Special Report

Fate of Old Revenue Building Starts to Come into Focus

Vrancor plan is to partially demolish 150 Main Street West and incorporate the southwest corner into a new condo development.

By Ryan McGreal
Published August 17, 2011

this article has been updated

After yesterday's surprise partial demolition of the old Revenue Canada building at 150 Main Street West, the building's ultimate fate is finally starting to come into focus.

Demolished northeast corner of Revenue Canada building
Demolished northeast corner of Revenue Canada building

Before the Ministry of the Environment halted demolition yesterday over concerns about the amount of dust being generated, local heritage advocates were caught off-guard by the demolition, for which building owner Vrancor had given no advance notice.

Last night, Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr issued a public statement that provided some background on the issue and answered a number of questions forwarded by constituents. He confirmed that the bas-relief sculptures by Elizabeth Bradford Holbrook will be preserved, even though they have not been removed prior to the demolition.

Vrancor originally planned to demolish the building entirely and construct a new condo/hotel complex. In June, they proposed revising the plan to partially restore the west side of the building, which houses the bas-relief sculptures.

According to Farr, "it is no longer the intent of the developer to demolish that portion of the building in which the sculptures are located. In addition, the works will be restored and remain in place as originally intended when Dr. Holbrook was commissioned to do the work."

Vrancor will issue updated drawings of the revised plan "in the next few weeks".

Farr also reiterated his support for the Vrancor plan:

For our beautiful Hamilton, this is a major and positive downtown transformation. The developer (who has in the last five years invested $200 million on developments outside of Hamilton) is making a local five-phase, $140 million development investment. Ten of thousands of man hours will result in this development and millions will be added to the tax base upon the completion of the five phases, not to mention the hundreds of future full-time local jobs. In addition, we (Council) did not know it then, but this precinct will also greatly complement the $80 million McMaster Family Medicine Campus.

The Spectator reports that City staff say the original demolition permit issued in February will be violated if Vrancor does not demolish the entire building. In that case, Vrancor will need to produce an engineer's report ensuring that the remaining wing is structurally sound.

Background

Pre-demolition: Revenue Canada building view from behind (RTH file photo)
Pre-demolition: Revenue Canada building view from behind (RTH file photo)

Vrancor originally bought the property from the Federal Government in 2004 for $1.2 million. Since then, the developer has proposed several plans to renovate the existing building into condos but never followed through. A 2004 loan offer from the city under the Downtown Residential Loan program was canceled in 2008 "due to the owner not proceeding with the residential development project."

In 2009, Vranich applied for a grant through the Canada-Ontario Affordable Housing Program 2009 Extension to build affordable housing in the old Revenue Canada building, but the application did not pass the program's eligibility criteria.

In May 2008, the OPP filed criminal charges against Gord Moodie, the head of the City's Downtown Residential Loan Program, for allegedly accepting a $5,000 bribe from Darko's son Denis on behalf of the elder Vranich.

The alleged bribe was in the form of a check dated November 11, 2005 from the Gown and Gavel Restaurant, a Hess Village pub that Vranich co-owned. The OPP indicated their belief that the cheque was a kickback for considering the municipal loan for the Revenue Canada building.

In September 2009, Superior Court Justice James Ramsay dismissed the charge against Moodie, concluding Moodie did not qualify as a "municipal official" under the Criminal Code but was merely a municipal employee.

Meanwhile, 150 Main Street West has been on the radar of the Municipal Heritage Committee (LACAC), identified as a Building of Concern.

In 2008, the building served as an illegal storage facility for hotel mattresses and furniture. In August 2009, the City levied a $10,500 fine against Vrancor for violating the Ontario Fire Code.

Since 2004, the company has assembled a large, contiguous package of land between Hess, Main, Bay and King Streets - including the site of the former Hamilton Motor Products (HMP) automobile dealership, which was demolished in November 2007.

