Special Report: Heritage

Christmas Miracle: Council Votes to Designate Gore Buildings

City Council just voted unanimously to designate 18-22 King Street East and protect the buildings from demolition.

By Ryan McGreal
Published December 12, 2013

Almost exactly a year after property owner Wilson-Blanchard submitted a demolition permit for the buildings at 18-28 King Street East, City Council just unanimously voted its intent to designate the buildings under the Ontario Heritage Act and protect them from being demolished.

Gore buildings with their facades removed, surrounded by fencing
Gore buildings with their facades removed, surrounded by fencing

The surprise motion by Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr came after talks broke down between the City and Wilson-Blanchard over the fate of the buildings, which have been subject to a demolition permit since January.

There are excellent reasons to designate the buildings: 18-22, designed by the famous architect William Thomas, was built in 1840; the other two buildings were constructed in 1876 and 1875, respectively.

No Construction Plan

Until now, City Council has been reluctant to designate them pre-emptively, arguing that it is more constructive to work with the property owner, who announced a proposal to build a new $120 million development on the block bounded by King, James, Main and Hughson, a block Wilson-Blanchard has assembled over the past 20 years.

The company has yet to provide a plan or financing or any firm details for the proposal, which they first floated in October 2012. The City has offered $1.1 million in heritage grants to preserve the facades and front parts of the buildings, but Wilson-Blanchard said it would cost at least $2 million and they don't want to invest any of their own money in heritage preservation.

Several Canadian studies have concluded that heritage preservation sometimes costs more than demolition and new construction, but delivers better return on investment.

According to Section 30(1) of the Ontario Heritage Act, the demolition permits will be invalidated as soon as the notice of intent to designate is served to the property owner and published in a newspaper. According to Spectator columnist Andrew Dreschel in a tweet posted this morning, the latter condition has already been met.

20 Jackson Parking Lot

The motion to protect the buildings also comes right after Wilson-Blanchard demolished a three-storey building at 20 Jackson Street West and converted the site into an illegal surface parking lot.

Illegal parking lot at 20 Jackson Street West
Illegal parking lot at 20 Jackson Street West

Staff confirmed last night that this violates a bylaw against demolishing a downtown building and putting surface parking in its place. Ironically, that bylaw was put in place after the same property owner demolished the Canada Permanent building on James Street South in the late 1990s.

Council also learned that 20 Jackson Street West generated $77,667 a year in property taxes when it was an office building, but just $7,000 as a parking lot.

Wilson-Blanchard has not submitted any redevelopment plan to the City for 20 Jackson Street West.

Next Steps

Earlier this year, Council voted to designate the area around Gore Park as a heritage district, and staff are currently undertaking a review of the city's list of buildings of historic interest with the goal of becoming more proactive about designating and protecting heritage buildings. Council also recently voted to increase the availability of municipal grants to protect and preserve heritage.

However, a number of perverse incentives still encourage property owners to remove value from urban neighbourhoods rather than to add it, including provincially-mandated property tax discounts for vacant buildings and demolished lots.

At the municipal level, a property owner can demolish any downtown building that is not designated under the Heritage Act or zoned for residential use without having any redevelopment plan. Until now, Council has been very reluctant to designate any buildings to protect them from their owners' intent to demolish.

The quick response on 20 Jackson Street West is another shift for the City. When an illegal parking lot went up on the site of the former HMP building at Main and Bay in 2008, a year went by before the City took any action.

When Toronto Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat spoke in Hamilton last week, she advised, "In great cities, heritage preservation and restoration is recognized as adding long-term value." The audience gasped when she put up a slide of all the heritage buildings that the City has allowed to be demolished since 1954:

Downtown buildings lost since 1954
Downtown buildings lost since 1954

Hamilton has made its share of "classic mistakes" in city governance, but it is encouraging to see City Council begin the hard work of fixing them and changing the way decisions are made.


One closing request: please email Council and thank them for their leadership in protecting Hamilton's built heritage.

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 Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 07:38:33

Memo to speculators: Always have a credible bogus plan in place before applying for the permit, and ration your parking spaces between demolition sites.

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By Anonymous (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 08:15:01

Well done Councilor Farr

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By TB (registered) - website | Posted December 12, 2013 at 08:16:47

Just used your "email council" link Ryan and thanked them all.

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By Ms Me (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 08:31:24

I have so little trust in the Councilor involved, his lack of knowledge and honesty tells me "this ain't over yet!"

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 08:43:26

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 12, 2013 at 09:03:24

I just sent the following letter of thanks and support to Council. I encourage you to send letters as well:

Dear Council,

It is with great pleasure that I write to thank and congratulate you for your leadership in protecting Hamilton's built heritage from demolition, and for standing up to the bullying of property speculators who do not recognize the long-term value of their own assets.

