Lister Block

Toward a Plan to Restore the Lister

By Ryan McGreal
Published June 01, 2006

The Municipal Heritage Committee has launched a petition to save the Lister from demolition. I support this initiative, and I dutifully added my name, but it got me thinking good and hard about the vital missing ingredient in the campaign to save the building.

It's time for Lister supporters to move beyond simply trying to prevent its demolition and produce a plausible, credible plan to restore the building. All the political manoeuvring around Lister is currently dedicated to stopping the demolition, but restoration supporters need to move beyond insisting that the building can be restored - which is not in dispute among people who know about it - and demonstrate how it can be restored, by whom, for how much money, and from what fund.

LIUNA's plan to demolish and rebuild Lister, preserving as much as possible of its facade, looks like a good idea compared to the principal alternative, which is to continue letting the building decay.

Without a third option, City Council will certainly vote for the one option that breaks the unacceptable status quo. We need to present an option that meets Hamilton Chamber of Commerce President John Dolbec's condition that the plan be "economically viable," meaning someone has a concrete plan to restore the building and cash in hand to pay for it.

Councillor Bob Bratina suggested in March that the city could buy Lister and restore it for less than the $30 million it will pay to rent half the building for fifteen years. That might be the seed for a new plan, but we need to fill in the missing details and flush out whatever devils might be hiding there.

Brief History: Restoration or Replication

When LIUNA's Lister Block proposal surfaced last year, I cautiously supported it, believing the building was too decrepit to repair. The proposal was long on rhetoric and short on facts, but it seemed to be a win-win situation: the Lister gets saved and the city moves a bunch of employees into the heart of downtown.

Trevor Shaw was an early skeptic, arguing that the Lister might be "replicated", not restored, but the general tenor still seemed positive.

Then, Hi Rise Group joined the venture and started issuing dismissive statements about the building's historic value.

As time went on and more details emerged, the deal looked worse and worse. The price tag rose from $18 million to $30 million.

LIUNA came out this year and announced that they would be demolishing the building and replicating it, confirming the suspicions of skeptics like Shaw and Hamilton Spectator columnist Bill Dunphy.

Independent architects examined the building and disputed LIUNA's claim that restoration was not viable.

LIUNA formally requested permission to demolish the local heritage building. City Council has 90 days to respond, or else the petition is approved by default. Council will consider the matter in a public meeting on June 12 and then hold a snap vote to approve or deny LIUNA's permit.

Lister Supporters Respond

The Municipal Heritage Committee investigated LIUNA's petition and recommended that City Council reject it on the grounds that LIUNA had not fulfilled its conducted a proper assessment, and disputing LIUNA's claim that the building cannot be restored.

LIUNA responded with a publicity event and press conference in which they formally presented their latest redevelopment plan, hung big banners from the side of the dilapidated building, and released a smarmy PR website to build support for demolition.

In a recent twist, renowned architect Eberhard Ziedler wrote a letter to Councillors Bob Bratina and Brian McHattie arguing:

The Lister building is a magnificent specimen which has sadly been allowed to deteriorate. It has an interesting interior organization that can easily accommodate a layout that considers any given conditions.

I plead with you to restore the building. If you loose [sic] it you will have lost part of your past and never get it back, but that means you will also loose your future.

He also wrote, "I challenge anybody who claims you can gain by tearing it down," and offered to volunteer his time to help restore the building.

Zeidler designed the Toronto Eaton Centre, Ontario Place, and McMaster Hospital, as well as restoring Toronto's Gladstone HOtel, which was built in 1889.

At the same time, Councillor McHattie has asked Caroline Di Cocco, Ontario's Minister of Culture, to issue a "stop order" if Council does vote to approve the demolition request. McHattie wants the province to declare Lister an Ontario heritage site instead of merely local, which will take the matter out of Council's hands.

Mayor Larry Di Ianni insisted that that province shouldn't intervene in what he considers a local matter, but the premise of provincial heritage designation is that some buildings are so architecturally and historically significant that they become part of Ontario's shared heritage. In this case, the Lister's fate would no longer be merely a local matter.

Di Cocco is consulting with the Ontario Heritage Trust before responding to McHattie's request.

Toward a Plan to Save Lister

So here's my challenge to everyone who wants to save the Lister: we need a business plan! We need investors, architects, prospective tenants, and the glue of analysis, estimates, and commitments that will bind the three together.

If you have any contacts, ideas, suggestions, or expertise to share, feel free to post it in the comments of this blog entry or send them to lister@raisethehammer.org. This is our last chance to prove LIUNA wrong about the potential to restore this beautiful, heartbreaking monstrosity in the heart of downtown.

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 Joe (registered) | Posted June 02, 2006 at 09:53:25

Good work Ryan--it's nice to see something 'constructive' from proponents of the Lister restoration side. I hope this attempt isn't too little to late. I would like to see the Lister building restored, but without a solid alternative business plan by June 12 I, and I hope others, will throw upport behind LIUNA's plans.

