Downtown Bureau

From Bombed Out to Booming

If all of these projects are built and built properly, we will see our downtown become the people place it was originally meant to be.

By Jason Leach
Published March 01, 2006

Hamilton's Downtown Renewal Department announced 14 new projects in our city centre last week, much to the delight of everyone here at Raise the Hammer.

2005 Downtown Residential Loan Program Projects (click on the image to see a larger map in a new window)
2005 Downtown Residential Loan Program Projects (click on the image to see a larger map in a new window)

From the humble beginnings of our online news site we have stated firmly and proudly that we believe in Hamilton and in the future of the downtown.

Cities all over the world have one thing in common: those with healthy downtowns are great. Those with neglected and weak downtowns tend to carry that same vibe and persona through the rest of the city.

Hamilton's future does not lie in paving over farmland on the outskirts of town. Our future starts at King and James and spreads out from there. Only with a healthy heart can the rest of the body function efficiently and properly.

There are a few points I want to highlight that I believe show the enormous significance of these proposals:

  1. Gore Park and King East as the big winners
  2. New towers being constructed from scratch
  3. The abundance of 'mixed-use' elements – street retail with upper floor residential

The first time Hamilton had a batch of construction downtown thanks to the residential loan program, we saw much of the construction along the edges of downtown.

Among this current slew of projects, 12 of the 14 are along King Street or King William between James and Wellington. Heck, seven of them are in the immediate area of Ferguson Ave between King and King William.

Depending on what type of streetfront retail is developed along Ferguson and King William, this area could become Hamilton's new urban hotspot. Home to the Mustard Festival and a wonderful collection of shops, restaurants and historic sights, it appears as though the 'Aquarius District' as it has been dubbed by some is finally ready to take off.

You can read the city report (PDF) with all the details on each project.

In Gore Park, four projects are going to make a radical difference to the appearance and feel of our town square.

The most exciting by far, is the long-awaited redevelopment of the Victoria Hall and Foster-MacKay buildings on the south leg of the Gore.

These buildings are brilliant and Victoria Hall is a national historic site with its metal façade. With lofts and live/work units, this building will be a fast seller and a huge success.

Streetfront retail is also included, which will help to animate the Gore. We hope an eatery or two with patios will open in this space.

Across the street, 24 apartments are going into the empty upper three floors of the building that houses the Salvation Army store. Again, a prominent location in the heart of Hamilton will make a huge impact once redeveloped and occupied.

At 119 King East, four units will come into the upper three floors of this building. Some work has already begun and, with the massive windows overlooking King, I suspect these will be sharp units in a very cool, slender building. Again, mixed-use with streetfront retail.

Not to get lost in the mix is the very important project announced by Hamilton Housing a couple of months ago of a new five storey apartment building geared to Mac students to be built just east of John on the north side of King.

Things are definitely looking up in the Gore and along King East.

Of course, the biggest project taking place in the Gore is the redevelopment of the Royal Connaught. This grand old building will surely become a huge hit in the condo market with some very trendy designs being planned. Councillor Bob Bratina saw some drawings recently and told me that they blew him away.

Down at Ferguson Ave., a grand total of 336 units are being built. The city did a wonderful job bringing Ferguson to life with cobblestone, public art, trees and benches. Now there will be hundreds of new residents to call this neighbourhood home.

Mary Pocius and her board at the International Village BIA are some of the hardest working folks in our city. They deserve this building boom coming to their neighbourhood more than most.

The two big projects here are the old Spallacci building and a brand new, mixed-use project at the southeast corner of King William and Ferguson. This new building will have 20,000 sq. ft. of retail space at the street level with four floors of parking and then almost 200 condos above that.

I can't wait to see how this project shapes up. I'm sure places like Theatre Aquarius, the Junction Café and Black Forest Inn are salivating with anticipation.

As for the Spallacci Block, the neighbourhood is planning a demolition party with wine and cheese as soon as this baby starts coming down. This once proud building has become a physical blight on the landscape and has added thousands of dollars in extra insurance costs for surrounding buildings.

The new building design does a good job at honouring its past and will provide a visual reminder to all that downtown Hamilton is on the way up.

On the west side of the downtown core we see two brand new buildings planned. Again, this is a huge sign that we've turned a corner, and that we are running out of empty buildings to renovate.

Assuming the Lister project goes ahead, we will only have a few stragglers like Treble Hall and a couple of neighbouring buildings on John Street in need of full-scale renovation. I would suspect that we'll see some action there and on James North in the roughed-up block between Vine and Cannon in the near future.

