Special Report: Lister Block

An Ignoble End

After neglecting the Lister Block for seven years, LIUNA now expects to be exempted from the city's own policy documents and rewarded with a $30 million sweetheart deal.

By Matt Jelly
Published May 26, 2006

LIUNA, the owner of the Lister Block, has requested a demolition permit from the city, and City Council wil decide on this on June 12 during a special meeting at 3:00 PM.

Lister Block
Lister Block

I've been following this story for years, and it's a long one. A lot of the details are confusing, for sure. I understand the confusion people have over this - LIUNA has played a pretty smart chess game with announcements over the year - but when you tie it together there are a lot of gaps.

The proposed deal, as I understand it, goes as follows: The city (if they agree to the current proposal) will lease out office space from LIUNA for a 15 year period, for $30 million, in a rebuilt Lister Block.

Simple enough, it seems. I think most people agree the status quo (a prominent, derelict building in the downtown core) isn't an option. Everyone can agree that it would be good to see something happen at that corner.

That's the only valid argument I've heard in favour of LIUNA's proposal: it replaces what most people see as an eyesore with a new building. Okay.

However, there are some problems with this logic, and some concerning questions about how this proposal should work for the citizens of Hamilton.

Usually, when the city is in need of something (anything from office supplies to office space) it tenders a contract. Different suppliers compete for a bid, and usually the cheapest option is taken, unless there are obvious reasons to spend more.

Right now, plenty of office space is available in the core. Eight floors are vacant in the Stelco Tower, as well as vacated floors in the Standard Life tower, formerly used by the Federal Government before 55 Bay was built, as well as several other facilities which should suit the city just fine.

The office vacancy rate in the downtown core is estimated at around 25-35 percent. So, downtown Hamilton is not a market in need of new office space, and since there's such little demand for this space, if the city wanted to lease space (especially for as long a period as 15 years), they should have no trouble finding space for about a third of the cost that they'll be paying LIUNA.

The city didn't tender this contract with LIUNA - it was a special deal apparently initially worked out between the Mayor's office and LIUNA. Many people remember the concept sketch from last May - this was unveiled before any deal was actually discussed by the public or by the Councillors who represent us.

What other developer can you name that receives a $30 million handout from the city after sitting on a property and not maintaining it for seven years?

LIUNA has been complaining that heritage advocates in town oppose the demolition of the Lister Block, going even further to accuse members of the city's own Municipal Heritage Committee (also referred to as LACAC) of inappropriately working against the development. LIUNA is almost taking a tone that it's unpatriotic to the city to oppose the deal.

The City had Lister designated as a heritage building in 1995 to avoid exactly this kind of situation - a developer coming in and knocking down an old building because it's cheaper to rebuild than to preserve.

LIUNA knew that the Lister was a heritage building when they bought it. They shouldn't be surprised or impatient when people oppose its demolition, especially the citizen's committees at City Hall who are mandated to scrutinize these things!

In a letter to council, LIUNA president Joe Mancinelli made it seem as though heritage advocates were just being purists about this, and really don't have the right to comment about a building which isn't theirs.

In fact, LACAC does indeed have a say in this. Any demolition of a heritage building is supposed to go through this committee to make sure everything is in order. Surprising no one, LACAC recently voted 12-1 to oppose LIUNA's plan.

The city has an official plan, a policy document that is supposed to guide decisions made by Council. Our official plan recognizes built heritage as a priority, and contains requirements for how we deal with such heritage buildings. In the Municipal Heritage committee's estimation, the deal presented by LIUNA doesn't satisfy these requirements.

The committee goes on to point out that the plan also doesn't satisfy the Downtown Secondary Plan, the part of the city's official plan that specifically outlines how we redevelop downtown.

These plans were officially adopted by the city. Councillors are obviously allowed to deviate from these plans when necessary, but the LIUNA plan is on many fronts at odds with the city's own policies, as well as with the policies outlined by the Ontario Heritage Act.

The Municipal Heritage Committee also based this decision on a peer review of the "heritage impact assessment" supplied to the committee by LIUNA, which has been discounted by those peer reviewers as incomplete and systemically inaccurate.

People who want to see something happen with this building will often point to the state of the building as it stands now: broken windows, open entrances, and the stink on hot days. It's obvious that to get this downtown moving again, the Lister can't sit like it is now for much longer. Something has to be done.

I made a presentation to City Council two years ago, urging them to enforce property standards by-laws. Sections 5.2 to 9.2 of the property standards by-law are very clear about how an owner is expected to take care of vacant buildings. Owners of properties aren't supposed to leave windows open or entrances unsecured. Check out how many by-law violations you can observe just by standing on the street.

