Special Report: Heritage

Heritage Preservation Bonds Could Save Hamilton's Historic Buildings

Why not float a 'Heritage Preservation Bond' in Hamilton so that those who are passionate about preserving Hamilton's architectural heritage can invest at a competitive rate of interest payable upon the bond's maturity?

By Jason Allen
Published January 09, 2013

18-28 King Street East (RTH file photo)
18-28 King Street East (RTH file photo)

As the debate rages on about the imminent gap-toothing of the Gore Park Streetwall, and the ongoing destruction of Heritage buildings, here's a good idea:

The most frequent criticism made of the 'usual suspects' is that when buildings are threatened with demolition, the alarm is always raised by people who 'don't have any skin in the game.'

Besides the absurdity of leveling that accusation against people who actually own and have restored downtown properties, the implication is that unless you have enough money to purchase a commercial building, you aren't entitled to an opinion regarding what our city's built environment should look like.

It's a bit of a hearkening back to the 'good old days' before universal suffrage, where only land-owners were entitled to vote.

More of a Say

Such problematic implications aside, the point can be made that if some of the city's heritage advocates were to put up a sizable sum, it would do quite a bit to silence this criticism.

More importantly, though, it would also give those of us who are passionate about the downtown considerably more say in what happens to the buildings we own, or have invested in.

The trouble is, that buying a building downtown can be a little pricey. Not a whole lot of the people demanding the preservation of our architectural heritage have the wherewithal to purchase a threatened building outright, a la Nature Conservancy Canada.

At least not separately, they don't.

Community Investment

Enter my good friends Emma and Graham Cubbitt and their merry band of Mustard Seed Co-Op Grocery store planners, and their 'community investment' idea.

When the Mustard Seed's initial Founding Member drive was being planned, it was obvious that membership fees alone would not be sufficient to supply the capital needed to secure a downtown location, make the leaseholder improvements needed, and purchase the stock required for opening day.

So they hit upon the idea of promissory notes issued by their corporation, where individuals who didn't have enough money to open a grocery store on their own, could invest in the co-op above and beyond their membership fee, at a competitive rate of interest. This appeals to both investors' sense of community, and their need to invest in ways that respected their financial plans.

Heritage Preservation Bond

So here's the idea. Why not float a 'Heritage Preservation Bond' in Hamilton so that those who are passionate about preserving Hamilton's architectural heritage can invest at a competitive rate of interest payable upon the bond's maturity?

They can also do so knowing that once sufficient funds have been built up, threatened buildings will be purchased in much the same way Nature Conservancy purchases environmentally sensitive land from private landowners.

Those buildings could then be developed in an appropriate way and leased out to small businesses and start-ups, which would pay the rent needed to ensure the money was available to repay the bonds upon maturity.

Done properly, such bonds could not only appeal to investors looking to make a difference in the face of Downtown, but could make their way into ethical investment portfolios, broadening the reach, and awareness of Hamilton's Downtown Revitalization efforts.

Sandyford Place

"That's ridiculous! It would never work. Nobody would invest, and we could never raise enough money."

Except that it has already been done.

In 1972, Grant Head, when faced with the imminent destruction of Sandyford Place, created Heritage Hamilton Ltd, as a for-profit corporation with the goal of raising enough money by selling $100 shares, to purchase the properties associated with Sandyford.

Sandyford Place (Image Credit: Historical Hamilton)
Sandyford Place (Image Credit: Historical Hamilton)

The catch? The developer gave them 30 days to raise the funds. And he wanted $250,000. No small amount in the early 1970s.

In the end, through assuming part of the mortgage, and selling shares to everyone from Hamilton's monied elite, to average folks with a love of history, they raised a quarter of a million dollars in slightly less than one month.

And while in the end, the developer reneged on his word to sell the property, the heat, and sound, and light generated by the campaign led in part to heritage conservation laws being passed in Ontario, which resulted in the Heritage Designations we know and love today.

