Special Report: Heritage

Negotiation with Gore Property Owner Should Have Started With Designation

Councillor Farr says it would be 'disingenuous' for Council to change course on its negotiations over the Gore buildings, but that doesn't explain Farr's position of weakness in the first place.

By Ryan McGreal
Published August 13, 2013

In a recent op-ed, Councillor Jason Farr offered an explanation of the current status of negotiations between the City and Wilson-Blanchard, the property management company that owns 18-28 King Street East.

In short, the property owner plans to remove "historical facade elements" from the buildings and demolish them. If and when a plan is made to build something new on the site, the property owner will attach the "historical facade elements" to the new building in exchange for heritage grants from the City.

(If you're keeping track, this is actually worse than the previous agreement to preserve the front one-third of 18-22, the 1840 building designed by William Thomas.)

Farr acknowledged, "I am well aware this is an unsatisfactory objective" to heritage advocates, and added, "It would be spectacular if these developers and others throughout our core and city would always move toward a full-fledged approach to designation and restoration."

Of course, Council has the power to designate these buildings right now under the Ontario Heritage Act and protect them from demolition. There is no requirement under the Act for the property owner to agree with designation: the whole point of the Act is to protect threatened heritage buildings from the short-sightedness of their owners.

Council and Heritage

So why won't Council move to designate the buildings? Farr says it would be "disingenuous" for Council to change course now and stake out a position to protect the buildings from demolition after all the negotiations that have gone on between the property owner and the City.

But that explanation merely begs the question. Why didn't Council move to designate the buildings back in December or January, after the property owner submitted a demolition permit? Why didn't Council agree to add the buildings to the City's Register of properties of cultural heritage value or interest last November when Councillor Brian McHattie's Heritage Committee motion was approved and submitted to them?

Why are Farr and McHattie negotiating from a position of weakness in the first place?

In a recent op-ed lamenting that the current agreement with Wilson-Blanchard is not a good heritage outcome, McHattie acknowledged that for years, City Council "had information on the importance of the Gore, yet did not act."

Last December, McHattie explained why: "The prevalent mood [in Council is] in favour of development at any cost - in this case protection or adaptive re-use of heritage buildings."

Farr gets at this in his recent explanation: "[T]his may not be the optimal outcome, [but] it is one that may still see the heritage designation on all facades, while also achieving the owner's development desires for residential commercial development."

In other words, once the property owner has demolished the buildings and constructed new buildings, then Council will act to designate the facade pieces that get bolted onto the new construction - and provide the property owner with heritage grants along the way.

This is not a "compromise" between heritage protection and new development. It is not heritage protection in any meaningful sense of the term - and that's even if the "historical facade elements" actually are preserved. Elements of the old Thistle Club building were supposed to be incorporated into the new development, but the pieces got lost somewhere along the way.

Economic Recovery

It also goes against the prevailing evidence about what has been responsible for the nascent renaissance in downtown Hamilton: not block-busting demolitions and white knight developers, but modest, small-scale restoration and adaptive reuse, one building at a time. The Downtown Secondary Plan, which is supposed to govern policy decisions around new developments in the core, recognizes this:

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.

We can see that happening on places like James Street North, which just a decade ago was still being written off.

Downtown Hamilton already has a shameful oversupply of vacant property due to previous demolitions:

This oversupply of vacant land includes lots that were demolished by Blanchard. According to a gloomy March 17, 2001 Spectator article:

Blanchard, who has an interest in a number of downtown properties, was in the headlines in 1999 when he tore down the former Canada Permanent building across the street from the Pigott Building. That prompted city council to pass a bylaw prohibiting developers who demolish old structures from opening parking lots in their place.

To the extent that downtown is finally on the upswing, it is precisely because of buildings, blocks and streets that were left intact to be bought, restored and put to new use by their owners and occupants. Blanchard's own market research indicates that there is good demand for adaptive reuse but a weak market for the kind of large-footprint commercial development he says he wants to build at 18-28.

Public Interest in Heritage

But what if the property owner has a different plan? Is it fair to deny the owner their free-market right to dispose of their own properties as they see fit?

This argument is a red herring. The principle is already well-established that there are reasonable limits on what a property owner can do with their property. The City maintains a Zoning By-Law that imposes severe requirements and restrictions on property owners. Indeed, commentators on RTH have argued that many of these rules are arbitrary and/or obsolete and cause more harm than good.

But in the case of the Ontario Heritage Act, the evidence indicates that a restriction against demolishing buildings with important heritage value is good public policy.

