Special Report: Heritage

Too Many Unanswered Questions About James Street Baptist Church

City staff and community volunteers have decided the fate of the James Street Baptist Church. Where is City Council in this process?

By Chris Erskine
Published May 05, 2014

The End is coming for the James Street Baptist Church, but there are too many unanswered questions surrounding this building.

James Street Baptist Church behind hoarding
James Street Baptist Church behind hoarding

How did a group of volunteers and city staff end up deciding the fate of the James Street Baptist Church? Their decision has determined the fate of a major heritage designated building, located on one of the most historic streets, and in the very heart of the City of Hamilton.

Why is City Council allowing non-elected people to run this City?

Why as citizens are we allowing this to happen?

In the fall of 2013, the James Street Baptist Church Developer appeared before the Heritage Permits Sub-Committee, an advisory committee that is made up of community volunteers.

Since the committee is made up of volunteers, their mandate is designed to be restricted, to simply review requests that affect heritage properties, and then advise the larger Heritage Committee.

The Heritage Committee is where your elected City Councillors start to become involved, but even here the committee's authority is limited to making recommendations to Planning Committee, a committee with even more elected representatives.

The Planning Committee then reports to City Council, where your representatives can affirm, reject, or change recommendations made at lower levels.

Essentially, the buck stops here.

As citizens, if you don't like their decisions then you can vote against their re-election this fall. This is something you can't do with staff and volunteers. This is why their role must always be secondary to your elected City Councillor.

So, what happen with James Street Baptist Church?

Based on watching the Committee meetings via Joey Coleman's reporting, I believe the following happen. The Developer wanted to save the Church, but his people were saying that the building posed a real safety risk, and had to be torn down immediately.

Instead of trying to help the Developer find a solution by commissioning independent engineering assessment of the building (with the goal of finding a potential solution), the volunteer Permits Sub-Committee decided to create a complicated list of conditions.

My understanding is the demolition permit was conditional, and that city staff were directed to ensure that the conditions were addressed.

Apparently, there is a bylaw that allows minor alternations to be approved by City staff and not go back to Committee process where you're Councillors can decide whether to approve, reject, or change.

So, did City Staff actually grant a demolition permit?

If yes, then why did City Staff feel empowered to use a clause for approval for minor heritage alternations for a major demolition work?

Did the Developer address all the conditions set by the volunteers?

Where is the results of their inspections?

Is this really how the City should be working?

There are simply too many questions. When will we hear from City Council with a recorded vote to affirm, reject, or change the fate of James Street Baptist Church?

Chris Erskine is a labour and community activist. He is also a print artist, exploring historic landscapes and building themes using lino-cut and woodblock printing methods. You can visit his website.

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By Andreas (anonymous) | Posted May 05, 2014 at 09:30:10

Chris, Thanks for reminding us of this prime example of unacceptable Hamilton heritage planning and civic leadership. I can not think of a better example of people ignoring what is important to a city. The church is one of the few remaining examples of Hamilton's history. We are far to complacent on decisions like this. Can we not make up a catchy slogan for protecting our heritage properties? Let's wordsmith "yes we cannon" to protect Hamilton heritage: "Don't play dominoes with our buildings", "Think before you smash", "These buildings are our history", "We have enough parking lots, keep our heritage buildings", "Let's build a city, not bulldoze it!"

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted May 05, 2014 at 15:50:11

Hauser, who is an intern with the Canadian Association of Heritage Professionals, is confident that all the partners on this project are fully committed to the heritage value of the building. "The client did not buy the property to tear the building down - absolutely not. They could buy property anywhere and develop it. They bought it with the intent of using this special part of Hamilton's cultural urban fabric."

The buyer does not yet wish to be identified, but Hauser said, "They pride themselves on adaptive reuse of heritage buildings. It's part of how they like to identify themselves."

raisethehammer.org/article/1773/bold_plans_for_james_street_baptist_church

Before this tale is complete, maybe it's the architect who'll be seeking anonymity.

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By Anonymous (anonymous) | Posted May 06, 2014 at 07:46:03

There is a lot of concern about the loss of the physical building, but where is the concern for the congregation who sat inside the crumbling physical structure for over 100 years? What about the loss of the community programs that they can no longer run because they have no permanent home?

If the community is more concerned about bricks and mortar than people, they don't get it. Buildings are never permanent, people even less so - but what is more important in life? The shells that house us, or the relationships we build along the way?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 06, 2014 at 09:27:01 in reply to Comment 101010

The congregation changed their name to Graceworks Baptist and are looking for a new permanent home. In the meantime, they normally hold Sunday service at 10:30 AM in the Spectator auditorium, 44 Frid Street and their community ministries continue in various forms.

By the way - regardless of your religious beliefs, you owe it to yourself to experience the wonderful music program by Christopher Clause.

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