Between the votes to designate 18-28 King Street West, to beef up heritage preservation grants, to designate Gore Park as a heritage district and to become more proactive about Hamilton's list of buildings of historic interest, Council is moving in the right direction after decades of what Toronto Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat calls the "classic mistakes" of postwar North American cities.

We are now learning and applying the lessons on how to build and sustain great cities. Decades from now, people will look back on last night's vote as an important turning point in the city's fortunes.

Far from scaring off developers, your vote has sent a clear message that Hamilton is a place where developers with vision, foresight and ambition can make money doing high-quality work we can all be proud of. If we want excellent results, we need to uphold high standards.

Standing up to a property owner who threatens to destroy Hamilton's built heritage without even a plan to do something with the site will only scare off the people who have been sitting on vacant lots for decades, waiting for someone else to do the hard work of rebuilding value so they can enjoy unearned windfall profits.

Again, congratulations and thank you for doing this city proud.

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 09:05:06

Great job,Councillor Farr. And to the rest of council who took a few minutes to wrap their heads around the "no notice" part and stepped up to the plate. Sometimes dealing with unexpected business is part of the job.

Yay, Jason!

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted December 12, 2013 at 09:28:02

I think Farr deserves a lot of credit for his ability to lead council. Issues like this used to be controversial, and now he's getting unanimous votes. I liked mayor Eisenberger, but he didn't have this kind of success at getting council on his side. That might be a cultural shift, but it also might be a personal strength.

It's probably too soon since it's still his first term and the field is crowded, but I hope he'll take a run at the mayor's seat sometime - 2018? McHattie is going to be facing a lot of resistance since he proudly and firmly wears his left-wing politics on his sleeve (politics I agree with, mind you - I'd love Mayor McHattie) while Farr comes off as more pragmatic and universal.

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By realitycheck (anonymous) | Posted December 13, 2013 at 17:15:05 in reply to Comment 95842

Any word on the status of the Integrity Commissioner's report on he complaint filed against Farr?

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By highwater (registered) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 10:03:43 in reply to Comment 95842

That might be a cultural shift, but it also might be a personal strength.

I'm going with 90% cultural shift, 10% personal strength.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 12, 2013 at 10:10:41 in reply to Comment 95845

I think W-B turning 20 Jackson St W into a parking lot was the last straw. All year, Council talked about working with the, ahem, developer on a plan for the Gore and how imposing designation would be acting in bad faith in the midst of those negotiations.

Between the negotiations going nowhere, W-B saying $1.1 million in heritage grants is not enough free money, and then opening an illegal parking lot literally next door to City Hall, it seems Council finally had enough and became prepared to stand up to the property owner.

Huge kudos to Councillor Farr, who had the courage and good political sense to seize this opportunity to protect an essential part of Hamilton's built heritage.

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By Ms Me (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 09:45:15 in reply to Comment 95842

Now that's funny!

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By Ms Nobody (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 10:24:06 in reply to Comment 95844

We get it, you don't like Farr. This is still good news and you could try to be a bit gracious about it.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 10:47:25

Agreed, I think we all felt Councillor Farr and City Hall was doing too little to protect the Gore and was "asleep at the switch" last year when the demo permits were issued.

That said, I guess Farr and the rest of the city was just trying to be "reasonable" seek a middle ground, work with stakeholders, etc. rather than "dropping the hammer" on "poor" W-B, an independent businessman who has "contributed much to this city" in terms of "heritage preservation".

But in the end, I think Ryan is right, W-B's "bad" actions in opening an illegal parking lot, and trying to extort ever-increasing amounts of money out of the city pissed them off, with the result being the heritage designation we see here.

Thankfully W-B wasn't smart enough to start demolishing Gore BEFORE opening up his illegal parking lot, otherwise we might have two illegal parking lots on our hands.

My lingering concern is about any elements that may have already been removed from the facades of these buildings. I mean, they're obviously open to the weather, but in the pre-demolition process did he remove any elements that might have had heritage value?

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted December 12, 2013 at 11:22:44 in reply to Comment 95852

I see the heritage value in the configuration, usage and scale of those buildings as much is - if not more than - the individual blocks forming the front 24 inches. It's sad that the original stones are not all there, but even as they sit with missing storefronts they can be brought back to their former glory as contributing members of the gore building stock.

More important I think to stress the importance of the buildings as a whole - as part of the streetwall - than the individual elements of the facades.

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 10:53:19

Hopefully it doesn't take the advent of silly season or the bumbling of hubristic "developers" to spur Council to take action on the thousands of unprotected buildings of interest across the city.

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By Spearin (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 11:06:57

While this marks a significant step in the preservation our historic downtown core, that block now remains a crumbling hollow and who knows how long it will take WB to actually do something about it. Winter is here and the open condition of the building certainly will make it worse before it gets any better.