The new 14 storey condo planned for York and Hess is remarkably timely. I've been working on a plan for York Blvd. that would see the 3rd lane (curb lane) replaced with a bike lane and street parking along the entire length of the street.

All the city-owned properties along York should be marketed and planned as mixed-use in the general height range of three to six stories except in the area from Queen to Bay where heights can gradually increase from 6-15 floors quite easily.

This project at Hess could be a catalyst to start transforming Hamilton's main downtown entrance into the vibrant, mixed-use neighbourhood it deserves to be instead of an extension of the 403.

Finally, over at the old HMP site, a new ten storey hotel will rise, another long-stay hotel similar to the new Staybridges Suites on Market St. This one will carry the Hilton banner and word is that this project will somehow tie into the loft project already announced for the old federal building next door.

I don't have details on that, but if could humbly make one suggestion it would be this: Give us patio space along Bay and George. Both streets are prime for outdoor dining, especially with the new sprucing up on Bay.

All in all, this has been quite a week for downtown Hamilton. If all of these projects are built and built properly, we will see our downtown become the people place it was originally meant to be.

Work is progressing behind the scenes on plans to move the busses off of Gore Park which would become a vibrant pedestrian piazza for the thousands of downtown residents who are just itching to get out and enjoy city life once again.

Kudos must go to City Council and the folks at the Downtown Renewal Department for initiating this program and promoting our downtown core after many years of neglect.

There isn't a city on earth that would balk at a program that sees 14 million dollars loaned out (all to be paid back in 10 years) and results in 117 million dollars worth of construction in the downtown core.

That is a brilliant return and in fact is a money-maker for City Hall as the property values will skyrocket along with the annual taxes paid to the city. No matter how you slice it, this is a win-win situation!

Jason Leach was born and raised in the Hammer and currently lives downtown with his wife and children. You can follow him on twitter.

23 Comments

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By me (anonymous) | Posted None at

I would not be so hasty, promises and free money does not necessarilly mean there will actually be anything happening. Just more promises set to be broken and tax money lost to bad deals. Excuse the pessimism but this is Hamilton where the only people who do well are crooks and developers.

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By jason (registered) | Posted None at

I hear you. I agree about the way things have developed in this city over the years, but these announcements are different in a couple of ways - a. the city isn't on the hook for any money. if a developer walks away, he gets nothing. In fact, none of the loan money is given to a developer until the project is completed. b. there has been huge response to this loan program. so much so, that they had to turn down several projects and limit it to these 14. All of these projects are far along in the planning and development stage that it would be unlikely to see too many stall. I'm sure the odd one will, but most seem to be going ahead. And if some don't, that simply frees up their loan money to be offered to one of the many other projects that applied.

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By rolf (anonymous) | Posted None at

I guess the cliche of 'cautious optimism' is in play here. As for the Junction Cafe salivating over the proposals--too late. The Junction is shuttered.

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By jason (registered) | Posted None at

well, this is Hamilton - cautious optimism must always be used. as for the Junction, Ronn simply stepped away due to personal reasons. As we all know, he's had a rough couple of years. If and when the construction cranes show up for these new condo towers you can bet that there will be a bidding war to buy the place.

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By fastcars (registered) | Posted None at

I'm disappointed, but not surprised at the negativity in some of these comments. Negativity like this is a disease, and is the reason why so few people know exactly how beautiful Hamilton is. All anyone ever does is talk about how ugly the view is from the QEW, but we never mention what a beautiful view those travelling through on the 403 get. My only hope is that with the dawning of optimism, enthusiasm and energy downtown, the negativity of the few, will be left behind. Great update this week Jason.

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By Steeltown (registered) | Posted None at

If I had to take a wild guess what kind of street retail will go into the 212 King William new condo building (11 stories) I would say a grocery store. The area doesn't have any grocery store and will this boom in the International Village the demand for a grocery store will be high.

