Mini Downtown Update

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 22, 2008

What a crazy week it's been! Here's a quick rundown of a few recent events:

Stinson Towers Over Connaught

Harry Stinson, the former Toronto property developer who recently moved to Hamilton to start fresh, just rolled out a strikingly ambitious plan to build an iconic 100 storey, 300 m tower behind the L-shaped Royal Connaught building once he renoates the Connaught into a combination upscale hotel/condominium.

Connaught Tower Rendering
Connaught Tower Rendering

Stinson even managed to get Hamilton mentioned in the US business media:

Stinson said in an interview he was "emotionally drained" and looking for a new start after the Toronto developments failed. He considered New York and Los Angeles, before deciding on Hamilton.

"Things were happening" in New York and Los Angeles, he said and "nothing was happening" in Hamilton, where business people had been sitting on downtown properties for decades without developing them.

He's starting the project by converting the Royal Connaught into a mixture of hotel rooms and condominiums, which will start at C$199,000 for a 600-square-foot unit, less than half the price of similar units in Toronto.

Stinson, who has already come out swinging against the "squelchers" who seem content for Hamilton to remain an unambitious backwater of retrograde thinking, explained his reason for such a grand vision in a CHTV interview:

If it weren't overwhelming it wouldn't work. If we put a normal box up there and tentatively stuck our toe in the water and said "well, we're sort of going to give it a try, we'll put up this mediocre building and if anybody buys it then we'll do something good"... it wouldn't work. You have to do something wow. This is perfectly buildable.

Definitely a project to watch.

Board of Ed to Stay Downtown

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) defied our expectations last night when they voted to stay downtown in a new two-phase project that partners with McMaster University and the city's public health department to redevelop the block framed by Main, Bay and King.

Education Square Rendering
Education Square Rendering (Source: HWDSB [PDF])

The Spectator reports:

It's a milestone after 14 months of debate, which began as board staff reported a crisis in non-school space: seven administrative buildings scattered across the city, including 100 Main St. W., together needed $28 million in repairs. Staff said "building failure" loomed.

The saga has seen options come and go. Businessman and philanthropist David Braley's $10-million donation to McMaster's medical school kick-started action.

The city presented an Education Square plan to keep the board downtown. Citizens mounted opposition to a move to the Mountain that, at times, seemed a sure thing.

[Trustee Judith] Bishop said the city's Education Square presentation in January showed the board new possibilities. The board tweaked that plan, to play a more active role in running the project.

In Phase 1, the developers build a five-storey underground parking garage, a building for the HWDSB and public health department, and a building for McMaster on King St. between the Art Gallery of Hamilton and Bay St. In Phase 2, the board will demolish the current Board of Ed building and sell the site at the corner of Main St. W. and Bay St.

The demolition of the existing building is troublesome. On the one hand, it's an architecturally significant example of the postmodern International Style, built in the same era as City Hall.

On the other, it's an essentially suburban design, hidden behind a deep grassy setback and opening onto the rear parking lot.

The hopeful news is that if Hamilton goes ahead with an initiative to build a light rail transit line along Main St., it should be no problem selling the land to interested property developers.

Downtown Residential Loan Fustercluck

This is just bizarre: the OPP has laid criminal charges against Gord Moodie, head of the city's downtown residential loan program, with municipal corruption and breach of trust for allegedly accepting a bribe from Denis Vranich, a local developer.

Vranich has also been charged. Police accuse him of bribing Moodie on behalf of his father, developer Darko Vranich, who has also made several investments in the city, including building the Staybridge Suites hotel on Market St., and a planned hotel on the old HMP site at Main St. W and Bay St.

Their evidence includes a cheque for $5,000 dated Nov. 11, 2005 from the Gown and Gavel Restaurant, which Vranich co-owned, to Moodie.

This isn't the first time the OPP has investigated the downtown residential loan program. The program was in the news in 2005, when councillor Dave Mitchell made accusations of widespread corruption after a police officer refused to reduce a speeding ticket in deference to his councillorship.

Mitchell and Judy MacDonald-Musitano, wife of convicted mobster Tony Musitano, accused the loan program of corruption based on documents that MacDonald-Musitano had provided to Mitchell.

A police investigation at the time turned up no criminal wrongdoing, and two internal city audits found some minor procedural issues but no evidence of foul play.

Denis Vranich has also been in the news before, after having pled guilty to sexual assault charges in September, 2007 after groping and molesting a female bartender at his bar, the Elixir Lounge and Nightclub in Hess Village.

