Little Hope For Non-Designated Buildings

By Chris Erskine
Published October 24, 2013

So, this is what heritage protection looks like? Last night, the Heritage Permit Sub-Committee agreed to allow the developer to demolish most of the James Street Baptist Church.

James Street Baptist Church (RTH file photo)
James Street Baptist Church (RTH file photo)

While conditions were placed on the developer, the fact remains that most of a heritage designated building will be torn down.

The heritage permit review subcommittee began its discussions around 6:15 PM and did not finish until around 8:00 PM. At times, the committee members appeared to be under pressure to justify their concerns.

The loosely chaired meeting ranged over a number of concerns, including the possibility of immediate collapse, the need for an independent structural assessment, and how future designs could save more of the church.

For some time, it appeared that the subcommittee would recommend hiring a structural expert with heritage experience. Despite much discussion, the suggestion suddenly lost support when members were canvassed for a vote.

While the committee did recommend a number of conditions, the permit remains to tear down everything but the East Towers of the Church. The East Towers are the portion of the Church that faces James Street South.

The developer indicated during the meeting that he would move quickly with work once approval was given.

To be frank, I don't particularly like this building. It looks like a big pile of stones with little grace or poetry, particularly when compared to other historical churches in the City.

However, I find the proposal to combine the East Towers to a new structure, like what was achieved in Toronto at 88-90 Carlton Street, a very exciting possibility. If they do it right, they could create a new modern-historic classic.

But no matter how great the plans or aspirations of the developer, a heritage designated building deserves more consideration and protection than the average building.

Doesn't over a hundred years of history on one of the most important streets in Hamilton deserve it?

An independent assessment of the buildings with an eye to what could or could not be saved from a structural perspective is not unreasonable. Unfortunately, only one person wanted any kind of assessment.

So if this is the kind of protection a heritage designated building gets, what hope is there for non-designated buildings like the ones along Gore Park?

Part of this piece was first published on Chris's website.

Chris Erskine is a labour and community activist. He is also a print artist, exploring historic landscapes and building themes using lino-cut and woodblock printing methods. You can visit his website.


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By Conrad664 (registered) | Posted October 24, 2013 at 08:52:48

To me that church was never a WOW facter anyways

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By Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted October 24, 2013 at 09:01:01

It'll make a hell of a foyer.

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By Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted October 25, 2013 at 03:56:12 in reply to Comment 93632

Or mud room.

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By Conrad664 (registered) | Posted October 24, 2013 at 10:50:18 in reply to Comment 93632

Yes it would , but its been negleted for soo many years its going to take alot to bring back , i would not want to put in the money in it

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By Jordan (registered) | Posted October 24, 2013 at 12:52:57

This is silly to me. Why should we dictate what others do with their property to such a degree? The church is preserving the look of the front that faces James st. Isn't that "mission accomplished" for preserving the heritage of the street? Same with the gore park buildings. They have agreed to rebuild the facade with new materials. In other words, the heritage of the park will be preserved. It will cost the developer way less to do it this way, and as a non-designated building, isn't this a best case scenario? If people feel so strongly that the buildings should remain unchanged, then get a group together and buy them.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 24, 2013 at 13:26:15 in reply to Comment 93645

Lot of FUD in this comment.

  • There are lots of regulations on what a property owner can do with a property. You would not be allowed, for an extreme example, to demolish your house and build a waste transfer station in its place.

  • James Street Baptist Church is designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, which exists because it is clearly recognized that built heritage has real, measurable public value.

  • When the property owner bought it, he did so knowing it is designated and that the owner has a legal obligation to maintain its heritage value.

  • He has not presented any plan for how (or when) he intends to redevelop the property.

  • We have been allowing property owners to demolish buildings in Hamilton for decades. The result is a downtown pitted with vacant lots and surface parking, which hurts adjacent property values, reduces tax assessment and depresses the downtown's ability to generate urban economies and economic growth.

  • An offer was made by heritage advocates to buy 18-28 King Street East but the owner refuses to sell it.

