Last week, the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario (ACO) released a report from Chris Borgal indicating his observation that the Lister Block is structurally sound and would make a good candidate for restoration.
Raise the Hammer published an editorial on the matter and I sent a related email to City Council and a number of interested parties.
In the brouhaha that ensued, Ward 2 Councillor Bob Bratina announced that he is going to ask city staff to study the viability of having the city buy the property from the Labourers International Union of North America (LIUNA) and perform the restoration itself.
According to preliminary figures Bratina cited, this would cost the city $19 million and would result in a restored Lister, the office space city staff need, and a valuable capital asset in the heart of downtown.
Compare with $30 million, the price the city agreed to pay LIUNA to rent the office space. LIUNA originally agreed to restore the building, but after bringing Hi-Rise Group in as a partner, they announced that they would demolish and reconstruct the building instead.
Hi-Rise Group is notorious around some parts for building the bland, boxy Government Building on Bay St. and Market St. Last year, Hi-Rise President Warren Green outraged Lister supporters by asserting, "There's nothing historic about bricks."
Could the city really save $11 million simply by purchasing the property outright and doing the restoration itself?
John Dolbec, CEO of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, replied last week that everyone agrees the Lister is structurally sound (he quoted architect John Mokrycke saying it's "built like a bomb shelter"), but the restoration is not "economically viable," meaning no one is willing to step up and spend the money.
I asked Dolbec what he thinks of Bratina's idea, and he raised some reasonable objections. Specifically:
In Dolbec's opinion, the prospect is too "fraught with risk" to consider seriously. He also makes this additional point: "Given their proven track record (e.g. LIUNA Station, amongst many others) and their obvious passion for this kind of work - if it were all that easy to restore this building, don't you think that LIUNA would have done this already?"
Dolbec makes some valid points, but I suspect his attitude toward government activities is coloured by his business ideology: i.e. government should not be in the business of business, because the market is inherently more efficient.
Certainly this skepticism has proven correct in many instances. There are no shortage of what Dolbec rightly calls "white elephants" dotting the landscape, some of them within sight of the Lister Block itself.
But if we accept that governments cannot do anything but create the conditions under which private enterprise can thrive, then what's the point of having a democratically elected government at all?
This also denies those areas in which the government takes on a non-traditional role and excels at it. I'm thinking of the downtown residential loan program, in which the city takes on the job of banker to finance downtown developments the real banks won't touch - not because they're not economically viable, but because banks have forgotten how to finance anything other than suburban sprawl.
The risk of cost overruns is real, but the potential payoff - a restored Lister that is a jewel of downtown revitalization and a success story for political urbanism - may just be worth the risk.
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