In the end, the building does belong to LIUNA, their proposal is something a number of downtown businesses are excited about, and as was mentioned a few times on raisethehammer.org, no other businesses seem interested in doing anything with this property.

Good luck Ryan, there are 9 days left and counting...

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By Matt Jelly (anonymous) | Posted June 02, 2006 at 13:30:25

I agree with the need for an alternative plan- I would hate to see nothing happen- when I presented to city council two years ago, before any plan had been presented, I was clear in asking that a) the building be restored and b) the city facilitate a solution for the Lister Block.

I'll concede that the actual plans presented by LIUNA aren't 100% bad- if you agree with arguments about column spacing and ceiling height in regards to modern use, perhaps the interior structure isn't so important. The facade, however, is a jewel, and to spend a bit more money on restoration is a solid investment. I think a lot of people discount the actual value of a restored building compared to a replicated building. The Lister block obviously has an inspiring sense of history, inspiring enough that we're all willing to fight for it.

The most offensive thing about the LIUNA plan (to me) is that they're not willing to invest as much of their own dollars in the building as they expect the City to. If LIUNA wanted to pony up the financing themselves, I'm sure they wouldn't be running into nearly as much trouble, even from the staunchest of heritage advocates- especially if they projected a genuine interest in the heritage of the building.

As cautious taxpayers, Hamiltonians should wonder why their City government (thus far) is the only party interested in leasing the space. Why? There's not a huge market for this type of office space- it's even better office space than anyone working at City Hall has come to expect. Can the market support this much more prime office space, when 27% of offices in the downtown are already vacant? Only time will tell, I guess.

It would be a much better arrangement if there were several partners on this project, so the burden doesn't fall so squarely on the City's shoulders. If some other major stakeholders were showing interest, and the major cost of the project was covered by the private sector, it would make sense for the city to come in once those ducks are lined up- and the city's investment could be for something substantial that we could all support- such as maintaining as much of the original structure as possible. The City's involvement could be the cherry on top of a solid business plan.

I don't think we should be necessarily looking at June 12th as the 'do or die' day for Lister. The city could simply deny the demolition permit (which puts a stay on it for 180 days), and ask that LIUNA find at least one other major tenant to sign the same kind of conditional lease on space that the City has. Give them six months to come back to us with a more fair arrangement, before anything is signed. That's fair, isn't it?

We could also ask that LIUNA supply proper documentation for what they intend to do- a complete Heritage Impact Assessment, a structural assessment, and a very clearly presented business plan that the public can digest properly- it is, after all, our money.

LIUNA has been putting the pressure on council to make this decision now- stating publicly that if the city denies the demolition permit the deal is completely done. If the city decided to take another six months to consider this (which we should, considering the kind of money we're talking about), it would test LIUNA's will and patience to find a workable solution, one that doesn't hold the taxpayer hostage, one that doesn't fly in the face of heritage preservation, and one that shows a bit more creativity.

I think this situation has been overly polticized, and the debate has been wrongly boiled down to make people who oppose these plans seem as though they don't care about the downtown core. If we really care about the downtown core, we should take this 12 Million dollars we seem to have to spend and invest it smartly in small enterprise, in so many regenerative seeds throughout the downtown core, instead of expecting the money we throw at one building to somehow trickle down to the rest of the core. We know through practice that the former strategy works, and it works well. We also know that mega-projects rarely ever turn things around overnight.

The proponents of this plan are trying to make it seem like a life or death situation- they want to get the papers signed and the demolition started before the election this November. This is an initiative directly from the Mayor's office, between him and his largest poltical supporter... shouldn't we question that?

I think it's impossible to put together an alternative plan before June 12th. I think the more reasonable alternative would be for the city to proceed with much more caution, and for LIUNA to be a bit more patient while waiting in line for what can only be called a handout.

Matt Jelly

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By Jared (anonymous) | Posted June 08, 2006 at 14:31:35

I live in a renovation project right beside the Lister Block. The Annex on Rebecca Street. Living in this location means that I will personally be affected by the redevelopment, be that noise and pollution or increased property value.

That being said, at first glance I am not in favour of the current plans for the Lister Block. I am fully supportive that the Lister needs to be redeveloped, however, I am unsure that downtown Hamilton can handle another 100,00sq.ft of retail/commercial space. There is already a 20+ percent vacancy rate downtown.

I believe that what this proposal needs to be viable is to include residential units. I'm not about to tell you how many units there should be, only that the downtown can not survive on only commercial retail/office uses being developed. For the downtown to become really viable there needs to be a shift in thought. The downtown is for people and jobs. Both not one or the other. Unless we get more people downtown things wont change.

It is important for the Lister Block to be redeveloped, but if they don't do this right, it will just be a new vacant building anchoring the downtown.

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By jl (anonymous) | Posted May 22, 2007 at 20:37:33

I would like to see the lister block restored to the original or close to it.It is part of history and it needs to

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