(Note: the HMP site, at 132 Main Street West, is an L-shaped lot that wraps to the east and north of the parking lot right at the corner or Main and Bay, which is at 114 Main Street West and is not owned by Vrancor.)

Demolition Permit

Early this year, controversy erupted around Vrancor's plan to demolish 150 Main Street West to make room for a 140 unit, 20-storey condominium on the site.

At the February 1, 2011 Planning Committee meeting that considered Vrancor's request for a demolition permit, Councillor Terry Whitehead pointed out that the Federal Government sold the property to Vrancor along with a covenant [PDF] committing the owner to "conserve, protect and maintain the heritage features and characteristics" of the building and "not to raze to the ground or otherwise demolish the entire building located on the lands."

Vrancor president Darko Vranich signed the covenant when he bought the property.

Tim McCabe, General Manager of Planning and Economic Development, argued that it was not the City's job to enforce the covenant, as that was a matter between Vrancor and the Federal Government.

Also at the meeting, the Municipal Heritage Committee submitted a recommendation [PDF] to designate 150 Main Street West as a Municipal Heritage building. The committee identified the following heritage criteria:

Tim McCabe noted that the recommendation was "done as a rush to stop a demolition permit that is before us" and argued that issuing a notice to designate "at the ninth hour" would provide "uncertainty to our investment community".

The committee voted against the Heritage Committee's recommendation and granted the demolition permit. (You can read a full transcript of the committee meeting on the CATCH website.

The next day, Government Services Canada sent a letter to Vrancor stating that the building must not be demolished. The letter reads in part:

Please be reminded that the Government of Canada sold the property with a covenant that runs with the land in perpetuity which, in addition to protecting certain designated features and facades, requires that you and subsequent purchasers not 'raze to the ground or otherwise demolish the entire building'.

On February 11, Councillor Farr held a joint press conference with Vranich in which he announced that Vrancor intended to remove and preserve Bradford's bas-relief friezes.


Update: This piece originally attributed the bas-relief sculptures to "Elizabeth Bradford". In fact, the sculptor's full name was Elizabeth Bradford Holbrook. You can jump to the changed paragraph.

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 writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

43 Comments

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By mike_sak (registered) | Posted August 17, 2011 at 10:31:29

Why not just rename this section of town Vramilton. Since it seems his company likes to play by their own rules.

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By misterque (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2011 at 21:41:04 in reply to Comment 68122

It is a huge undertaking. I hope it works, and I hope that the historical architecture covenant is fulfilled. If you put up this kind of money you should be able to name it after yourself. I like Darkansas personally. Since Vrancouver is brilliant, how about Vrancouver Darkansas. Just sayin.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted August 19, 2011 at 00:04:35 in reply to Comment 68251

How about naming the new building The Darkota?

Comment edited by ScreamingViking on 2011-08-19 00:12:03

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 17, 2011 at 10:46:57 in reply to Comment 68122

Nah, we need something more progressive and forward-thinking. How about "Vrancouver"?

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 17, 2011 at 10:49:31

Even taking into account the fact that we've had two Councils in office since this began (mind you, almost all the incumbents were voted back in last October...), I wonder just how much of 'all this' unfolding as it has can be attributed to 'City staff' holding sway.

No, I have no 'conspiracy theory' I'm trying to foist, but does it make anyone else wonder just who's providing the direction over on Main Street?

On another tack, we seem to have this syndrome happening in Hamilton where -apparently- we're supposed to feel thankful for a questionable developer and his/her questionable behaviour...because otherwise, there'd be nothing else going on?!?

Seriously?

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted August 17, 2011 at 11:39:14 in reply to Comment 68124

You know what I say Adrian? Hamilton makes a choice. Either a choice to toss these types of developers/investors out on their kiester's and open the doors for many more smaller, community-minded investers to set up shop, or continue to scare of small business and open the doors for Goth-ham city - the Darko night.

Obiously the former is preferred. Perhaps by sitting on the fence here, we are not an attractive option for either side.