I think Council were willing to give a certain amount of slack to WB and hear them out. I'm glad they decided to reign them in. My fingers are still crossed for that block to be saved, though.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted December 12, 2013 at 11:19:24 in reply to Comment 95857

I believe designation triggers stricter rules on minimum property standards and sealing the buildings to the elements - but I have not researched the particulars so I could be wrong.

I think that the best outcome for citizens would be for WB to sell those buildings to people who will actually restore them. WB can then court a developer to build a complimentary project on the remainder of the block, with facings on main and james as well as an entrance to the gore via the narrow strip created when blanchard tore that other building down.

WB bought those buildings and had them tenanted to cover carrying costs. They invested minimal capital into maintenance. If they sell them at original cost plus a modest % ROI they will still be ahead of the game, and when the next owner restores and fills the buildings with tenants, all of the surrounding WB land will be worth even more.

My biggest fear is that they will remove facades, store them, and glue them onto a glass box.

The gore deserves an intact streetwall, and modern taller buildings can be built on existing vacant lots. There is absolutely no reason to destroy the character of gore park by demolition or facadism.

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By Downtownhamilton (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 12:56:45

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 12, 2013 at 13:18:23 in reply to Comment 95868

Nonsense. Heritage preservation more than pays for itself in return on investment. Any developer who knows how to design a project and develop a budget will be able to restore these heritage buildings and realize a profit on the job - especially with Council offering to sweeten the deal with heritage grants.

Wilson-Blanchard has been amassing downtown property for two decades and has been sitting on several vacant properties - including properties the company itself demolished - for year after year without developing anything. If they are serious about building a new condo at some point, they've had plenty of opportunity to do so for more than a decade.

There's a reason the bylaw against demolishing a downtown building and putting a parking lot in its place is called the "Blanchard bylaw" around city hall: it was passed when Wilson-Blanchard demolished the Canada Permanent building across from the Pigott. That site has been a surface parking lot for 14 years and counting.

So given the property owner's own track record, the most likely result of demolishing 18-28 King St E is yet another illegal parking lot like the one at 20 Jackson St W.

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By downtownhamilton (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 13:45:04 in reply to Comment 95875

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted December 12, 2013 at 14:15:06 in reply to Comment 95878

What's your address? I've been looking for a location for a new pork processing plant I want to build and your neighbour's house seems like the perfect spot.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 12, 2013 at 14:08:09 in reply to Comment 95878

That's a goldmine for development.

Here are the four blocks abutting the corner of Main and James (via this Google Map):

King and James

The blue shading is surface parking. The red shading on the bottom left is 20 Jackson Street, and the red shading on the top right is 18-28 King Street East.

If the property owners who control most of this property had a serious, legitimate interest in development, there would be development by now. If they understood the economics of heritage preservation, they would be high-fiving each other over the fantastic Victorian streetwall facing Gore Park, which really would be a redevelopment gold mine if they knew what to do with it.

you forget he bought the properties, he can do what he wants

I do not forget that he owns the properties, but you seem to forget that in a jurisdiction that follows the rule of law, property owners do not have an unconstrained carte blanche to do whatever they want. There is a legitimate, proven public interest in maintaining a city's built heritage, and Council has both the power and, finally, the willingness to exercise that power in maintaining it.

haven't heard a peep from Jason Farr

Councillor Farr has been active on this file, working with staff to ensure that enforcement takes place and raising the issue at last night's Council meeting.

Enough of this nonsense. If you're not going to engage the facts in good faith, you are merely drowning the signal with noise and wasting everyone's time.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2016-01-18 06:56:38

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By jeffreygeoffrey (registered) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 16:11:04 in reply to Comment 95885

Enough of this nonsense. If you're not going to engage the facts in good faith, you are merely drowning the signal with noise and wasting everyone's time.

Well said.

Comment edited by jeffreygeoffrey on 2013-12-12 16:12:25

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted December 12, 2013 at 13:08:31 in reply to Comment 95868

Blanchard can fix them or sell them to someone who will. The city does not have to come up with any money.

If your concern is the taxpayer dollar, then it might interest you to know that his recent demolition on Jackson Street cost the taxpayers dearly - an order of magnitude reduction in tax assessment overnight. From the article above:

Staff also reported that 20 Jackson Street West generated $77,667 a year in property taxes when it was an office building, but just $7,000 as a parking lot.

If you think that demolitions benefit the city in any way, you are incorrect.

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By Dm (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 13:42:31 in reply to Comment 95873

Or he could have left 20 Jackson standing and vacant for 40% less taxes. So the new game will be vacant buildings. Cue WB lawsuit and we watch these buildings fall apart under appeal.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted December 12, 2013 at 14:12:21 in reply to Comment 95877

Speculators misusing the vacancy rebate is a problem. So what's your solution? To allow them to demolish instead?

