Councillor Farr says it would be 'disingenuous' for Council to change course on its negotiations over the Gore buildings, but that doesn't explain Farr's position of weakness in the first place.
By Ryan McGreal
Published August 13, 2013
In a recent op-ed, Councillor Jason Farr offered an explanation of the current status of negotiations between the City and Wilson-Blanchard, the property management company that owns 18-28 King Street East.
In short, the property owner plans to remove "historical facade elements" from the buildings and demolish them. If and when a plan is made to build something new on the site, the property owner will attach the "historical facade elements" to the new building in exchange for heritage grants from the City.
(If you're keeping track, this is actually worse than the previous agreement to preserve the front one-third of 18-22, the 1840 building designed by William Thomas.)
Farr acknowledged, "I am well aware this is an unsatisfactory objective" to heritage advocates, and added, "It would be spectacular if these developers and others throughout our core and city would always move toward a full-fledged approach to designation and restoration."
Of course, Council has the power to designate these buildings right now under the Ontario Heritage Act and protect them from demolition. There is no requirement under the Act for the property owner to agree with designation: the whole point of the Act is to protect threatened heritage buildings from the short-sightedness of their owners.
So why won't Council move to designate the buildings? Farr says it would be "disingenuous" for Council to change course now and stake out a position to protect the buildings from demolition after all the negotiations that have gone on between the property owner and the City.
But that explanation merely begs the question. Why didn't Council move to designate the buildings back in December or January, after the property owner submitted a demolition permit? Why didn't Council agree to add the buildings to the City's Register of properties of cultural heritage value or interest last November when Councillor Brian McHattie's Heritage Committee motion was approved and submitted to them?
Why are Farr and McHattie negotiating from a position of weakness in the first place?
In a recent op-ed lamenting that the current agreement with Wilson-Blanchard is not a good heritage outcome, McHattie acknowledged that for years, City Council "had information on the importance of the Gore, yet did not act."
Last December, McHattie explained why: "The prevalent mood [in Council is] in favour of development at any cost - in this case protection or adaptive re-use of heritage buildings."
Farr gets at this in his recent explanation: "[T]his may not be the optimal outcome, [but] it is one that may still see the heritage designation on all facades, while also achieving the owner's development desires for residential commercial development."
In other words, once the property owner has demolished the buildings and constructed new buildings, then Council will act to designate the facade pieces that get bolted onto the new construction - and provide the property owner with heritage grants along the way.
This is not a "compromise" between heritage protection and new development. It is not heritage protection in any meaningful sense of the term - and that's even if the "historical facade elements" actually are preserved. Elements of the old Thistle Club building were supposed to be incorporated into the new development, but the pieces got lost somewhere along the way.
It also goes against the prevailing evidence about what has been responsible for the nascent renaissance in downtown Hamilton: not block-busting demolitions and white knight developers, but modest, small-scale restoration and adaptive reuse, one building at a time. The Downtown Secondary Plan, which is supposed to govern policy decisions around new developments in the core, recognizes this:
A desire for quick and simple solutions often nurtures "big project" responses to Downtown decline. In fact, experience across North America suggests that Downtown revitalization most often results from a collection of seemingly modest actions by individuals, small businesses and community organizations.
We can see that happening on places like James Street North, which just a decade ago was still being written off.
Downtown Hamilton already has a shameful oversupply of vacant property due to previous demolitions:
This oversupply of vacant land includes lots that were demolished by Blanchard. According to a gloomy March 17, 2001 Spectator article:
Blanchard, who has an interest in a number of downtown properties, was in the headlines in 1999 when he tore down the former Canada Permanent building across the street from the Pigott Building. That prompted city council to pass a bylaw prohibiting developers who demolish old structures from opening parking lots in their place.
To the extent that downtown is finally on the upswing, it is precisely because of buildings, blocks and streets that were left intact to be bought, restored and put to new use by their owners and occupants. Blanchard's own market research indicates that there is good demand for adaptive reuse but a weak market for the kind of large-footprint commercial development he says he wants to build at 18-28.
But what if the property owner has a different plan? Is it fair to deny the owner their free-market right to dispose of their own properties as they see fit?
This argument is a red herring. The principle is already well-established that there are reasonable limits on what a property owner can do with their property. The City maintains a Zoning By-Law that imposes severe requirements and restrictions on property owners. Indeed, commentators on RTH have argued that many of these rules are arbitrary and/or obsolete and cause more harm than good.
But in the case of the Ontario Heritage Act, the evidence indicates that a restriction against demolishing buildings with important heritage value is good public policy.
Heritage is a positive externality - a value that accrues to the community as a whole as well as to the property owner. When heritage is destroyed, that value to the community is destroyed as well, and so the community has a legitimate interest in its preservation.
Unfortunately, between Council's unwillingness to use its power to protect heritage and the perverse incentives in our tax code that reward vacancy and demolition, we end up with the map above, in which whole blocks are hollowed out.
Yet downtown Hamilton also offers inspiring examples of investors who swim against the current and create new value their interest to buy the Gore buildings and undertake the "full-fledged approach to designation and restoration" that Farr would love to see.
We could unleash that new energy on the Gore buildings as well, but it would require our Councillors to move from being "sympathetic" about Farr and McHattie's designed-to-fail negotiations to being courageous, proactive and assertive about maintaining and enhancing the city's heritage value.
Despite Farr's claim that it would be "disingenuous" for Council to change course now, it is still not too late to prevent an outcome that should never have been on the table in the first place.
Tell Council and the Province to designate the Gore and protect these buildings from demolition:
firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com>, Bob.Bratina@hamilton.ca, Brian.McHattie@hamilton.ca, Jason.Farr@hamilton.ca, Bernie.Morelli@hamilton.ca, Sam.Merulla@hamilton.ca, Chad.Collins@hamilton.ca, Tom.Jackson@hamilton.ca, Scott.Duvall@hamilton.ca, Terry.Whitehead@hamilton.ca, Brad.Clark@hamilton.ca, Maria.Pearson@hamilton.ca, Brenda.Johnson@hamilton.ca, Lloyd.Ferguson@hamilton.ca, Russ.Powers@hamilton.ca, Robert.Pasuta@hamilton.ca, Judi.Partridge@hamilton.ca, firstname.lastname@example.org, Peter.email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, tmcMeekin.email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
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