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By Conrad664 (registered) | Posted October 25, 2013 at 08:39:36 in reply to Comment 93655

All do respect Ryan with all thoses REDTAP it sounds like we live in Russia

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 25, 2013 at 09:14:31 in reply to Comment 93701

Oh, sure. Anyone old enough to remember the Cold War will recall reading with horror about how people in Communist Russia were not allowed to demolish designated heritage buildings without a permit and a heritage preservation plan. It was awful.

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By Jordan (registered) | Posted October 24, 2013 at 21:07:15 in reply to Comment 93655

I really hate how you said the developer, "refuses to sell (the property)". That's never true. he's not obstinately getting in the way of the group that wanted to buy the property, he just thought it was worth more to him than what they offered. IF the offer would have made him money, he would have taken it. That's how businesses work.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 25, 2013 at 05:56:45 in reply to Comment 93684

Okay, I'll bite.

The reason the "developer" refuses to sell the property is that he's a property speculator, not a developer. He's spent the past two decades assembling a large, contiguous block of properties in the downtown core, several of which he already demolished years ago.

Hamilton has a by-law dating back to around 1999-2000 that a property owner is not allowed to demolish a building in the downtown core and turn it into surface parking. Informally it's called the "Blanchard By-Law" because it was written in response to this "developer" doing precisely that, just around the corner from 18-28 King Street East.

As for his big development plans, we haven't seen any. At the press conference where they announced their $120 million development, the two principals of Wilson-Blanchard spent the time arguing with each other about what it might look like. Here are some of the things Blanchard has said about their so-called plan:

  • On a redevelopment plan: "We don't have a real solid plan there, so..."

  • On building maintenance: "There's no sense spending any more money on them."

  • On the motivation to demolish: "The only reason we are doing anything now is because the interest rates are low and because those buildings have had it."

  • On the timing of the demolition: "If we take them down and work away at planning ... when we finally do get a plan and a tenant and financing, we'll be able to go forward quickly."

  • On the anchor tenant: "Potentially a grocery store or a Target or whatever. I don't know."

  • On designing for tenancy: "I'd rather get one cheque for $250,000 a month or something than 50, 70, 80, 200 cheques, you know?"

  • On the economics of new construction: "It has to be a large tenant because those small tenants can't afford the kind of rent that is going to have to be charged for a brand new building like that."

To summarize: Blanchard wants to demolish the buildings now because interest rates are low, not because he has a plan. He does not actually have a development plan, and does not know what a potential new development would comprise.

He wants a small number of large tenants because it's easier to manage, not because the market demands it. In fact, his own market research indicates that there is a relatively strong market for adaptive reuse of existing buildings and a weak market for the kind of high-cost, large-footprint commercial development he proposes for the Gore.

He claims the buildings "have had it" and are "done" and "shot", but there is no evidence that these claims are anything other than the things every property speculator says when he wants to demolish an old building. If Blanchard's engineering report found that the buildings are structurally unsound, we would have heard about it immediately - but they refuse to share the report publicly.

So you will forgive me for not giving a "developer" with a long history of demolishing buildings and not building anything and no plan to redevelop 18-28 King Street East the benefit of the doubt.

When we give property speculators free rein to demolish old buildings, we end up with a downtown built fabric that looks like this.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2013-10-25 06:01:01

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By granny2 (anonymous) | Posted December 04, 2013 at 12:29:27 in reply to Comment 93694

Thanks Ryan.

They can tear an old church down -who'd want to live in one anyway, and there are lots of them.

But destroying the streetscape of Gore Park is a one of a kind major mistake.

Still haven't seen the structural engineering report we were promised!

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By Jordan (registered) | Posted October 25, 2013 at 18:22:11 in reply to Comment 93694

Good response, thanks. I can see that this kind of speculation vs development mentality would cause a lot of misuse of property, and result in the "gap-tooth" that we all don't desire.