James St N, Ottawa St, etc. hopefully are leading us to the former. Walmart moving into the Centre, Darko in charge of our downtown development, leans us strongly in the other direction.

I feel yesterday's twittering, facebooking, movie creations, and various emails to councillor's, brought up plans that did not exsit for this location before yesterday.

We may never know but kudos to everyone who covered this story from inspiring photographs and film, to reminding us here all the reasons why this building should not come down.

I think yesterday was a good day for Hamilton in many ways.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 17, 2011 at 12:30:52 in reply to Comment 68128

I think you're looking at the wrong parties, Lawrence.

I don't think that the 'problem' lies with any one particular type or group of developers or speculators. I think that's looking at the wrong aspect of what unfolds.

Our local government is charged with looking after things. This involves more than just making sure things don't go wrong, it involves having elements in place so that things go right in as many ways as is possible. Which requires a consistent vision being implemented on many levels. (I'm not talking about micromanaging. I'm talking more or less about something cultural.)

'Bad' developers don't get to run amok if there are proper preventative measures and guidelines in place...and people who are given the responsibility of ensuring that these are enforced.

My sense in Hamilton is that a) there's no effective vision, b) there's no effective leadership and c) there's a disconnect between Councillors and 'City Staff'. All three of these combined set up the possibility for developers essentially getting things their way...so that we see these melodramas unfolding such as here, with the Federal Building and The Century in early 2010.

The resultant d) 'helplessness' that many Hamiltonians feel when something like this happens (keeping in mind that many simply don't care/aren't aware when these comedies-of-greed unfold) needs to be prevented as much as the very production that constantly gets foisted upon us by all involved needs to be stopped. We're continually creating more of the 'legacy malaise' that burdens us.

Put simply: it's not the thieves that are the problem when the building's doors and windows are left wide open and the security guards are off on a perpetual coffee break.

Comment edited by mystoneycreek on 2011-08-17 12:33:20

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted August 17, 2011 at 10:58:41

My prediction: Vrancor makes a showy attempt to save the facade, has an "oopsie" and laments that the facade has been structurally compromised and is no longer salvageable.

Farr echoes their apology but reiterates that they have grand plans for the site.

The building is converted into a surface parking lot.

Farr is silent. After much gnashing of teeth from the public, an investigation is called. After a three-years, a fine of under $20,000 is levied against Vrancor. This fine is never paid.

The end.

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By bigguy1231 (registered) | Posted August 17, 2011 at 11:50:08 in reply to Comment 68125

Here's Jason Farr's answers to some of the questions being asked. They were posted on his website yesterday.

http://www.jasonfarr.com/community-initi...

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted August 17, 2011 at 12:07:59 in reply to Comment 68129

Oh, I'm not questioning Farr's honesty. And if it goes as planned, it sounds awesome.

I'm just suspicious of Vrancor, and wouldn't be suprised if we're all (Farr included) being taken for a ride.

You know how toothless the city is with stuff like this. Vrancor knows it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted August 17, 2011 at 14:21:20

I agree that we should be catious of Vrancor, and watch this demolition like a hawk.

Yes he has a covenant with the federal government that prevents him from demolishing the entire building, but he also has a demolition permit from the city permitting demolition of the entire building.

If he demolishes half, and an engineer deems the rest unsafe, he'll have to tear the rest down and violate his covenant with the federal government (I wonder if it stipulates damages?).

In the ideal situation, the city would make him hold off on further demolition (since he's stated he won't demolish the whole building, and this is at odds with his permit) and make him apply for a proper permit, perhaps requiring an engineer's report outlining who the demolition will be done in a manner that ensures the structural stability of the undemolished portion.

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By David Miller (anonymous) | Posted August 17, 2011 at 19:01:50

Um, Who is Elizabeth Bradford? Those friezes were sculpted by Elizabeth Holbrook.

