Save the Board of Education Building

By Matt Jelly
Published July 26, 2011

Hamilton has 205 vacant buildings and a downtown office vacancy rate of 13.7% (close to 700,000 square feet vacant) - not to mention countless acres of vacant lofts, brownfields and surface parking.

The Hamilton District School Board headquarters at 100 Main Street West is being considered as a location for the proposed McMaster Downtown Health Campus. While we would love to see McMaster play a large role in how downtown redevelops, we'd like them to develop in a way that respects our downtown architecture.

The building, built in 1966 and still in use, is a beautiful example of modernist architecture- it's truly one of the last times we got it right in Hamilton. It's absolutely structurally sound, and any plans to redevelop this site should include retaining this building.

Please email McMaster University President Patrick Deane and Mayor Bratina at, as well as your local councillor.

If we are subsidizing this development largely with public dollars, we should leverage this development to fill one of many vacant buildings and lots, rather than emptying and demolishing a building. Let's add rather than subtract.

Jelly is a local artist, graphic designer and map maker living in Downtown Hamilton, Ontario in the Central Neighbourhood. Matt is an advocate for built heritage, toxic waste eradication and the revitalization of downtown Hamilton.


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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted July 26, 2011 at 14:03:38

Yeah, this project will be subsidized by the public at the provincial and municipal levels, so it most definitely should develop in a way that broadly serves the public interest, not just Mac's desire for a big enough piece of empty land. Great video.

Comment edited by Borrelli on 2011-07-26 14:04:42

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By DoesItMakeSense (anonymous) | Posted July 26, 2011 at 15:37:09

Does it make sense to give away $20M AND another $35M in rental costs to move public health in the building. All for what? Setting up a facility for 450 people. The school board now has 350 people. That is a lot of millions of dollars for 100 extra people. A nutty idea at best. Who is behind this? Bratina? Shameful. Talk about wasting taxpayer money.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted July 26, 2011 at 15:58:58

If Public Health weren't relocated into the building, how much reconstruction would be needed?

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted July 26, 2011 at 16:26:46

Dear lord, no. There are many things I agree with Mr. Jelly on, but this is not one of them. The only worthwhile elements of this building are the mural at the front of the building and the statue on the west side, which could easily be removed or reincorporated into this structure or a different structure. Apart from them, the building looks like a stack of deformed harmonica's and it's circular rooms make the whole structure look odd.

Knock it down, McMaster's initial concept drawings show a lot of architectural similarities with city hall across the street and some welcome mesh of international and post-modern architecture into our city. I would like to see us breathe some life into the core with a mixture of both re-purposed worthwhile historic architecture and some modern buildings showing that we are progressing towards a denser, modern urban environment and not just constantly stuck in the past and simply rebuilding instead of building upwards. A modern facility does serve the public interest, bringing a state of the art facility and bringing students into the heart of the downtown core are direct benefits for Hamilton.

There are many more important pieces of architecture that should be fought for, such as the Royal Connaught Hotel, Dundurn Castle, the Pigot Building, Landmark Place, Auchmar, the Cannon Knitting Mills next to Beasley Park are all much more deserving of our attention then this eyesore from the 70s. As far as clearing out lots, yes I agree surface parking is a problem with the core, that needs to be gradually dealt with. In this case the cost of expropriating privately owned land is going to greatly exceed the demolition and sale costs of this building. Also noting the Federal building lots, that is currently in the hands of a private individual and where future private development has been promised (although we'll see how that goes) is asinine. That's not to say the current owner is a saint, far from it, but attempting to take land that he has for once operated in good faith and showed a plan for it's future is the wrong message to send.

Comment edited by -Hammer- on 2011-07-26 16:30:15

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By Dingo (anonymous) | Posted September 16, 2011 at 15:43:41 in reply to Comment 66919

I have to agree with Hammer on this one.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 26, 2011 at 21:43:29 in reply to Comment 66919

I must say I did like the concept drawings by Mac. Loved the overhang reminiscent of the City Hall council chamber.
However, it's only a concept which could change into a boring box if we're not careful. I agree with Jelly though that we have gobs of empty land. Why tear down something functional??