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By me too (anonymous) | Posted None at

Turning property is a great way to make money, especially if the city foots the bill. Who cares if they have to complete the work before they get a cheap loan? If I were a developer I'd create a holding company, get the loan and then hire my brother-in-law to do all the work. Somebody will make money whether the development is a future success or not. I especially like the part of the document that states that they will ensure that "Cost over runs are being funded by borrower equity and/or primary lender loan increases". Good thing these kinds of projects never go over budget ;)

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By Josh (registered) | Posted None at

I'm not sure why residential developments would necessarily change the character of the core and start to bring people back downtown? I understand that it would be beneficial to have more people living in the core, but Hamilton has an ample amount of cheap rental units and houses available within a short walk (20 minutes is still short these days right?). I'm sure you'd agree that it isn't hard to find a place in Hamilton. So why is this going to work? The whole "If you build it they will come" thing is played. I don't have stats to back this up, but it's my impression that employment in the core is either down or hasn't changed much in recent years. So again why? Why are people going to move to the core when nothing has really changed? I think the bottom line is that for people to want to live downtown they will first need to work downtown and see how great it is and then move downtown, not the other way around. I'd get behind a project that was going to lend people money to start downtown businesses or help fund a campus, but not a series of possibly ill fated real estate ventures.

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By jason (registered) | Posted None at

hey folks...good discussion here. a couple thoughts from me. 1. 'possibly ill fated real estate ventures'? there are only 3 units left in the Annex lofts on Rebecca (a friend of mine who just moved here from Alberta really likes the city and is going to buy one of them). There are only 2 units left in the Core Lofts. The bottom 9 floors of Chateau Royale are almost filled and they are now releasing the upper floors (final phase). The Margaret St lofts have been filled since they opened along with the Allenby and Stone Lofts. Developers wouldn't build more of this stuff if it was 'ill fated'. A $300,000 loan on a 5 million dollar project doesn't fill their pockets with gobs of money. 2. I've spoken with the manager of Jackson Sq. and they do great business during the day. There are 40,000 jobs downtown but many of those folks leave and downtown feels less busy after 6pm. having more folks living right on our main arteries - King, James etc...along with the physical changes these projects will bring to formerly empty buildings and empty parking lots will start to change people's perception of downtown. It's not that these next 2,000 residents are somehow our saviour, but is one more good step in the right direction. Cheers Jason

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By w willy (registered) | Posted None at

There is demand for housing in the Hamilton area -- witness the growth of the suburbs. The bet is that urban living choices -- including condos rather than rentals -- may be an appealing alternative for some. Now, many of the people in the suburbs are not working in the suburbs either. The upside of having people living downtown is that it is easier to put together public transit packages that get them to work (especially through the GO system, but also due to the fact that downtown gives you plenty of cross-town HSR choices, as well as most mountain routes). It is true that we need more employment downtown, but one way to spark that is to increase aggregate demand (i.e. spending) downtown -- precisely what increasing residential density downtown will do. I do not have much faith in the creativity (not to mention the law-abiding nature) of our local development industry, nor have Mr. Marini's performances on the opinionators always been particularly stellar. But these redevelopment loans smell a lot better than a lot of city sweetheart deals.

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By Josh (registered) | Posted None at

As of Feb 21st 2006 5 of the 6 loans are much larger than $300000 and only one has been repaid in full - the future isn't clear, it hasn't been a massive sweeping success. I'm sorry that I can't share your optimism. Condos trouble me too. There have been a large number of buildings in Hamilton that have been "touched up" by the owners and then sold off as condo units because the buildings need major work done. There is one on Catherine South that sold units for $50000 and two years later the condo board announced all of the balconies and the roof needed to be replaced and each condo owner would have to pay $20000. A condo on Main West needed a new parking garage to the tune of $30000 each. The future is not clear for these 6 projects and even less clear for the recently announced 14.

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By Big Bri (anonymous) | Posted None at

As innumerable downtown revitalization programs have shown, nice, shiny bricks and mortar won't necessarily attract affluence. And that's what we want, right? We want folks with ample disposable incomes to populate these new "projects" to help rejuvenate the heart of Hamilton. Two things must also be done: take some of the halfway houses out of the core (not politically correct, I know, but perception means a lot); and mount a marketing campaign to sell the downtown - not to outsiders but to Hamiltonians. Big Bri, Downtown Hamilton

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By me (anonymous) | Posted None at

I would also be happier with money being spent to lift the empoverished rahter than drive them into greater concentrations by dumping a bunch of more affluent folk in their midst. The core will not work without helping those in need. I also have grave reserrvations about the developement community in Hamilton. Given their prior links to DiIanni and Co. I still think we are goiing to foot the bill for another cosying deal for developers. I wish I could be more hopeful but there is too much corruption in this city and too many of the beauutiful spots are being destroyed. I also fear as the election nears, council will ride this into another term and that would be a disaster. This will not make up for all the harm council has done and continues to do.

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By I believe (anonymous) | Posted None at

I think this is exciting. The peaople above are the exact reason that Downtown is falling apart. Its that same negative feeling that the most of the city has about downtown that is causing it to faulter. Has negative thinking gotten anyone anywhere in life. Anyway I think this is exciting. And I say if even 1 of these projects come through which im sure it will be more, but if just 1 comes through it will be a plus for downtown Hamilton.