The city apparently hasn't tried to enforce these by-laws on LIUNA or on a lot of the buildings downtown, even after several citizens have identified these violations.

What everyone needs to remember is that LIUNA is largely responsible for the condition of the Lister Block. For the past seven years it's belonged to them. Every time there's a fire, every time a trespasser does damage to the property, every time a pigeon drops a load inside that building, that's all the fault of the owner, and in part, the City of Hamilton for ignoring its own official plans and failing to enforce its own laws.

We have a huge problem with absentee property owners in the downtown core. Some of them are out-of-town property speculators who buy up properties and sit on them until the market gets better and they can flip the property for more than they paid for it.

The city has had trouble enforcing property standards by-laws on these owners for decades, because it's so widespread through the downtown core. For the people in charge of bylaw enforcement at city hall, I'm sure it's almost impossible to start. I'm guessing this is another city department that doesn't get nearly enough funding to do its job properly.

What worries me about the city subsidizing this development is the signal it sends to every other owner of derelict properties in the core. If they sit on it long enough, it becomes such a nuisance that it's no longer a private owner's problem; it becomes a very visible public problem, and the city is pressured to give away taxpayers dollars to fix things.

This shouldn't be the way we approach this problem, which has persisted throughout the decades without any real solution.

The decision that City Council has to make is whether or not to issue a demolition permit. This decision will be pivotal; it defines how we approach bringing the downtown back to life. Do we work with what's here, respect the history and the fabric of downtown, or do we bulldoze over that history and that fabric when they get in the way of the bottom line?

What concerns many of the heritage advocates in this city is that we have a beautiful heritage building in the downtown core that could be restored as one of the most interesting historical spaces in the city. For decades long the Lister Block was the heart of the downtown core, long before Jackson Square, Copps Coliseum or Hamilton Place were built.

Some people are recommending a full heart transplant, whereas others are simply suggesting that that heart needs to be resuscitated.

The building can't sit as it is, that's for sure, but the city should be taking real leadership on this. If taxpayers have to pay $30 million, we should be asking for a lot back from LIUNA: that they respect the historical significance of the property, and give us a building that we can all use, that we can all be a part of again.

LIUNA may own the Lister Block on paper, but that doesn't automatically give them a license to do what they will with it. There are rules on the books, and they haven't been following most of them. Hamilton and its citizens also have a certain ownership of the building, in spirit. It's in our history books, and perhaps after June 12, it won't exist anywhere else.

I would urge people to contact their Councillors and ask questions about this deal, and please tell them how you feel about it.

(For more information about the Lister Block, visit Architecture Hamilton's Save the Lister page. Matt Jelly will be on the speaker's list at the June 12 Council meeting. He will also be discussing the issue on The Opinionators, Cable 14 on Sunday, May 28 at Noon.)

Jelly is a local artist, graphic designer and map maker living in Downtown Hamilton, Ontario in the Central Neighbourhood. Matt is an advocate for built heritage, toxic waste eradication and the revitalization of downtown Hamilton. www.mattjelly.com


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By fastcars (registered) | Posted May 26, 2006 at 17:12:51

The suggestion that LIUNA is somehow responsible for the ignoble condition of the Lister Block ignores the reality that it was actually Metrus Developments that bought the building, forced out the tenants and allowed it to fall into disrepair. Since LIUNA came to own the building it has at least been kept in a more secure state. Those who chose only to criticize LIUNA ignore the fact that there must be a business case for development--and in this instance that business case depends on the tenancy of the City. LIUNA has done incredible work with the CN station and is a key stakeholder in the rehabilitation of the Royal Connaught--two projects that are anchors to the city's downtown revitalization efforts. The Lister as it stands is cooked--in much the same manner the original Lister was after the 1923 fire. LIUNA has been pretty clear that it has no Plan B--so barring the city's participation we will get the status quo--further dereliction of a large portion of downtown--likely followed by a fire or some other indignity. The alternative, though controversial--means new life, and new warm bodies and cold dollars for businesses in the area.

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By Joe (registered) | Posted May 26, 2006 at 23:37:37

What irks me about opposing arguments to LIUNA's proposal is their failure to have a legitimate alternative plan. Anyone out there with with the $$$ to restore the Lister? No? I didn't think so. Let's face it, we're talking about real estate here--businesses exist because they make a profit, so who could blame LIUNA for waiting for a deal that puts money in their pocket? Let's not forget, they're not demolishing the building for a parking lot, they're providing the downtown core with a replica (let's also not forget the current Lister building is also a replica). Based on LIUNA's track record, I have complete faith in their ability to construct an architectural gem. It's insulting to suggest that the people who gave us LIUNA Station are incapable of recreating the Lister. Is this how we should treat such a group?