Heritage is a positive externality - a value that accrues to the community as a whole as well as to the property owner. When heritage is destroyed, that value to the community is destroyed as well, and so the community has a legitimate interest in its preservation.

Not Too Late

Unfortunately, between Council's unwillingness to use its power to protect heritage and the perverse incentives in our tax code that reward vacancy and demolition, we end up with the map above, in which whole blocks are hollowed out.

Yet downtown Hamilton also offers inspiring examples of investors who swim against the current and create new value their interest to buy the Gore buildings and undertake the "full-fledged approach to designation and restoration" that Farr would love to see.

We could unleash that new energy on the Gore buildings as well, but it would require our Councillors to move from being "sympathetic" about Farr and McHattie's designed-to-fail negotiations to being courageous, proactive and assertive about maintaining and enhancing the city's heritage value.

Despite Farr's claim that it would be "disingenuous" for Council to change course now, it is still not too late to prevent an outcome that should never have been on the table in the first place.

Tell Council and the Province to designate the Gore and protect these buildings from demolition:

mtrmclco@ontario.ca, mchan.mpp.co@liberal.ola.org>, Bob.Bratina@hamilton.ca, Brian.McHattie@hamilton.ca, Jason.Farr@hamilton.ca, Bernie.Morelli@hamilton.ca, Sam.Merulla@hamilton.ca, Chad.Collins@hamilton.ca, Tom.Jackson@hamilton.ca, Scott.Duvall@hamilton.ca, Terry.Whitehead@hamilton.ca, Brad.Clark@hamilton.ca, Maria.Pearson@hamilton.ca, Brenda.Johnson@hamilton.ca, Lloyd.Ferguson@hamilton.ca, Russ.Powers@hamilton.ca, Robert.Pasuta@hamilton.ca, Judi.Partridge@hamilton.ca, kevin.finnerty@ontario.ca, Peter.armstrong@ontario.ca, tamara.ansoncartwright@ontario.ca, tmcMeekin.mpp@liberal.ola.org, ahorwath-co@ndp.on.ca

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 George (registered) | Posted August 13, 2013 at 11:16:54

April 15, 1961

It was later known as the Canada Permanent building. An ironic name as the building was demolished in 1999. A 20 story office building was announced for the site but never built. A parking lot is in its second decade on the prime site.


Comment edited by George on 2013-08-13 11:18:31

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By Sigma Cub (anonymous) | Posted August 13, 2013 at 11:48:34

Five paragraphs earlier in the March 17, 2001 Spectator article cited, the toothlessness of city ordinances is foreshadowed.

Before establishing the precedent that "prompted city council to pass a bylaw prohibiting developers who demolish old structures from opening parking lots in their place":

"Walking south from the gleaming CIBC tower, the first building you come to is the former Royal Bank Building. Its owner, also Yale Properties Inc., caused a furor when it announced plans to demolish the six-storey structure due to lack of tenants. Today, the building sits empty awaiting its fate. Thirty paces up the street is the Pigott Building, the city's first skyscraper. "

That building was, of course, demolished. Twelve years later, the gravel lot still sits empty but -- legally compliant -- devoid of anything but weeds.


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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted August 13, 2013 at 14:15:09

Mahesh Butani's vision


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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted August 13, 2013 at 14:25:26

Heritage Canada Foundation, The National Trust for Canada

Top Ten Endangered Places List.

Gore Park buildings are on that top 10 list


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By Connie (registered) | Posted August 13, 2013 at 22:30:00

I got a sick feeling reading Jason's comment that it would be "disingenuous" of City Council at this point to change course and designate and preserve the Gore buildings, after all of Jason's hard work in "negotiations" to have the buildings torn down. Jason even sweetened the offer and now he's giving the demolishers heritage money to tear the buildings down.

Tough "negotiations" indeed! On our time, with our money.

I didn't realize that Jason was the 'supreme decider' on this. I believe what he has is not an agreement, since he doesn't have that authority. What he has is a proposal that must be vetted with Council and the public.

And I also believe that if the demolishers try to go ahead and demolish these buildings, they will face physical resistance.

Because all Jason has is a plan to create 5 more empty lots downtown and destroy Hamilton's heritage core.

That isn't good enough.

The buildings are not coming down.

Comment edited by grannysaga on 2013-08-13 22:48:25

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted August 14, 2013 at 11:24:53

I also believe that if the demolishers try to go ahead and demolish these buildings, they will face physical resistance.

That would be really stupid. Noble perhaps, but naïve and stupid.

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By Connie (registered) | Posted August 15, 2013 at 00:16:24 in reply to Comment 90885

How so?

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