning directions at the municipal level: these are in recognition that there is community value to our built environment, community value that warrants certain limitations on the free market. Where these limitations take away an owner’s range of options, the economic choice effectively becomes one of either rehabilitating built heritage or selling the property to those who will – at a market rate that reflects the fact that demolition is not an option.

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By gary buttrum (anonymous) | Posted July 06, 2013 at 18:13:39

david, the buildings are absolutely not beyond repair which is why earlier this week i contacted the owner to purchase these buildings to fully restore them. i'm not an engineer, but i have been working with heritage structures for almost a decade and am certain that these buildings are prime examples of structures that would be ideal for renovation. they look bad superficially because the owner has never invested in them for the long term. they have been left to decay because the intent all along was to demolish the assembled property.

blanchard is taking these buildings down now because he can and is concerned that this might not always be the case. which i find appalling, but he is well within his rights. the response from city council however is not.

while people like myself and others work hard and risk great amounts trying to make this city better, getting nothing but hassle and red tape from the city, large property speculators sit and wait on acres of decaying buildings playing monopoly with our city's future. the small businesses get delay and process while blanchard gets closed door meetings and sweetheart compromises. why? the downtown master plan should be adhered to. staff recommendations to designate these buildings should be adhered to.

buildings that stand become part of the community, eventually. buildings that come down remain abandoned weed filled land waiting for whenever.
as long as we keep rewarding speculators we will continue to encourage more demolition.

we desperately need more buildings, not more emptiness.

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By DavidColacci (registered) | Posted July 06, 2013 at 22:30:30 in reply to Comment 89984

if these buildings can be rehabbed back to life then they should be. our council tip toes around developers as if they don't want to develop the properties and they're doing us some kind of favour.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 06, 2013 at 21:31:07 in reply to Comment 89984

So glad you chimed in Gary. Anyone familiar with the buildings you've helped rehab on James N should know that these Gore Park buildings are not only salvageable but can be beautiful again.

If these buildings are so far beyond hope, how was a well-known architectural firm operating there until last month (and only left because the lease ended)?

I love the Blanchard line that they are 'too narrow for any modern use'.

Really??? Just so happens many of my favourite places are in buildings 'too narrow for modern use'.





I could post stuff all night. The point is, the buildings are completely able to be restored, and downtown isn't Waterdown. There is ample good use for narrow, skinny storefronts.

Comment edited by jason on 2013-07-06 21:33:32

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted July 07, 2013 at 09:28:30 in reply to Comment 89986

I find it troubling that David Premi and his architectural firm are willing to quietly step aside and let this demolition happen. Urban architects are supposed to stand up for the maintenance and enhancement of the built form and should respect their predecessors as much as (if not more then) their successors.

Up until a month or two ago, dpAi occupied (and routinely spoke proudly of) the second floor of one of the buildings that is all of a sudden "done, just done" in the words of David Blanchard.

I'd like to hear Premi's professional opinion on the state of these buildings, and their ability to be used/renovated.

Unless I have my sources mixed up, dpAi even created the initial "renderings" (pictures of boxes) for an imaginary development that is not even approaching the planning stage - a drawing that the Spectator happily published to help Blanchard sell this demolition to the public.

How can a downtown architecture firm show such blatant disregard for the city they are supposed to support (and the city which supports them)?

How can our city's only daily newspaper - which relies on an engaged news-hungry public for its very survival - print story after story of unquestioning faith in Wilson-Blanchard's plan-less plans? Stories which will do their part in securing the fate of these buildings, and interrupting the momentum building in the core.

"With friends like these, who needs enemies?"

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By randomguy (anonymous) | Posted July 08, 2013 at 00:57:59 in reply to Comment 89989

"Up until a month or two ago, dpAi occupied (and routinely spoke proudly of) the second floor of one of the buildings that is all of a sudden "done, just done" in the words of David Blanchard."

If the Spec was in any way a half decent newspaper they would be harping on this rather than ignoring it. Farr has lost my vote because of this. I don't care what else he does.

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By DrAwesomesauce (registered) | Posted July 06, 2013 at 22:28:36

Is a building of this era ever beyond repair? They were very well built and being in a row, they support each other beautifully. I think that's why Blanchard demo'd that first one (Caesar's). Aside from setting a precedent, he's also likely caused some instability with the rest of them - now they must come down, right?

This will not stand. We need to make a show of this. Even if we can't block their demolition, we mustn't allow him to think Hamiltonians don't care. I feel like a tiger being forever taunted and poked at through the cage - enough's enough, Hamilton!

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By Allegory (anonymous) | Posted July 07, 2013 at 09:36:42

For over 150 years, the buildings forming the south side King Street East street wall have provided welcome shade to pedestrians and visitors to Gore Park on hot and humid July and August afternoons.