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By Steve (registered) | Posted July 26, 2011 at 18:21:13 in reply to Comment 66919

Not to quibble, but the building was finished in 1966. I think it is a fine piece of architecture from that period.

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By MattJelly (registered) - website | Posted July 26, 2011 at 17:21:24 in reply to Comment 66919

Hammer, you're entitled to your opinion on the merits of the architecture. I respectfully disagree. This building was carefully designed by it's architect- right down to the furniture and fixtures. You can really see this on the interior of the building as well. It's built with high-quality materials, and we don't put the same attention into buildings anymore- it seems this building was the last of it's kind in Hamilton, right before brutalism began to define all local civic architecture. But we're not likely to see eye-to-eye on the building itself, so I can leave it at that.

Your second paragraph is interesting: "Knock it down, McMaster's initial concept drawings show a lot of architectural similarities with city hall across the street and some welcome mesh of international and post-modern architecture into our city. I would like to see us breathe some life into the core with a mixture of both re-purposed worthwhile historic architecture and some modern buildings showing that we are progressing towards a denser, modern urban environment and not just constantly stuck in the past and simply rebuilding instead of building upwards."

I'd say the Board of Education building and City Hall already share a lot of architectural similarities and compliment each other well, one as the seat of local government and the other the seat of public education. What I've tried to suggest in the video is that the Board of Education property can be adaptively reused, if McMaster were to focus development on the parking lot behind the building- incorporating the current structure into the new development. You and I both want the same things- I agree wholeheartedly with the last sentence of that paragraph. There's nothing stopping McMaster from an interesting adaptive reuse project here.

You're right- there are a lot of buildings in this City which are older, have more architectural and historical significance, and are also in danger of being demolished. I've fought for some of them myself. Do I think the Board of Ed building is a more beautiful building than the Connaught? No. But do I think that means it should be razed from the ground to make way for new development, when there are so many parts of the downtown that need reinvestment?

The point I'd like to make is that we're not leveraging this public investment in the best way possible, to either rejuvenate a vacant building (such as the Connaught), remediate and redevelop a brownfield (like West Harbour) or to fill a vacant lot. Instead, we're relocating the Board of Education to 50 Millwood Place (near Limeridge Mall) taking 300 jobs out of the core and replacing them with 450- only a net gain of 150 Jobs. Then we're demolishing a structurally sound building with public dollars, when the development could just as easily happen somewhere else, or on the same site as an adaptive reuse project.

On the last point, all I did in the video was show the amount of currently idling surface parking that exist in the area surrounding the Board of Education building- I didn't intend to say the McMaster development should go on those specific lots, but rather to illustrate how we're knocking down a building when we have several blocks throughout the core that look like this. Additionally, I did not suggest McMaster expropriates a property as you suggest- it would be within their means to purchase a piece of property.

Thanks for the feedback.

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By billn (registered) | Posted July 28, 2011 at 08:24:21 in reply to Comment 66921

Not only was it built to last, but I'm sure I read in an article about Joseph Singer (which I can't find now) that he designed the foundations to accomodate the later addition of an office tower. Can anyone confirm this? If true, i wonder why it hasn't been part of the deliberations?

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted July 26, 2011 at 19:04:33 in reply to Comment 66921

Mr. Jelly, your response to my post has further validated why I voted for you last election. Unlike some who would dismiss an opposing viewpoint, you have picked exactly what we agree on and build upon it and noted the differences of opinion and have politely stated understanding but clarified your position without preaching the other position as wrong.

I do completely agree that the Brutalist architecture is a blight upon Hamilton (particularly the Convention Center). As far as the adaptive reuse, I don't see a lot of potential, save for maybe the ground floor. I have doubts the facility has proper internal infrastructure (adequate piping, support structures for expansion, etc) that would make adapting the building fiscally desirable for modern medical facility. I think you have to pick your battles though and there are better battles to pick then this one.