The whole situation is clear as mud. Ward 2 Councillor Bob Bratina has stated that he believes Moodie is innocent and will be cleared of the current charges as he was cleared of wrongdoing in the previous investigation.

In the meantime, the program is suspended and Moodie has been reassigned to other duties pending a trial.

What has me scratching my head is: why would someone accept a bribe in cheque form?

The downtown residential loan program started because banks were reluctant to loan money for downtown developments. With the Connaught project ramping up and light rail looking more and more like a reality, perhaps we'll soon see the day when the city no longer has to 'seed' downtown residential investment with government loans.

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 jason (registered) | Posted May 22, 2008 at 13:32:58

Go for it Harry!

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By Frank (registered) | Posted May 22, 2008 at 13:36:15

Jason brought the rendering of the building Stinson wants to build last night and I had the exact reaction Stinson wants. Overwhelmed but excited! Can it really be possible that someone with real vision is investing in the downtown core? It's about time someone showed the un-developers who currently own the majority of properties downtown what can be done with a little bit of vision for the future. Take that LIUNA! Very happy about the B of E's decision to stay downtown as well. What? Underground parking in both buildings? Who'd 'a' thunk?!?! What happens to the HMP parking lot that's not supposed to exist now tho?

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted May 22, 2008 at 13:56:15

Great to hear about the excitement taking place downtown with the education center/mcmaster.

I fully support Stinson in redeveloping the Connaught. Although he does not have the best reputation. Nevertheless, I will be cautiously optimistic.

I think that the plans for a 100 story building are over the top though. I do not think that there is a large enough market in Hamilton to support such a grand development. I think that the downtown would benefit from several smaller condo projects,constructed in various corners of the downtown over a number of years in response to demand for these units.

I will believe in Harry's projects when I see the construction taking place.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted May 22, 2008 at 15:37:34

Capitalist, I have a tendency to feel the same way but I think that people here have been doing that to much. Also, I believe that the importance of this tower has been missed. I don't think that it's meant to attract Hamiltonians only but that it's supposed to attract investment from elsewhere i.e. Oakville, Brantford, Burlington, Toronto, Mississauga etc. Investment by companies of high calibre is what's necessary. LIUNA (an investor/developer from Hamilton) has had many opportunities and has so far fallen faaar short of expectations (or hit the nail on the head, depending on your perspective) and it's about time that someone steps up and starts to do something. I say "go wild Harry". I know that if I had the ability to do what he's doing, I'd be doing it myself that's for sure.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted May 23, 2008 at 09:49:20

I think that Harry should focus all his efforts on the redevelopment of the Hotel first and foremost. The 100 story tower is acting as a distraction.

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By arienc (registered) | Posted May 23, 2008 at 11:20:18

I wonder...if LRT were not a strong possibility, would Stinson even consider the Hammer for such a project?

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By arienc (registered) | Posted May 23, 2008 at 11:22:13

I wonder...if LRT were not a strong possibility, would Stinson even consider the Hammer for such a project?

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By tomkinite (anonymous) | Posted May 23, 2008 at 16:22:07

Excited. Waiting. Wanting. Ignoring the puss from the resistant.

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By skeptic (anonymous) | Posted May 25, 2008 at 17:46:49

I think the idea of this tower is creative but unfortunately really doesn't fit into the realm of Hamilton at all. A redo on the Royal Connaught into condos and a hotel is one thing, but I think the tower development just won't fly here... what about the lofty block of condos on James S. with high price tags and no one to fill it.... Stinson has a poor reputation for a reason... he left Toronto for a reason.. do we really need that type of inability in the downtown core.. we have enough empty buildings and unfinished projects between L.I.U.N.A and delinquent land owners. The city needs to get it's act together and decide where it wants to go in the future. Hamilton has beautiful old buildings that should be restored and turned into business/retail/residential before new ones are built in their places.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted May 26, 2008 at 08:22:48

Obviously skeptic hasn't been to that corner recently. No old buildings being wrecked. One old building being fabulously restored and a sweet looking, Hamilton defining (not sure what defines your Hamilton skeptic but I'd like something new and cool alongside the old and cool) skyscraper to fill up a PARKING LOT!!! Tomkinite...excellent - "puss from the resistant"!

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted May 26, 2008 at 08:54:15

"...just won't fly here"

Hey look, my squelcher-dar is pinging.

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 26, 2008 at 08:55:46

personally, I love the design of the tower. It's a true landmark that would be known across the country and North America. The hotel reno is top priority in my mind though. Get that done, and done properly and I think downtown will never be the same.

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