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By R Don Lyres (anonymous) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 11:29:17 in reply to Comment 68147

I believe it is Elizabeth (nee)Bradford Holbrook.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2011 at 11:46:37 in reply to Comment 68184

Apparently her proper name is Elizabeth Bradford Holbrook. I've updated the article to eliminate confusion.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 17, 2011 at 19:33:33

And after that?

Can we see your Master Wish List?

And maybe a visual representation of how things will look down the road? In a year? Two years? Five years?

We await with bated breath.

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By Henry and Joe (anonymous) | Posted August 17, 2011 at 20:15:44 in reply to Comment 68150

Maybe we need to be more like Winnipeg. Does this look familiar to anyone?

http://www.ihatewinnipeg.com/downtown-winnipeg-%E2%80%94-now-with-more-parking-for-goldeyes-and-manitoba-moose-games/

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted August 17, 2011 at 20:56:58

If this project becomes a success, I'm going to love linking to this article.

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted August 17, 2011 at 21:01:00 in reply to Comment 68154

I think that most RTHers would love to see this project become a success. They just don't believe that it's going to happen.

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By RenaissanceWatcher (registered) | Posted August 17, 2011 at 22:36:32

The $47 Million commitment made by the city last week toward the construction and long-term leasing of the McMaster Health Campus and Hamilton Public Health Centre at Bay and Main is the “sweetener” prompting Vrancor’s expeditious demolition of the Federal Building across the street six days later, literally having to be temporarily halted by the MOE to let the dust settle.

Vrancor has been sitting on its vacant properties in Hamilton for several years. It became a different ball game for Vrancor last week. The prospect of attracting some of the 450 salaried McMaster Health Campus and Public Health employees to live across the street in one of Vrancor’s proposed 628 condo units and having visiting researchers, students and patients staying at Vrancor’s extended stay hotels provides a key incentive for Vrancor to proceed with its five phase $150 Million condominium and hotel project. It will be interesting to see whether all five phases will be completed within the estimated six to seven year time frame.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 00:16:22 in reply to Comment 68157

As a side note, it seems that every single developer in Hamilton is getting on the hotel band wagon. First Stinson with the Hamilton Grand, then Vrancor showing some motion and now.

http://www.thespec.com/news/local/articl...

About time!

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By misterque (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2011 at 21:45:12 in reply to Comment 68158

I wonder what this hotel splurge is based on? I recall the Staybridge Hotel was in the old Post Office sorting plant, it is now a retirement home. Not that this is a bad thing. I hope they are not building for the Pan Ams, because when when the TiCats killed Athletics for Hamilton we killed the real hotel money. :(

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By James (registered) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 08:27:22 in reply to Comment 68158

I will believe that when I see it, just like I will believe that Harry Stinson will build his Hamilton Grand when I see girders going up, and just like I will believe anything Dark Vranich says when he actually builds something on those illegal parking lots and does something about that firetrap of his at King and Hess that until recently had a godsdamned tree growing out of it.

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By rednic (registered) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 06:15:37

Well this morning article in the spec so the there is another stop work order until documentation regarding the asbestos removal has been provided.

So the people who down voted my comment two days ago owe me some kind of apology. If the asbestos was removed you would of seen guys in hazmat suits removing hundreds of yellow garbage bags.

Alan Taylor is alos over at the spec suggesting every one here is a Thug..Well Alan if this is your idea of city building You are no less a criminal than Vranich

Comment edited by rednic on 2011-08-18 06:23:56

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2011 at 10:40:36 in reply to Comment 68159

I, too, am a little sceptical of the asbestos removal - has anyone seen any work being done before this? Other than a new door, I haven't seen much.

If another dust cloud goes up, it would certainly be possible to take a sample, and asbestos shouldn't be hard to check for. Then again, the MOE may tell us soon enough.

City Hall's plaza: now fireproof!