Are you trying to make an actual point here? I don't see one...

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By Dm (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 15:45:32 in reply to Comment 95887

I made a statement. Pretty clear: the game may change from surface lots to vacant buildings. I offer no solutions. Just a statement pal, sorry you missed it.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 12, 2013 at 15:59:16 in reply to Comment 95897

Frankly, moving from surface lots to vacant buildings would be a step forward. An empty building can easily be filled, as evidenced by all the new investment along James North in the past decade. But once the building comes down, it becomes enormously more expensive to put a new building in its place.

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By Dm (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 16:08:46 in reply to Comment 95898

I agree. I think burak's got "troll bias" on me.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted December 12, 2013 at 17:37:29 in reply to Comment 95899

Just not sure what you were getting at.

The vacancy rebate game is already alive and well in Hamilton. I'm happy with us starting by curbing demolitions and then moving on to the vacancy problem.

We have control over demolitions via heritage laws but the vacancy rebates are provincially mandated so it's a harder fight.

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By Dm (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 18:03:41 in reply to Comment 95903

Again just a statement pal. No reading between the lines. Just sayin. Thank you for confirming my statement.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted December 12, 2013 at 19:03:12 in reply to Comment 95905

Let's be fair: You called it a "new game" in response to a comment about the gore buildings - the implication being that this game was just created by the act of halting the demolition of those buildings. Is that really reading between the lines? If we're going to be pals, I invite you to drop in and visit me in person.

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By Dm (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 19:57:18 in reply to Comment 95907

I'm good. Thanks. You seem a little too abrasive for me and my bike has a suspension. Sorry.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted December 13, 2013 at 10:11:31 in reply to Comment 95912

Sorry Kiely

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 12, 2013 at 13:52:04 in reply to Comment 95877

The building wasn't vacant. The owners refrained from renewing their tenants' leases so they could render the building vacant and demolish it.

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By Dm (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 13:53:47 in reply to Comment 95881

He could have made it vacant and not demo. Offer them leases next door. Once vacant taxes would be lower. I think we'll see vacant games now.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 12, 2013 at 13:55:37 in reply to Comment 95882

The vacant property tax discount is already hurting the city. Preventing wanton demolition isn't going to make it worse. In any case, a 40% property tax discount for a vacant building is less bad than a 90% tax discount for a demolished lot.

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By downtownhamilton (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 13:47:34 in reply to Comment 95877

Thank you. The building was vacant, what do you expect him to do, keep losing his own money?? You guys really don't understand capitalism. I probably shouldn't mention that word on this site, sorry.

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By AlHuizenga (registered) | Posted December 13, 2013 at 10:17:51 in reply to Comment 95879

You guys really don't understand capitalism.

This is really, really funny.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted December 12, 2013 at 14:10:48 in reply to Comment 95879

Capitalism allows him to sell these buildings if he can't make them profitable.

Capitalism does not guarantee profit.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 12, 2013 at 13:51:02 in reply to Comment 95879

I'm about 99% sure you're just trolling, but on the chance you didn't already know this: both 18-28 King St E and 20 Jackson St W were occupied with paying tenants before Wilson-Blanchard evicted them and rendered the buildings vacant.

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By Just sayin (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 14:52:48 in reply to Comment 95880

20 Jackson was a nice, no, beautiful building too. So where did the businesses go? At least one went up the mountain. Another loss to downtown . The law offices, dr.s, and the coffee shop must have also generated money.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 13:56:29

Thank you, Councilor Farr, and the rest of council ... it's easy to tear things down, but the long-term benefits of heritage preservation are worth the effort. Hopefully, this means we won't have a parking lot across from the Gore.

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By g. (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 14:29:11

if surface parking lots were taxed at the same rate as the median building rate for the area it would immediately create conditions favourable to the redevelopment of these lands. as it currently stands there is just so much money to be made in surface parking which from a city building perspective should be avoided in the core with few exceptions. as it stands it is extremely difficult for someone who actually wants to build a building on a parking lot to purchase one. it is by far easier to buy a building and knock it down. this is extremely perverse and must be dealt with at the provincial level before we will see any real changes in the core.

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By Why Don't We... (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2013 at 22:37:00

Why don't we raise the tax on surface parking lots by, say, 10X? Ideally, this could be applied retroactively to lots created since the by-law was passed where buildings were removed to enable the lot.
P.S. Can anyone provide a list of municipal campaign contributions made by Wilson-Blanchard associates over last couple of election cycles?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 13, 2013 at 07:33:39 in reply to Comment 95917

Why don't we raise the tax on surface parking lots by, say, 10X?

That would be a great idea. Unfortunately, the property tax discounts for vacant and demolished lots are set by the Province. I would suggest contacting your MPP and asking them to change the law so we stop incentivizing neglect and disinvestment.

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