Bottom line: put up or shut up--we need to support those who actually contribute to rebuilding our downtown, even if their strategy may be the less desirable option (I completely support restoring heritage buildings when feasible). Downtown Hamilton has been left to rot for so many years, and so it amazes me when someone wants to clean it up there is opposition to it. Almost sounds masochistic.

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By mark (registered) | Posted May 28, 2006 at 10:46:25

The main issue that irks me about this whole Lister mess is the not so much that there is no clear alternative to LIUNA's proposal, but the circumstances that led to the limited alternatives for this once grand structure.

LIUNA has intentionally allowed the building to rot ever since they assumed ownership in 1999. This deliberate act was to eliminate all other options besides demolition and reconstruction. LIUNA has neglected the building for the better part of a decade, which has compunded the overall decay of the neighbourhood. This kind of behaviour should be punished by the city, not rewarded with a $30 million dollar handout.

We set a dangerous precedent when we allow a landlord to rot out a prominent address, then award them for the neighbourhood's decline (which they have been a contributor)with a multi-year sweetheart leasing deal that goes untendered (again against official city policy).

Bottom line, if LIUNA wants to demolish Lister against the recommendation of LACAC, and given Lister's present condition at the hands of LIUNA, then we have to suck it up and watch another historic site crumble (just like the Tivoli down the road). However, this has to be done on their dime alone, and not mine (or any other Hamilton taxpayers' dime). If LIUNA wants to destroy the building, then the City should withdraw from the lease proposal. The city's leasing contract should be awarded to good corporate citizens who have not allowed their properties to decay.

What great power does LIUNA hold over this council? Why are so many bylaws being ignored in their favour? Why are we giving such a sweetheart leasing deal to them without proper tendering? Why is this Lister demolision being pressed forward in June of an election year? Who's the piper, and who's bankrolling him?

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By king james (anonymous) | Posted May 29, 2006 at 15:12:36

What is the basis for your accusation that Liuna has intentionally allowed the Lister to rot for some ulterior motive? Granted the property hasn't been maintained, but it wasn't being maintained by its previous owner either.

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By fastcars (registered) | Posted May 29, 2006 at 20:16:33

LIUNA inherited a building that had been left to rot for many years. When Metrus bought the building, it's upper floors were no longer in use--but some it's lower floors and it's arcade level had tenants--in fact it's street front retail space on James and King William was pretty much full (as evidenced by the many signs visible above the current hoarding wall). Metrus kicked everyone out if you'll recall, and then allowed the building to sink into disrepair. Aside from more missing windows, things have not substantially deteriorated since LIUNA has had the building. LIUNA actually sealed up the street level ingress points to the building and there has been less transient/fire activity there since. I find it ironic that the switch from demolition of the building and reassembly of the facade to an outright demolition with a remanufactured facade has caused this consternation. A true preservationist would want total preservation, which was never proposed. As for Bratina and his boutique hotel--sounds like a rehash of Kittling Ridge. With the revived Connaught, new Staybridge Suites and proposed Hilton Homewood Suites--I just don't see the logic or business case in dumping anymore hotel capacity into downtown until things stablize and the new capacity is fully utilized. They may think more hotel rooms will boost business at the HCC--but the HCC is quickly becoming small and outdated compared to facilities in competing cities. Come 2007 Windsor will have a Convention facility about 3X the size.

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 30, 2006 at 12:56:43

I'm still waiting to hear of a viable renovation plan from somebody. I'm completely in favour of retaining this building instead of demolishing it, but have yet to hear/see any of these so-called 'interested parties' come forward with their financing, timelines and construction plans. It'll be pretty tough to convince council to turn down this deal with nothing in the background for plan B.

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By mark (registered) | Posted May 31, 2006 at 16:28:30

LIUNA has never offered up a renovation plan. They only want to demolish and rebuild with a similar look. That's not to say an economical renovation is not possible. Here's an exerpt from the May 31 edition of the Spectator quoting Eberhard Zeidler, one of Canada's most renowned architects, with experience in successful renovations of this style. Here's the quote:

"Zeidler's works include the Toronto Eaton Centre, Ontario Place, the Toronto World Trade Centre, and the McMaster site of Hamilton Health Sciences.

His historic work includes restoring the 1889 Gladstone Hotel, the oldest continuously operating hotel in Toronto.

In an interview, Zeidler said he can't speak about the interior of the Lister, but he believes the facade can be economically saved and restored.