I do agree though, it certainly is within McMaster's means to purchase another piece of property. The problem though they need incentives to build where the city desires them to build (AKA: The Core). I do feel the city is doing the right thing by offering incentive to McMaster to build in the core. It doesn't have to be at the cost of a building that I personally find unsightly, but others appreciate. I just can't support such a movement because I don't want to see this tired building any longer. This facility could be built easily in the mass of parking around John and Wilson (next to planned parkland). However concern must also be raised that if the board of education does move from this location, what use could this building serve?

Thank you for clarifying the last point though. I do agree surface parking in the core is a big problem. I though you were specifically implying to build it at the old federal building location, which may finally see something go up although I'm cautiously optimistic on that one. Lets give Vranich another chance, if only to say to developers that we are willing to give such a chance.

As you stated though, we have differences of opinion on architecture. I only find parts of the ground floor of this structure appealing. The rest of it, well I already stated what I think of it's appearance. I would much prefer a more modern building in our core.

Comment edited by -Hammer- on 2011-07-26 19:08:11

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted July 26, 2011 at 19:31:06 in reply to Comment 66933

This exchange of comments between MattJelly and Hammer has to be one of the best things I've read on this board, and should serve as a model of intelligent discourse on these boadrs, and beyond.

My faith in humanity has been refreshed. I applaud both of you.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted July 26, 2011 at 21:39:33 in reply to Comment 66935

Why thank you. Mr. Jelly does bring up good points, even if I disagree with his opinion regarding the worth of the building. Glad to have helped brighten your day.

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By MattJelly (registered) - website | Posted July 26, 2011 at 20:23:27 in reply to Comment 66935

Thanks. I'm always up for a debate on any issue, as long as it doesn't devolve into personal insults in the absence of compelling debate, as is so often the case. "Hammer" was just respectfully stating an opinion different from mine- I can't really disagree with someone saying they don't personally feel a building is attractive.

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By Desmond (anonymous) | Posted July 26, 2011 at 18:07:57

What makes anyone think saving the building won't cost twice as much as the current proposal?

"Saving" the lister is going to end up costing taxpayers more then twice as much but thank god its still here!

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted July 26, 2011 at 21:28:21 in reply to Comment 66924

$65 Million to keep it, renovate it and modernize it for current HWDSB use, nevermind an up to date medical center.

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By BlametheBoard (anonymous) | Posted July 26, 2011 at 18:42:38

The Board of Ed should be the focus here. They are skipping out of downtown on the taxpayers dime and selling the building for demolition. If the current site is unaffordable - then move, but stay in the core. They are an elected body and should be accountable for their actions. Email the chair Judith Bishop.

The land was given to the board by the city and should be given back (for free) if the are going to leave. We shouldn't be paying the Board so that they can build their Wal-Mart HQ just because some of their staff don't like having to drive downtown to work. The Board of Ed is sending a horrible example to all the students in their schools and all their members should be sent a message.

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By George (registered) | Posted July 26, 2011 at 19:02:14

The land was given to the board by the city and should be given back (for free) if the are going to leave.

Agreed 100%!

Where's the big stink over this?

IIRC, that city land was expressly given to the board so that their employees would be working downtown.

Why is no one, especailly the city, going after the board on this issue?

How can they break their deal on this? Am I misinformed about this?

The board's 350 employees should remain downtown, with the new 450 employess in the MAC building.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 27, 2011 at 08:40:12 in reply to Comment 66931

Sad to say, but I think the reason there is no stink over this is because we've come to expect this sort of thinking from our 'educators'. I know some people downtown who will be glad to see them gone because it means 'a few hundred less Hamilton-hating complainers downtown'. Ouch!

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By Me 109 (anonymous) | Posted July 26, 2011 at 19:41:04

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 z jones (registered) | Posted July 26, 2011 at 20:25:58 in reply to Comment 66936

Since I'm a taxpayer, I am buying it. And even if you demolish it, you still have to deal with the asbestos.

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By stanley (anonymous) | Posted July 26, 2011 at 19:46:52

I love this building just like I love all the buildings Hammer mentioned. It's a rare case of a building from this time combining modern materials and spare design with lightness and elegance. The round house at the front, the murals and statue, the windows all create a very unique mix of classical and modern, and befit the space, which should be civic - next to the AGH and across from city hall. You won't get pedestrian traffic there like you will on King or Main and John. It should stay a government building - really it should have taken the overflow from city hall. The Mac campus design totally dominates the space, looming both over the art gallery and city hall. It would be perfect in a busier place with transit stops. There are lots of these lots in the Hammer.

