The greenest building is the one that already exists. The Lister Block decision has environmental and heritage implications.
Heritage conservation advocates and environmental activists - those who care not only about the planet, but also about the quality of our built environment - should both be watching the case of the 1923 Lister Block in Hamilton with bated breath. This is a textbook case of why governments at all levels need to do more than just talk about their commitment to the environment.
In 2000, a revitalization deal for the heritage designated Lister Block fell apart when the federal government instead spurred the construction of Canada Place, a new building.
The Auditor General recently noted that the leasing deal may end up costing tax payers $13 million dollars more than it needed to, but let's talk about the cost to the environment.
While the Lister Block, a massive source of embodied energy, sits deteriorating, construction of the new building resulted in the use of resources and the production of greenhouse gasses to process and transport building materials.
This scenario threatens to be repeated. The City of Hamilton agreed to occupy three floors of the Lister Block, but recently claimed that the building does not meet its leasing standards, preventing its reuse. The alternative is complete demolition and construction of a replica in its place, with token retention of bits and pieces of the original heritage building.
In addition to the environmental impact, which would now include landfill created by demolition, is the loss of the cultural capital of Hamilton's oldest retail/office complex.
This is not an isolated incident, because governments at all levels are failing to walk the talk:
In 2003, the former Eaton's Department Store in Winnipeg, a 1904 landmark, was demolished to make way for an entertainment complex that received $38.5 million in public funding, including $12 million in funding from the federal government.
In 2004, the Salmoni Building in Amherstburg, Ontario, was demolished despite public protests and reports confirming the building's viability for reuse.
Earlier this year, the City of Kitchener sent the designated Forsyth Factory to the landfill instead of incorporating it into a new central library development.
While a demolition permit has already been approved for the Lister Block, the provincial minister of culture has intervened and the City has agreed to a 60 day cooling-off period for stakeholders and experts to work with a provincial facilitator.
This time-out gives the City of Hamilton an opportunity to show that its environmental policy is worth more than the paper it is written on. By making its future tenancy in the Lister Block conditional on retention and re-use of the heritage building, the City would make a meaningful step toward environmental stewardship, and help create a market demand for office space in an authentic historic building.
If all governments gave priority to existing designated buildings in their space leasing and property acquisition decisions, it would result in a huge and sustained market transformation.
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