Special Report: Heritage

Gore Property Owner Refuses to Share Engineering Report

If the engineering report on 18-28 King Street East showed the buildings are structurally unsound, wouldn't the property owner want to show it off?

By Ryan McGreal
Published August 15, 2013

this article has been updated

Wilson-Blanchard had an engineering report prepared on the buildings at 18-28 King Street East when the company agreed, in January, to preserve the front third of the building at 18-22. That report is complete, but the company refuses to share it publicly.

Graffiti sprayed on the fencing in front of 18-28 King Street East (RTH file photo)
Graffiti sprayed on the fencing in front of 18-28 King Street East (RTH file photo)

RTH contacted Robert Miles, principal at Wilson-Blanchard and David Blanchard's partner, by email to ask for a copy of the report. Miles replied, "No. It is not necessary at this point."

Blanchard has claimed that the buildings are structurally unsound but has produced no evidence to support this claim. The City is planning to conduct an independent audit of the engineering report, but it is not yet clear who will undertake it, what the terms of reference will be, or when it is due to be completed.

In a follow-up email, RTH wrote, "If the report confirms the claim that the buildings are structurally unsound, that will support your argument that they should be demolished."

Miles replied, "We are passed [sic] this point. The facades are all we are dealing with."

The property owner recently negotiated an agreement with Councillor Jason Farr to remove "historical facade elements" from the buildings, then demolish the buildings entirely - including all of 18-22, which the company had previously agreed to partially retain.

If and when a new building is completed, the facade elements would be attached to the new buildings, the facades would be designated under the Ontario Heritage Act and the company would be eligible for heritage preservation grants from the City.

The owners have mused about a large-scale commercial development, or maybe residential, or maybe some combination of the two. However, there is currently no development plan. As Blanchard said in an interview earlier this year, the only reason they want to demolish now is because interest rates are low and they want to be able to finance a plan quickly if it comes together.

Council Won't Act

As we keep pointing out on RTH, City Council has the power right now to issue an intent to designate the buildings and revoke the demolition permit. However, Councillor Farr has been negotiating from a position of weakness because Council as a whole does not particularly care about heritage, especially downtown.

Some councillors dispute this. In a recent email response to an outraged citizen, Councillor Brad Clark wrote:

We have voted to designate heritage buildings. We have advocated for tax breaks for heritage building owners to encourage retention and maintenance. We have voted to streamline the City's Heritage Registry. We have voted to salvage and preserve heritage facades.

And yes as a last resort, we have voted to demolish buildings where the structure safety is in question. Nothing is black or white in heritage building assessment. We do our best on every decision.

In a follow-up reply, Clark noted that the last seven buildings the City has designated were in 2007 and 2008. In other words, Council has not designated any buildings in the past five years.

Over the same time, Paul Wilson of CBC Hamilton reports that Oakville has designated around 50 buildings in its historic downtown core.

Missed Heritage Opportunities

Council has squandered several opportunities to protect heritage buildings in the past several years, and it has also granted exemptions to heritage rules in a manner that clearly indicates heritage is not a priority.

Council had an opportunity last year to approve a November 2012 motion from the Heritage Committee to add 18-28 King Street East to the city's Register of properties of cultural heritage value or interest, but chose not to.

(Note: this July, Council voted to add all the properties facing Gore Park except 24-28 King Street East to the Register. The motion is in GIC Report 13-014 [PDF]. You can download the current list of properties [PDF] on the inventory.)

Council also had an opportunity to approve an August 2012 motion from the Municipal Heritage Committee to put a hold on any demolition permit for Sanford School and ask the HWDSB to hold an Expression of Interest regarding adaptive reuse of the school.

They chose instead to refer the motion back to the planning committee - even though there were developers interested in buying the property and HWDSB chair Tim Simmons eventually admitted the Board had never actually tried to sell it.

In 2008, Council's lack of commitment to its own heritage during the City Hall renovations motivated heritage consultant E.R.A. Architects to resign in disgust.

When heritage advocates pointed out that the City's vote to ignore its own heritage rules would encourage heritage property owners to follow suit, renovation committee chair Councillor Ferguson happily agreed: "I would suspect that Council would come on side with [the property owners]."

In 2006, Council voted to approve the demolition of the Lister Block, a building that actually was designated under the Heritage Act and had been determined to be both structurally sound and a good candidate for adaptive reuse. So much for only approving demolition "where structural safety is in question."

If not for the last-minute intervention of the Ontario Government, the building everyone celebrates today would have been demolished. Yet this time around, the Ontario Government refuses to intervene - even though our own Gore Park is the public face of Ontario's Places to Grow framework.

Screenshot, Places to Grow homepage
Screenshot, Places to Grow homepage

Council Needs to Demonstrate Commitment

I want to believe that Council does its best when it comes to decisions about heritage, but Council's track record does not give me much cause for enthusiasm. It's encouraging that Council has voted to try and do a better job of managing the city's inventory of buildings of interest, but that comes too late to save the face of Gore Park.

