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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. This is our last chance to prove LIUNA wrong about the potential to restore this beautiful, heartbreaking monstrosity in the heart of downtown.
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