'I can only speak from past experience with other buildings and usually it is ... far more expensive to tear the building down and rebuild than maintain the present elements,' he said." (Article by Andrew Dreschel)

LIUNA has never been interested in renovating the Lister. While the building was in poor condition when they acquired it in 1999, they have done nothing to slow its deterioration. As you can see from photographs of the building, windows have been left broken and open, and vandals continued to gain access. LIUNA claims it would be too expensive to renovate, but they have never produced detailed costing to support that claim. Meanwhile, Eberhard Zeidler says it would be cheaper to renovate than rebuild. He has even volunteered his services to assist in renovation plans. Unfortunately LIUNA shows no interest in restoration, only an interest in the tax dollars the ciy is willing to hand out to them. With LIUNA contributing to re-election campaigns (city elections happen this fall, surely a mere coincidence), LIUNA is certain to get its way, despite being such poor corporate citizens of Hamilton.

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By MattM (registered) | Posted June 01, 2006 at 17:36:33

Good points raised Mark. Just for the record, lets go over what has happened since Lister was abandoned. Metrus bought the building in the mid '90s, closing the upper floors, keeping merchants on the ground and 2nd floor until completely abandoning the building sometime in the later '90s. In 1996 there were 3 fires. I assume they were the one on the 3rd floor corner of the building, the one on the 2nd floor across from the stairs, and another I have yet to confirm myself.

Metrus sold the building off to LIUNA in 1999. Since then there has been:

  • a fire on the 2nd floor (nothing major, just a couch and a bit of wall)

  • much higher counts of vandalism throughout the whole building

  • fire on the main floor to the Tait Gibson

  • fire on the main floor just last month

  • the building was wide open for 2-3 weeks last summer. It was wide open again last month for about a week. Last summer's wide opena access permitted the fire in the Tait Gibson. Last month's entry permitted the fire on the main floor. The building continues to be wide open at all times in an area I won't disclose. It has been open for more than a year now. People DO use it to get into the building.

So we can see that both sides have done a very lazy job of keeping the building in good condition. I don't really have much more to add to the argument, other than the fact that I'm obviously behind restoring and not replicating. We know it's possible, we know it is financially feasible. Why won't it happen? That I'm not entirely sure about. I can only hope June 12th will side in our favour... but I know its looking grim.

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By fastcars (registered) | Posted June 01, 2006 at 22:29:09

I'm all for renovation--don't get me wrong. If someone owned that building that was interested in renovation, I'd be thrilled. When you get down to facts though, what LIUNA has decided they want to do with the property doesn't involved restoration. LIUNA's plan is for Class A office space, which isn't a viable option in the existing building. Since LIUNA has no back up plan and monied developers aren't exactly beating down the doors to buy the building--all that will come of a rejection of demolition will be continued years of rot and deterioration. When you consider LIUNA's work at the CN station, The Connaught, involvement with TradePort and planned development at Pier 8--I think it would be extremely unfair to call them poor corporate citizens.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 02, 2006 at 00:46:46

Hi fastcars,

You make a good point, and I think I addressed it in my most recent blog post ("Toward a Plan to Restore the Lister"), which calls on supporters to move beyond criticism and present a credible, plausible business plan that investors can get behind.

A point regarding LIUNA's corporate citizenship (a term I hate, by the way: corporations are not "citizens" or "persons", but agreements that groups of people make to earn profit and insulate themselves from personal liability) - LIUNA was one of the largest over-contributors to Larry Di Ianni's election campaign. They hosted a Chamber of Commerce fundraiser for Di Ianni's legal costs at LIUNA Station, and they negotiated the Lister deal with Di Ianni's office in secret meetings.

That's just too fishy to ignore.

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By seek (anonymous) | Posted June 15, 2006 at 23:56:18

Fastcars: The Lister is not "cooked". It is built of concrete reinforced with steel. The plaster has fallen down due to poor care, and the plywood and broken windows are ugly, but the building is a prime candidate for restoration. A renowned architect has volunteered his time to do so. A respected developer has said "any developer would jump". The Lister is not dead yet!

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By Tsuchiya (anonymous) | Posted January 20, 2010 at 18:15:23

It may be a historic building, but no one i talk to gives a damn about the building.

Will the city of Hamilton get $30M back over the next 10-15 years from this investment? Show me the projections!!

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 21, 2010 at 10:26:49

Will the city get $500 million back over the next 10-15 years from the Red Hill Expwy (minus the maintenance costs, of course)? Show me the projections!

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 21, 2010 at 10:50:49

minus the maintenance costs, of course

Don't forget lifecycle costs (even with maintenance, the components of the highway will need to be replaced eventually) and debt servicing charges.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 21, 2010 at 11:07:04

^...and the legal fees from the lawsuit, etc., etc...

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