A commitment to substantially saving the heritage of 18-28 King Street East - not just "historical facade elements" but actual heritage preservation - would go a long way toward demonstrating Council's goodwill and enhance its credibility on the promise to address heritage more proactively in future.

Councillor Farr and McHattie would be able to achieve a much better outcome for 18-28 King Street East - for the property owner as well as the community as a whole - if they had the support of the rest of Council to use its legislative tools and prevent this needless and foolhardy destruction of Hamilton's built heritage.

I have been told that if Council designates the buildings, the developer may decide to let them continue to languish instead of selling them. However, it seems preposterous that we will allow the owner to destroy the buildings - and then reward them with heritage grants! - to avoid the risk that the owner will continue to neglect them.

When people point out that the interiors of 18-28 King Street East look dilapidated - and I have no doubt that they do - I remember that the Lister Building was once used as a setting for Hell in a film shot in Hamilton. I also think of the many building interiors I have seen on nearby James Street North, before and after they were restored and renovated for adaptive reuse by hard-working investors and entrepreneurs.

We already have a clear and successful model for how to revitalize downtown Hamilton, and block-busting demolition is not it.


Update: This article originally stated that Council chose not to add the Gore properties to the city's Register of properties of cultural heritage value or interest when a motion was presented last year. However, Council voted this July to add all the buildings facing Gore Park except for 24-28 King Street East. The article has been updated to include this. You can jump to the added paragraph.


Tell Council and the Province to designate the Gore and protect these buildings from demolition:

mtrmclco@ontario.ca, mchan.mpp.co@liberal.ola.org>, 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, kevin.finnerty@ontario.ca, Peter.armstrong@ontario.ca, tamara.ansoncartwright@ontario.ca, tmcMeekin.mpp@liberal.ola.org, ahorwath-co@ndp.on.ca

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.

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By Anonymous (anonymous) | Posted August 15, 2013 at 15:31:15

Excellent article, Ryan. Here's my question: Why has nobody pressed City Council on the issue of WB's lack of actual anchor tenant in this new proposed development? At least some of the units in 18-28 King St. were occupied prior to the buildings being torn down (variety store, cash advance, tax return Places,), and now without a firm commitment from anyone to occupy their newly built development, doesn't that mean the Gore will be 3 businesses down before even starting the project? Don't we have enough commercial space available in our city centre, and now we have to start making more?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted August 15, 2013 at 16:56:14 in reply to Comment 90945

Great point. Blanchard's own market research indicates that there is a relatively strong market for the kind of small scale storefront retail he's planning to domolish, and a weak market for the kind of large-footprint commercial retail he wants to build.

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By Joanna (anonymous) | Posted August 15, 2013 at 15:35:14

So frustrating that they go along with developers to keep them from allowing buildings to get worse. Instead of giving them a tax break to keep them empty how about a penalty and then let's add a small percentage reward break to those who keep property maintained and full.
I'm starting to believe in term limits as well. Clearly these Councillors are mostly past there expiry date and we could be better served by people who are up with the times and the wants of the community and just wanting to stick a target or Walmart or even Casino in the core.
Great coverage Ryan.

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By anonymous (anonymous) | Posted August 16, 2013 at 10:53:54 in reply to Comment 90946

"I'm starting to believe in term limits as well. Clearly these Councillors are mostly past there expiry date and we could be better served by people who are up with the times..."

Term limits aren't going to happen.

This is a provincial jurisdiction.

Changing them would be Ontario-wide.

It would never happen because it would require political conviction at the Queen's Park level. This would never occur because changing things this way would be the 'thin edge of the wedge'; bring them in for councillors, and MPPs would be next...and they're not going to doom themselves. (At least not willingly)

And a referendum is never going to happen. (See above.)

You want better people at City Hall? Produce better candidates.

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By accountable (anonymous) | Posted August 15, 2013 at 19:59:30

didn't the city pay for the engineering report? does the city have a copy? is a freedom of information request possible?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted August 16, 2013 at 06:11:39 in reply to Comment 90949

My understanding is that Blanchard paid for it. However, the City is planning on doing an independent review of the study, which implies that at least someone at the City will get to read it. I have asked for clarification on: who will do the review, what the terms of reference are, and when it will be published.

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By Connie (registered) | Posted August 16, 2013 at 16:33:19 in reply to Comment 90958

Is that still supposed to happen Ryan? I've had the impression that Jason's demolition deal stands regardless now. There's been no further mention of the engineering report.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2013 at 13:24:13 in reply to Comment 90983

I've asked Councillor Farr for more details about this. He's going to get back to me.

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By RenovatingHamilton (anonymous) | Posted August 15, 2013 at 21:43:53

The exposed load bearing walls look unsafe and not properly supported. Kind of scary. In this case re-building the walls with old materials might be the only option. Sometimes it's a sad reality.