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By jason (registered) | Posted None at

you may have noticed in Tuesday's Spec that the spokesperson for Yves Rocher mentioned all the developments in the city core as part of their reason for coming here. She said 'we do our research'. More residents, more businesses will follow and this will lead to more residents etc...and the cycle repeats....they feed off each other.

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By Buffy (anonymous) | Posted None at

All of the development in downtown Hamilton is great but I have a suspicion that it is the payoff from our illustrious Mayor to those that helped finance him into office. I have to commend Joanne Chapman for uncovering the mishandling of election funds, the illegal way records were kept and now missing. Hamilton could make a mark on society by doing the right thing - we threw the Liberals out for mishandling of funds.

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By steeltown (registered) | Posted None at

Problem is the City has paid over $60,000 for this investigation more than the actual cost of over contribution Di Ianni collected during the election. I couldn't give a crap if Di Ianni "buddies" are making money off on the Residential Loan Program just as long condos are being built. Are we suppose to cherry pick developers for the loan program now? First people claim that the Residential Loan Program was doing criminal wrongdoing now it's just a loan program created for Di Ianni's buddies. Jeez seems like there's people contend on destroying anything that does good for the city.

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By jason (registered) | Posted None at

the only reason we've had to pay 60,000 for the campaign trial is because council voted a year ago to not lay charges, but send the issue to court in the hopes that little old Ms Chapman wouldn't have the time or money (as most people wouldn't) to actually carry the process through. This week, 60,000 dollars later, they face the exact same vote and voted 12-1 to lay charges. It's their own fault for the cost to taxpayers. PLUS, I could care less how much taxpayer money is spent if the end result is more accountability and hopefully the beginning of a long, slow process of returning democracy into the hands of citizens, not big business.

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By me (anonymous) | Posted None at

The only people destroying this city are the people unwilling to question. People who do not care about truth or fairness. People who allow corruption to grow as if it is a part of doing business. Suspicions abound because too many shady dealings and unfair actions have oozed out of City Hall. If you do not know this, take off your rose coloured glasses and take a good look around you. I hope the development helps but past record show it probably won't. Too many other issues besides catering to developers (not like this new in this City) need to be addressed for true improvements. Whining and begging to other levels of government while suing them does not help anything.

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By Josh (registered) | Posted None at

The people ruining our city are the people who don't value Hamilton enough to want something better for it. These same people don't think that Hamilton has enough going for it already so therefore we can't afford to hinder development or criticize any proposals. It's these people who have let our neighbourhoods be 'gentrified' into places no one wants to be. The people who think 'We should take anything we can get at this point' or "just as long condos are being built" or "And I say if even 1 of these projects come through which im sure it will be more, but if just 1 comes through it will be a plus for downtown Hamilton." (2 quotes from earlier posts). It's the people that can't see past the immediate gratification of having something new built that have ruined, nay are ruining our great city. This is why we have a downtown that is basically a mall surrounded by parking lots. This is why the one of the busiest shopping districts in the city is in Ancaster. This is why we have let developers do anything they want with us and this is why when we travel and we tell people where we're from they say "Sorry" or "Ouch" or "Oh…". I want well planned residential developments that fit with the built, social and economic character of the city. I want the housing to be meant for today's Hamiltonians, our current citizenry not Toronto commuters lured by cheap condos. The bottom line is that I'm skeptical because Hamilton's municipal governments have written many 'carte blanche' permits to developers in the past and I worry this government is upping the ante and writing 'carte blanche' cheques to developers now too.

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By King James (anonymous) | Posted None at

Downtown is looking up. We should give credit where credit is due. When they do right, we should be praising our local politicians as loudly as we boo them when they do wrong. Anything else is nonsense.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted June 21, 2006 at 09:38:50

I wonder how many of the people who post negative comments about Council's desire for downtown improvement have actually taken the time to sit with the mayor to find out what his dreams for Hamilton are. Might be a good place to start? Until then, I agree whole heartedly with "King James".

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By Thomas (anonymous) | Posted December 19, 2006 at 03:56:23

The core will not work without helping those in need. I also have grave reserrvations about the developement community in Hamilton. Given their prior links to DiIanni and Co. I still think we are goiing to foot the bill for another cosying deal for developers. I wish I could be more hopeful but there is too much corruption in this city and too many of the beauutiful spots are being destroyed.

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