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2011 at 10:46:00 in reply to Comment 68172

I'm sure I remember the asbestos removal from some time in the middle of last decade. For quite a while the building looked like that scene from E.T. where the government scientists are trying to figure out what's wrong with him.

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By Removed? (anonymous) | Posted August 19, 2011 at 18:22:39 in reply to Comment 68173

I'm hearing from people who used to work in the building that the asbestos was removed years ago while it was still an active government facility -- or at least they were told it had been removed. I hope there isn't any left to find, and if there is then hundreds of employees were potentially lied to and exposed to risk without their knowledge.

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By SomeDude (anonymous) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 10:13:55

A Hamiltonian sent this link to me, so understand this is a comment from a non-resident, but also understand that I lived in the city for many years, and have a soft spot for the area.

The acceptance of the obvious and blatant corruption here is just baffling. Is this just normal in Hamilton? Have you just been seeing it for so long that you see it as business as usual? I lost count of the number of heinous, evil points in here, but seriously... knowingly demolishing a building with asbestos, spreading that all over the city, almost certainly giving cancer 20 years down the road to lots and lots of people... that's mass murder. And again, that's forgetting everything else in the article.

Where's the outrage, folks? Where's the lynch mob? I often find myself defending the city from what I see as an unfair reputation, but today I think I'll just lower my head in shame. Enjoy your quiet lie down as corruption and terminal illness surround you.


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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 10:35:16

jeeeezus.... the mayor is defending the developer? What about the people living near that dust! From the Spec:

“Everything’s off to a rocky start in Hamilton. This has been a long, complicated process. I know that Vrancor has been trying to accommodate everyone’s interest,” said Bratina, noting that the developer has decided to keep the west wing and save eight Elizabeth Holbrook friezes at the main entrance.

“This is going to be $150-million worth of projects here … and we’re talking about dust. We’re going to solve those problems. Any big project has issues,” said Bratina.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2011 at 15:19:35 in reply to Comment 68171

“This is going to be $150-million worth of projects here … and we’re talking about dust. We’re going to solve those problems. Any big project has issues,” said Bratina.

I'm really beginning to resent his condescending, patronizing, impatient tone.

Sure, I get the context..if the project actually happens.

But does this man not get the basis of 'public relations'? He sure doesn't appear to. Which, considering his past broadcasting experi- Oh; wait a minute... These guys sit behind mics. They're broadcasting. They're not actually having dialogues with people...at least not ones that are balanced. After all, the Bill Kellys of the world control the switches. Maybe Mayor Bratina finds it frustrating not having his hands on the dials anymore. Hence the 'tude.

I don't know much about his 'relationship' with the developer, but wowza; it's as if he's saying (as I suggested elsewhere) that seeing as we don't have a Hell of a lot going on in the city, we should be thankful that we have this project going on...and that we should shut up about the dust.

In a way (an admittedly perverse way), I can't wait to see what the next three years hold; is anyone filming this...?

Comment edited by mystoneycreek on 2011-08-18 15:30:51

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By highwater (registered) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 10:58:46

Even if abatement work was done previously, it's best to err on the side of caution when demolishing a building where asbestos is known to have been. There is a good chance that there are at least trace amounts of asbestos in the dust. However, let's not catastrophize this aspect of the demo too much. No one is going to get cancer from short term exposure to small amounts of asbestos. There are plenty of other violations of due process and good governance here to get outraged about.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 11:50:39 in reply to Comment 68176

This I will agree with. However, if abatement hasn't been done, that changes things. I want to see Vrancor nailed to the wall if that turns out to be the case, and if possible the property seized and put up at auction, even though that isn't likely to happen.

However as far as when said abatement could have occured. Who knows, it's certainly possible it could have happened during the last few years.

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By Jeff Tessier (anonymous) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 22:30:05 in reply to Comment 68190

Sure, but he was only asked to provide something beyond verbal assurance that it had been done. It's hard to believe he wouldn't keep the receipt for the work.