The other thing is that I really hate the argument that we need to tear this down because if not we won't get the building. Mac needs the downtown centre just like we need it. It's a condition of Braley's cash. They're just trying to leverage the most out of their funding. If they get the site they'll pat themselves on the back and hand out bonuses for saving so much money. But just like the stadium people immediately turn to hysteria when confronted with a big corporation telling them there's only one option. If we were proud of our city we'd say if you want to build here then there are restrictions. Or we'd work with them to find a place that suits all parties. For instance we would not incentivize the creation and maintenance of brownfields but encourage their development, and make parking lots unaffordable. We'd actually enforce and build up our heritage legislation.

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted July 26, 2011 at 20:41:07

The asbestos has to be removed whether they tear it down or not. You are not allowed to demolish a building that contains asbestos and just let it dissipate into the environment.

So, given that the cost of asbestos removal is fixed, you then have to ask what else needs to be replaced. HVAC, electrical, floor coverings, ceiling lights. All of these are costs that will be present in a brand new building. None of these are heritage features. Not one of them.

I'm not saying that the costs are identical, but let's not get too carried away with how much we'll save with a shiny new building. If it doesn't cost much to build it, it's because it's made of cheaply. You can't simply project manage your way out of it. The proposed new Mac Med Campus is generic corporate architecture, with a clumsy homage to the shape of the Council chambers. I understand that we don't all see architecture, or art, or literature, or film, etc. the same way. But let's not be wowed by something that looks like it belongs on the side of the QEW.

Once again, Councillors are obsessed with shiny objects and can't seem to think straight whenever they see them.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted July 27, 2011 at 00:13:39 in reply to Comment 66945

I think the second half of this post is unfair. McMaster is still footing the Lion's share of the bill. It's going to be a $105 million dollar facility. Just because it is likely going to be cheaper for the city (only needing to contribute $20 million as a loan) then the $65 million needed to preserve this existing building, just for continued BoE use (nevermind more to adapt it as a medical facility) doesn't mean it's being done on the cheap.

Nor does this look to me as a generic corporate structure and even if it was, some more corporate presence in our core couldn't hurt either. It looks like a refreshing piece of post-modernism that is notably absent throughout most of the city.

Comment edited by -Hammer- on 2011-07-27 00:14:43

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By grahamm (registered) | Posted July 26, 2011 at 22:13:11

Hey - my quick google has not revealed the images of Mac's proposed buildings. Anyone have a link?

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted July 26, 2011 at 22:43:46 in reply to Comment 66950

Here is one

There were a couple others floating around too.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted July 27, 2011 at 15:08:53 in reply to Comment 66951

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted July 26, 2011 at 23:14:28

If we're not going to start preserving the buildings that are in our core now, then when? Will McMaster's design face the same fate in 3-4 decades when it's "out of date"? The "knock it down and build something fancy" approach has been blighting downtown for decades - can we try something else?

I'll agree, the School Board isn't exactly Notre Dame Cathedral. But how is it all that different from 50 Main St. E.? The two buildings have a lot in common, and McMaster seems to have made it work pretty well.

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By George (registered) | Posted July 27, 2011 at 08:23:23

Why can't MAC build their building on the board's parking lot at the corner of King & Bay, behind the existing HWDSB building where they have tentative plans to build condos?

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted July 27, 2011 at 10:46:51

Given the neighbouring precedent for public sector architectural heritage preservation standards, this seems like a bit of a loaded plea. Anyone notice how much concrete and marble are interchangeable, or which of the two materials is more prominent in McMaster's Health Sciences buildings?

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2011 at 12:12:22

I'm not against corporations being downtown. What I'm not keen on is what I did refer to as "generic corporate architecture", the kind of buildings that are usually put up by a developer with a prime tenant in mind. This is the kind of thing that Rudy Reimer has done along the QEW. The buildings are not exactly great architecture. More engineering than architecture.