My question then is this; why are speculators like blanchard able to dictate the economy of real-estate in the core? If the most value that properties like the Gore buildings have is in ripping them down and selling them for interest rate/inflation-related growth a decade or more in the future, doesn't that indicate that the property just isn't very valuable? In other words, If blanchard can afford to buy and sit on this property, why doesn't a business owner or entreprenuer value the property enough to pay its worth?

I would LOVE for two buildings such as these to be re-used and repurposed in a creative and renewing way. I would also love for our existing parking lots to have better usage. BUT I'm not willing to pay for it, and until someone else does, the situation won't change. My point is that while BLanchard's practices aren't great for the city, he still has every right to get the value he wants out of it, and unfortunately the downtown core is still not quite bursting-at-the-seams with creative business practices enough for a new business to buy and open in that space. They're all going to buy more affordable frontage on Ottawa street, James street, and the like.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 25, 2013 at 19:39:30 in reply to Comment 93753

The real issue is that our tax and regulatory sysyem actually incentivizes neglect and demolition and punishes investment. Yet for investors with a bit of vision, there is a solid market for adaptive reuse despite the perverse incentives: just walk up James North and consider what it looked like ten years ago. For that matter, consider that the storefronts of 18-28 King Street East themselves were all occupied with viable businesses before W-B evicted them. These "developers" are not creating value, they are destroying it - and it is appalling that they are actually going to be rewarded for it.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2013-10-25 19:40:22

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By Jordan (registered) | Posted October 27, 2013 at 01:45:49 in reply to Comment 93755

Heres a challenge, then; make the real issue more clear, and help your readership understand it better. A lot of people read this site now, and it's significantly more helpful to target the poor policy, lack of restrictions, and bad decision-making on council than to make a bad guy out of Blanchard and those like him. For that matter, a church that is genuinely improving its facility and ability to serve the community AND preserving the heritage of the street should not be a target.

You can't blame a developer for making money; rather, you should be upset that the best way to make money is blanchard's way. Better policy and stronger incentives for responsible investors is key, not demonizing an opposing viewpoint.

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By bikehounds (anonymous) | Posted October 28, 2013 at 08:49:20 in reply to Comment 93799

All of these things have been addressed on this site many times over! That doesn't mean anyone should be an apologist for speculators.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 27, 2013 at 14:47:19 in reply to Comment 93799

Blanchard's way is not the best way to make money. Remember: Blanchard's own market research indicates that there's a stronger market for exactly the kind of building-by-building restoration and adaptive reuse we are advocating, and which other property owners are already pursuing successfully on James North, than what he claims he wants to do with the site.

The reason the Ontario Government bolstered the Ontario Heritage Act was to prevent speculators from taking a cheap, value-destroying approach to business when a more successful, higher-value path is available to take instead. Unfortunately, our Council does not understand the value of heritage enough to exercise its legitimate power to protect it (and the Province is afraid to be seen meddling in a 'local' affair, even though the threatened buildings clearly qualify as provincial heritage as well as municipal).

As for the perverse incentives in our regulatory and tax system, we've been writing about them for years and continue to advocate more sensible, evidence-based policy.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2013-10-27 15:39:05

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By Conrad664 (registered) | Posted October 24, 2013 at 13:24:05 in reply to Comment 93645

Well said Jordan , thats all what some pls in do here is talk talk and talk but they can`t talk to walk

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted October 24, 2013 at 17:03:50 in reply to Comment 93654

That's rich "conrad"

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted October 24, 2013 at 13:22:55 in reply to Comment 93645

I'm actually pretty much on the developer's side with James Street Baptist Church, I just wish they'd been required to provide more concrete plans and commit to them - the parishioners and minister of the church agreed with the new company about the state of the building and their plan.

That said, the point is that this is and was a heritage property. That means the buyer went in knowing that there was an obligation to preserve the building to an impractical extreme. That's what heritage designation means: that you have a responsibility to the entire building to do as much as possible to keep its heritage features. In this case, that included the roof and the walls and things like that.