The imminent demolition of 24 and 28 King Street East, combined with the previous demolition of 30 King Street East, will raise the street level temperature and make the Gore Park pedestrian summer afternoon experience much less comfortable than Hamiltonians are used to unless the existing buildings are given a stay of execution or until a new building fills the gap.

Who knew that these demolished buildings would become the most prominent feature in the “Gore Master Plan Project: Putting People First”?

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By rednic (registered) | Posted July 07, 2013 at 15:45:51

You guys just don't understand Blanchard's plan.
It's really quite simple and in fact take full advantage of the Secondary Plan. Of course Blanchard plan consist of YOU (the unwashed masses), still abiding by the plan.

Under Blanchard's plan 'Mom's & Pops' will redevelop the downtown core into a vibrant and functional alternative to Toronto. Then once there is critical mass for Office space Blanchard will build.

Don't give up you guys Blanchard's plan cannot be successful without your success. He is depending on YOU!

I'd love to know from councillor Farr, Does it itch when you had so much wool pulled over your eyes?

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By jimh (anonymous) | Posted July 07, 2013 at 20:36:00

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By Connie (registered) | Posted July 30, 2013 at 11:21:51 in reply to Comment 89998

So what are you doing for downtown rejuvenation super-capitalist jimh? Sean and others like him are the ones who've adapted and reused sound old buildings for their businesses, repopulated James N and created a buzz about the city that's drawing people to Hamilton and to downtown after decades of exodus and urban blight.

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By viennacafe (registered) | Posted July 07, 2013 at 21:02:13

Master Plans, Secondary Plans, Transportation Master Plans, yadda, yadda, yadda. As far as I can tell, they're make work projects for municipal staff and an opportunity to give a few engaged citizens a sense of engagement, but councillors don't read them and senior staff don't back them.

There are few things to induce more rolls of the eyes than hearing staff or politicians reassuring a public audience that B will not surely follow A because "the plan" does not allow it. Sure.

I'm not sure when it happened, but at some point city councillors have become the guarantors of the bets of land speculators. They will undermine taxpayer investments, private investments, prosperity, and possibility, all to ensure some bad, poorly articulated idea without any relationship to any existing reality or future vision comes to fruition.

Oh, they will say there will be consultation and design requirements to match with the existing streetscape. And then, when the public is sated and the construction has begun, the variance applications will begin to flow.

Do activists at some point recognize that these issues that keep returning like a bad case of herpes can't ever be addressed until the badly broken Municipal Act is reformed? Are we satisfied with meaningless processes and rules carved into pudding?

Municipalities are the neglected wards of the Province. The solution lies there.

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted July 08, 2013 at 15:21:31 in reply to Comment 89999

What did I tell you: "I am not on for any kind of residential development up there. I never will be. I’ve had assurances from all over this hall that that’s never going to be the case," Farr told CBC Hamilton. Sure.


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By Core-b (registered) | Posted July 07, 2013 at 23:00:57

Thoughtful and engaging discussion. Thanks everyone (not you Jimh).

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By TnT (registered) | Posted July 08, 2013 at 01:14:53

I as an owner of a heritage property feel sick over this.

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By erskinec (registered) - website | Posted July 09, 2013 at 07:55:43

Two weeks ago, I emailed Andrea Horwath’s Constituency Office and asked for her help with saving the historical buildings in Gore Park.

I wrote that “several historical buildings overlooking Gore Park are in danger of being demolished in the very near future (likely in July). Community activists have been trying to get City Council to save these building but with no luck. The Architecture Conservancy of Ontario (ACO) has written to Tourism and Culture Minister Michael Chan to intervene by using the powers granted to him by the 2005 Ontario Heritage Act but he refuses to take action. Since Gore Park and these buildings are within Andrea Horwath riding, I would like to ask if she could speak with Minister Michael Chan and see if she can encourage him to use his powers to save these important historical buildings.“

I just got a reply saying that MPP Horwath has sent Minister Chan a letter asking that he intervene in the proposed demolition.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted July 09, 2013 at 09:26:53 in reply to Comment 90058

Everyone at every government level "gets it" except our council.

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By Brother Michael (anonymous) | Posted July 10, 2013 at 09:40:57

Where was everyone when City Council tore down the Original City Hall, The Forum and The Historic Centre Mall? Shame on our leaders, too little too late. Tear it all down, why not!

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By wilsonjm (registered) - website | Posted February 09, 2014 at 12:17:34

Do you know if the present Secondary Plan contains a section of downtown for which approvals go through the 'Development Permit System', a fast-track process for approvals that requires no public consultation, and which removes (after adoption of DPS by-law) resident right of appeal of decisions, while preserving it for applicants? I'm wondering if the lack of consult here reflects the affected properties falling within a DPS area.

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