City Hall and the Education Building were built by and for the client. The materials used were selected to make a statement. Concrete had been used for years in construction when both of these buildings were put up, but they were not clad in concrete. Higher quality materials were used and all elements were "designed" or selected by the architects. For example, mosaic panels on City Hall, and copper panels on the Board of Education building.

We can disagree on whether we like the finished object.

As for a dearth of modern architecture downtown, I agree. That's because nobody is building anything in our downtown. Now, when a public institution of higher learning says we'd like to build something, they choose to destroy first and build second. They choose a grand civic building AND they ask us to help pay to tear it down and build its replacement. The empty parking lot behind the BOE building is owned by the BOE. Even McMaster isn't committing to building there any time soon.

It seems to me that digging on an empty lot is much cheaper than tearing a building down and dumping it as landfill. Not to mention the utter lack of environmental leadership shown by our home-town institution of higher learning.

Once again, Hamilton is about to get it wrong. It's very frustrating. If at first you don't succeed, lower your goals.

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2011 at 12:41:09

Fred Street,

All the more reason for McMaster to build on the parking lot. Faster. Cheaper. Still at a main intersection. Etc. That way they can meet their so-called deadline.

This false sense of urgency that seems to be a common strategy in this town is simply nuts. Once again poor old Hamilton is so desperate to get something, anything, that we cave on our principles, not to mention our sense of better judgment. We'll accept their terms because at least they want to do something. And nobody else will even talk to us.

Sometimes something isn't worth anything. Ripping down our landmarks is a good example.

And if we believe the McGuinty government is going to hold us to a date that is meaningless in the first place on the eve of a provincial election, it's time we all gave our heads a shake. If we behave as desperate losers, we'll get treated as such. I refuse to be a beggar!

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted July 27, 2011 at 12:49:56 in reply to Comment 66966

I'm not a Mac apologist. I'm just suggesting that the university's use of the old courthouse was a PR sop that had no funding deadlines shaping its decision-making. Absent a mountain of public money, the Downtown Health Campus is not well-suited to adaptive reuse. Then again, as I say, it's an election year and the laws of the universe are in flux. Having bought the land and paid for the building once, there's nothing to stop us from doing it again. I kid, but only just. And again, if the private sector assessment of our city's architectural heritage is that its value is primarily symbolic-sentimental, there aren't enough elections on the horizon to save us from an ocean of heartbreak.

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By MattJelly (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2011 at 13:13:02 in reply to Comment 66969

I'd say $55 Million is a mountain of money, especially from a cash-strapped municipality. As always, I'd like to see a report on the adaptive capabilities of the building from qualified experts- rather than basing decisions on anecdote.

At this point, I'm not convinced that the basic structure couldn't be incorporated into a new development for roughly the same cost of tearing it down and building new- the parking lot behind the BOE building is roughly the exact same size as the part of the property that faces Main Street. But I'm not an expert.

It's confusing to me why this particular property is of interest to McMaster and not another- as Graham points out, you'd think it would be cheaper to purchase a vacant lot than to purchase a building and spend money demolishing it. The only way it makes sense is if the Board sells it to Mac for an extremely low price- is the amount needed to purchase and demolish the building lower than the value of a vacant lot? I really doubt it.

Even if you take the Board of Education building out of the picture, it still doesn't make sense not to leverage the public dollars going into this project in a way that either fills a vacant lot, restores an empty building, or remediates a brownfield.

150 employees, students in the core and a training facility that might address our doctor shortage sounds great- but those don't have to be the only benefits to this project.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted July 27, 2011 at 13:22:54 in reply to Comment 66973

The $55 million is a bit misleading, of course, since it takes into account a $20 million investment and an additional $35 million in long-term lease at the facility to accommodate the city’s public health department – which would be paying rent somewhere anyway.

Anyway, we can probably wait it out. How long can prosperity elude Hamilton's downtown? The city should buy the building and board it up until the stars align.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted July 27, 2011 at 13:33:41 in reply to Comment 66975

More clarification: Andrew Dreschel has quoted "city staff," as putting the cost of public health's 25-year lease at the health campus, costing taxpayers $35.4 million or about $1.3 million a year over the life of the agreement -- about $37.47 a square foot after operating costs, about $2.50/square foot cheaper than the city's Lister Block leases.