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By rednic (registered) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 12:11:02 in reply to Comment 68190

I can just see the MLS listing now ...

Available 1 large building, good ventilation , a few structural walls missing, Has been deemed historic by the city of Hamilton, Covenant on building disallowing full demolition, Structural Safety Unknown .
As is Where is.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 14:11:14 in reply to Comment 68193

Fair, but to another developer (such as Jamil Kara who developed the filmwork lofts and wants to build a 50+ unit development) the right cost might work for them.

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By rednic (registered) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 15:32:22 in reply to Comment 68208

Yes he certainly seems to have a positive outlook regarding downtown as opposed to some of the others !

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2011 at 12:04:21 in reply to Comment 68190

After searching for awhile in the Spectator archives, all I can find is a June 8, 2004 article by Paul Wilson titled "New life in the core? Well, let's see" in which Wilson writes:

The federal building, Main at Caroline. The civil servants have all fled for their new home across from Copps. Darko Vranich , the same developer doing the Staybridge project, said he would be converting the old federal headquarters into 160 condo units. He's had crews in there this spring gutting the inside, which contained asbestos.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2011 at 11:05:05 in reply to Comment 68176

At the very least, Vrancor ought to be able to present clear confirmation that the abatement was conducted and signed off.

With the developer's history of bad behaviour and a child care centre right across the street on George, the public health risk is too big to sit back and assume good faith.

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By RenaissanceWatcher (registered) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 22:03:25

Here's the latest article from thespec.com website on this topic: http://www.thespec.com/news/local/articl...

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By George (registered) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 23:59:09 in reply to Comment 68254

I'm feeling a lot better about this now.

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By LoveIt (anonymous) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 22:27:17

It would be nice to encase Holbrook friezes in a glass "shadow boxes" and light them up in different colors.

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By Mark-Alan Whittle (anonymous) | Posted August 20, 2011 at 17:50:25

I used Google earth to take a look at the artwork on the building. There's a huge rust stain marring the surface of at least three panels. The image is from 2010. Surreal. You can view the whole building 360 degrees, even look up. Awesome.

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By Nick lu Pazz (anonymous) | Posted August 26, 2011 at 00:43:22

Darko, farko, barfo, these clowns are going to change Hamilton streetscapes for the worse, this is Hamilton and were an old historic city in which we should preserve, promote, protect, And apply to new core developments, it seems many developers that want to invest in the core, have a different view and can dictate a city down on their knees, I say now way, all these new plans are good for cities like Burlington , Toronto, oak ills we can be better, let's reinvent our selves back to the good ole days, were architectural masterpieces were the focus for the dtwn core! I say we preserve and if must build new it must replicate or be designed from a historical architectural era to make us stand above the rest

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted August 30, 2011 at 17:30:11 in reply to Comment 68433

No, there are certain peices of architecture that have history and need to be preserved. The Connaught, the old school houses behind city hall, the Pigott Building, Landmark place, The Lister Block, The TH&B station, Liuna station and Whitehern are some examples. However, just because a building is old, doesn't make it historical or architecturally pleasing.

There MUST be a mesh of both new development and old developement. Calcifying downtown Hamilton as a city perpetually in it's glory days doesn't address the density issues Hamilton faces. It doesn't address the decaying physical state of many of them. It doesn't address a need for new development to make new history in the heart of the city and move forward. Last it doesn't address the needs of developers who can aid us in many of these circumstances.

Now I will agree the swath of surface parking in the core, is preferable to target new development then knocking down exsisting buildings. However given just how much money and how much effort is involved in acquiring a large parcel of land, a development such as this (assuming it goes according to the stated plan) must be welcome. Given that this is a partial demolition, preserving the only part of the building with a claim to fame (it's sculptures) this is exactly the kind of project I want to see happening in Hamilton.

Of course, if Vranich backs out, all bets are off and he should be tarred and feathered.

Comment edited by -Hammer- on 2011-08-30 17:35:47

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