As a result, Sandyford, the first property in Hamilton designated under the act, is still standing.

So who's to say that a well-timed, highly public ultimatum to a developer with a hot-to-trot demolition permit might not also raise the required money in an equally remarkable period of time.

That way, maybe we could be spared for a while from both the short-sighted criticism coming out of Hamilton's business elite and the even more objectionable sound of wrecking balls.

First published on Jason Allen's personal website.

Jason Allen is a chronic hive whacker in the Kirkendall Neighbourhood.

14 Comments

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By Wow! (anonymous) | Posted January 09, 2013 at 08:39:44

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 09, 2013 at 08:41:38

Sign me up

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By JM (registered) | Posted January 09, 2013 at 13:13:40 in reply to Comment 84923

me too!

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By Alhambra (anonymous) | Posted January 09, 2013 at 15:16:14

super interesting about Sandyford place. From my reading it was saved because of the moratorium on skyscrapers in the Durand.

But the downfall with the idea is that if people fail to buy in to a requisite level, then the developer can say: 'see, I told you there wasn't enough interest, now let's do things my way.'

We expect our government to act in our best interests. We pay taxes and choose to live here based on this. We shouldn't have to pay directly for the things in our interest, because we've already pre-paid.

Nor should public goods me limited to moneyed interests. Every citizen of the city has an interest in its well-being.

I get why this becomes a laissez faire issue, but it's a bit stupid. We require all sorts of things from property owners. People who buy these buildings know full well the possibility of designation and that there are limits on their rights.

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted January 10, 2013 at 22:19:42 in reply to Comment 84986

So then if the government lets the developer tear down the building you will not whine and complain about it.

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By whoosh all over again (anonymous) | Posted January 10, 2013 at 22:37:22 in reply to Comment 85080

Reading comprehension is fun!

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By Dane (registered) | Posted January 09, 2013 at 20:05:41

I'm in.

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By erskinec (registered) - website | Posted January 10, 2013 at 07:45:26

Great suggestion and I would support such an effort. In Toronto, the city purchased buildings to house artists because of the costs of rents. This bond proposal would be a great way of getting gallery and studio space in the core. I also think the city needs to do something about the taxes on such buildings. Maybe granting a tax holiday if you save important buildings for 10 or 20 years. Finally, I do agree with the other person about citizens having a say over their community even if they are not owners. Forcing individuals to buy bond for a larger community and economic problems can't be the first or only option. City Hamilton is suppose to be looking out for the interests of the citizens, both in the short term and the long.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 10, 2013 at 09:50:25

The only problem I have with this concept is that it puts a lot of weight on the argument that if you don't buy a building you don't have a say. Whether someone can afford a building of their own, a 50% share, a 5% share or a zero percent share should not matter. If they live in this city, then heritage preservation affects them.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted January 13, 2013 at 07:41:19 in reply to Comment 85048

So to extend that argument, I have a say in the way you run your business, where and how you live, and so on. I disagree fundamentally with that comment.

Sure, everyone has their opinion on how something should be done, but that does not equate to a 'say'.

Comment edited by DowntownInHamilton on 2013-01-13 07:41:34

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted January 10, 2013 at 22:21:30 in reply to Comment 85048

But if you are financially invested then you should have a bigger say. Our society is becoming way to involved in spending other peoples money.

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By Conrad66 (registered) | Posted January 10, 2013 at 10:05:51

Now thats a Historical building worth saving Sandyford ... yous can save thoses kind of building anytime as far im consern

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted January 10, 2013 at 22:22:17

Terrific idea. Best proposal ever on RTH. Makes sense in so many ways.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted January 13, 2013 at 14:19:09

It would make a huge area of difference for a great many people who would love to preserve old buildings. I would be a Co-Op with some city backing would help many buildings be purchased and rehabbed. As an owner of a Heritage property I am thrilled by this concept.

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