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By a load of bearings (anonymous) | Posted August 16, 2013 at 08:40:27 in reply to Comment 90952

Which load bearing walls are you referring to? The only "exposed" load bearing wall is the one on the east side which only become exposed when Blanchard took that other building down.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted August 16, 2013 at 08:35:36

"The Town of Oakville established its Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee in 1976. Currently, there are over 120 properties that have been designated under Part IV of The Ontario Heritage Act. In 1981, Oakville's first Heritage Conservation District designated under Part V of The Ontario Heritage Act, known as the Old Oakville Downtown Residential Area Heritage Conservation District, was established. In 1988, a second Heritage Conservation District was created in Oakville, known as the First and Second Street Conservation District. A third Heritage Conservation District "Trafalgar Road Heritage Conservation District" was established in 1994."

http://archives.oakville.ca/buildings.htm

I believe Hamilton has something like seven Part V designated heritage conservation districts and 255 properties designated under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act (130 in Wards 1-8, 125 in Wards 9-15).

http://www.hamilton.ca/NR/rdonlyres/3478439E-5256-4466-9B1E-34335ABAA5F0/0/Volume12ndEdition_March2007.pdf

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By billn (registered) | Posted August 16, 2013 at 08:45:14 in reply to Comment 90961

Oakville's most recent heritage conservation district was approved in February of this year and came into effect in March. The Downtown Oakville Heritage Conservation District is probably the closest parallel Oakville has to the Gore: a fairly intact main commercial street of 19th century buildings, with a (well used) town square. This was a fairly controversial designation, but was stickhandled very nicely by Town staff and Council.

http://www.oakville.ca/business/downtown...

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By movedtohamilton (registered) | Posted August 16, 2013 at 15:42:43

Oakville is a wealthy city, at least in the "olde towne" below the QEW. It has the luxury of well-off engaged citizens on heritage matters. The irony of Oakville's downtown is that none of the rest of us can afford to live there. So while it's commendable to reference Oakville's efforts in heritage conservation, it's not an easy comparison to Hamilton.

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By billn (registered) | Posted August 19, 2013 at 20:47:31 in reply to Comment 90981

Certainly there are wealthy people and areas in Oakville, but also many who are not, and districts where housing costs are within the GTA norm. Leaving aside the very well-off, which are a small minority even in Oakville, I would suggest that many working residents actually have less disposable income than their counterparts in Hamilton. We certainly have more poverty here in Hamilton, but we also have strong professional, government and creative sectors here, and many who live and work in our core.

I work in heritage in Oakville (and did for 15 years in Hamilton) and can't agree that their citizens are more engaged than ours (I am not involved with heritage planning or designations). If anything, heritage minded Hamiltonians are more engaged and committed, knowing that they cannot sit back and rely on good governance and regulation.

My comment was prompted by the designation, against some monied and well organized opposition I might add, of the entire district which most closely resembles the Gore in its layout, architecture and original use. You are right that the comparison is not readily evident, but it is not the heritage resource that is different. 35 years ago that part of town was known as "the shacks by the Lake". What is different is the way the citizens and Council of Oakville have treated the district over the years. They have put a value on the built heritage and enforced property maintenance standards. Buildings are fully occupied with businesses and above store residences and offices. Two way traffic, pleasant sidewalks, a good mix of high-end and every day shops, cafes and restaurants and outdoor patios and a Town Square all contribute to a lively scene. My point is it is not the physical resource that is so different, it is the cumulative effect of political leadership, Council decisions, bylaws and enforcement and an active BIA which have made the district increasingly attractive to businesses and customers in an upward cycle.

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By erskinec (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2013 at 11:29:42

My impression is that the current and past Mayors of Oakville have played a vital role in promoting the adaptive re-use of heritage buildings.

As a result, Oakville is becoming a real success story, combining the best of the past with the best of the present.

People often get frustrated with individual councillors for not adopting a wider vision.

This lack of vision shouldn't be so surprising.

It is natural for councillors to be most concern about their own wards, unless they have a special interest in heritage.

This is why the Mayor's position is so important.

While the Mayor has only one vote, he or she has the power to promote a vision to council and to the voters in each of the wards.

So, having a pro-heritage Mayor is key.

Unfortunately, pro-heritage voters are spread across the city.

Within each ward, they are unlikely to have the numbers to make a difference at election time (unless it is a close race).

This is why councillors may feel free to ignore their concerns.

The Mayor position is different.

All pro-heritage voters can participate in the election of the next Mayor.

Furthermore, the current Mayor does not have a lock on re-election.

Anyone who is proud of Hamilton and wants this City to be great should have no problems with the kinds of visions being discussed on this blog.

It is time for the Mayor to do the right thing.

Saving Historical buildings is more than about saving history, it is about a city that actively promotes good transit, strong neighbourhoods and creative industries.

It is time for creative city advocates to remain the Mayor to do the right thing.

Comment edited by erskinec on 2013-08-18 11:33:09

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By Connie (registered) | Posted August 20, 2013 at 13:43:36

I have emailed Jason Farr twice to ask when the engineering report review will be available. I believe Ryan has too. NO RESPONSE!!

Is Jason Farr evading the issue of structural integrity in order to achieve demolition of the buildings?

Does he not realize that adaptive reuse of the buildings is more valuable to downtown revival than 6empty lots or "a Target store ... or whatever" ?

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