Why the city doesn't cut McMaster out of the picture and just move its public health staff into the BoE building after undertaking a comprehensive reno is a decent question. If we're resigned to paying $35 million on rent, why not spend twice that and own?

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By MattJelly (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2011 at 13:47:09 in reply to Comment 66976

Fair enough- although we'd be leasing the space for more than $37 per square foot in this proposal. At the renovated Lister Block, we'll be paying $40 per square foot, but the City will own the building in the end, and we'll get tax revenue from the building over the course of the lease. It's still not a good deal for the City to be leasing space at roughly twice fair market value- but the Lister was a better deal for the City than the Downtown Health Campus- and our current Mayor has been rather outspoken in opposing that deal.

Interesting history: the City gave the land to the Board to build the current Board of Education. Now, The Board is selling the building to McMaster, who is going to charge us above-fair-market value for office space, when we already have a 13.7% office vacancy rate in the core. Public Health needs 84,400 sq. feet- and we have nearly tenfold that amount sitting currently vacant.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted July 27, 2011 at 14:56:56 in reply to Comment 66980

When the city first bought into Lister, it was optioning half of the building's 120,000 square feet. Now it's looking like the sole tenant of a 65,000 square foot building with the richest floor space in the city. That grey "win" is surely one reason why the Spec disabled its commenting on yesterday's Lister editorial.

Commercial vacancy in the core is not quite as spiky as office vacancy, but combine the two and you'll find over a million square feet of vacant space in the core. Mix that in with the surfeit of surface parking and downtown can still be described as a place with fantastic potential, but also a place defined by lack.

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By MattJelly (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2011 at 13:48:14 in reply to Comment 66980

Oops- it looks like you made some of the same points in your follow-up post.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted July 27, 2011 at 12:55:11 in reply to Comment 66969

Although I can't speak to the contractual letter of the agreement between the province and McMaster, deadlines can obviously be discarded or disregarded. Just like LRT has no real urgency attached to it. After all, Hamilton's urban development is measured in inverted dog years.

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2011 at 13:44:29

Fred Street

Now that's a great idea. Really.

The City could cut a deal with McMaster to build whatever they need in order to be close to our public health staff and the citizens who use their services, and vice versa, on the parking lot that is part of the BOE property.

I think the economics would not be too far off. Mac pays the city for land, at an attractive rate if necessary, and builds its centre right downtown. The only reason McMaster mentioned condos, etc on the north parking lot is to generate revenue. Let's use Fred's idea to help them reduce their initial costs, both of acquisition and of development. They could even pay the city rent if they would prefer to be a tenant.

See, good ideas do indeed come from dialogue. And just in case anybody is wondering, I'm not being sarcastic at all.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted July 27, 2011 at 13:47:07

I feel like I'm just chewing up the comment thread, which was/is not my intention. Here's a final thought for the noble souls: Another critical question that begs asking, of course -- and one so obvious I'm frankly shocked that nobody seems to have asked it -- is how McMaster hopes to achieve LEED certification when its plan calls for the razing of a building like the BoE?

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By MattJelly (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2011 at 17:45:10

Further clarification on the numbers. According to an article about the initial decision-making that went into relocating the board (link below), the $65 Million number included adding an addition, plus underground parking. So- we still don't know the exact number for restoration, but it's safe to say it would be well below $65 Million- I'll look for the BOE staff report on this.

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By Michael Moore (anonymous) | Posted July 27, 2011 at 19:07:02

Well, he's no Michael Moore but he makes the point. Come to think of it, nor am I, but I make the point too.

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By MattJelly (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2011 at 20:31:09 in reply to Comment 66999

I'd like to make a point: I'm fat.

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted July 28, 2011 at 08:55:22


I know that Stan Roscoe, who designed City Hall, did that, but I'm not sure about the BOE building.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted July 28, 2011 at 09:45:20

He made a great point in another article on this site:

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