You know what the term is for "a building with historical features that you should try and preserve if it's convenient and profitable for you, but we're not really going to get worked up if you don't"? That's called a building.

If you don't want to deal with the obligations related to buying a heritage property, don't buy one. Caveat emptor.

The Gore Park buildings, for me, are far more about the total lack of a plan WRT reconstruction and Blanchard's history as a real-estate speculator. If Blanchard follows through quickly with his statements about rebuilding? I'll happily eat my words. But on the other hand, he's currently free to leave his property as a vacant eyesore for a decade or more while he courts buyers and tries to amass a larger plot.

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By granny2 (anonymous) | Posted December 04, 2013 at 12:33:54 in reply to Comment 93653

That's his plan.

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By Jordan (registered) | Posted October 24, 2013 at 20:24:43

All the stuff you've written genuinely supports my point. With all of those safeguards in place, the plan is moving forward for that church to improve its facility while keeping the frontage facing James in keeping with the aesthetic of the street.

Same goes for the gore park buildings. By law, the developer is under no obligation to keep those buildings standing. It sucks, you wish the heritage comittee had been on top of it back in the day, but such is the situation. The developer is given some heritage dollars in order to get him to rebuild the facade. A bit of a twist on the meaning of "heritage dollars", I know, but it saves the look of gore park and the developer gets to use the space to make his millions(or lose them, whatever). People like you need to realize that this is a best case scenario, and that the developer has no obligation to oblige. AND you need to realize that even though it took a lot of pressure, his giving in to this solution means he cares about the city and what's important us(even if it's cause he wants to make a buck off us).

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By gored (anonymous) | Posted October 24, 2013 at 20:30:38

"you wish the heritage comittee had been on top of it back in the day, but such is the situation"

Um, the heritage committee -was- on top of the situation but Council elected not to confirm their recommendation to designate the Gore. When council doesn't care about heritage developers get the message they don't have to care about it either.

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By Jordan (registered) | Posted October 24, 2013 at 21:06:29 in reply to Comment 93679

To Gored: You can't just take one error I made in my comment and then not respond to the ideas I'm suggesting. Please, give me a satisfactory answer to this question; Why is it so important for the Gore buildings to remain the same? Why are we so unsatisfied with the solution to rebuild the facade with new material? And please don't tell me that it's because the street will be gap-toothed for a few years, because that really isn't a measure of the long-term value/loss of tearing down the buildings.

I just get really frustrated because I think there is value in preserving old buildings, but there's also value in progress. It seems to me that sometimes EVERY old building on the slate gets people riled up. So this or that building used to be a school, or studio, or factory that was once important to the city. Now what? should we turn Hamilton into a museum of rotting old buildings?

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By can you read (anonymous) | Posted October 25, 2013 at 09:51:02 in reply to Comment 93683

Creating a gap is not progress

Demolition should be halted specifically BECAUSE THERE IS NO ACTUAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN

He is taking them down in order to try to make that block more desirable to an unknown future buyer, who may not come along for years or even decades. This is progress?

summary of what you said: "tell me why the buildings shouldn't come down, but don't use the reason that I don't really comprehend cause it's hard fur me to think good"

"People like you" need to do a hell of a lot more research on how cities work before spouting off your misinformed opinions.

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By Jordan (registered) | Posted October 25, 2013 at 18:01:44 in reply to Comment 93720

That's a fair response. I don't see why it isn't possible to tie these permissions with a time-limit on new construction. Although I suppose it's always possible to find loopholes in Blanchard's case. Either way, if he follows through (as it seems he's required to), rebuilding the facade is a fine solution in my opinion. I guess it's just too bad that he's racked up such a terrible track record of "following through".

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By granny2 (anonymous) | Posted December 04, 2013 at 12:54:31 in reply to Comment 93750

And too bad he won't commit to doing anything differently this time.
He's getting $1m+ OF OUR MONEY to remove a few facade elements and no doubt they'll be lost in storage somewhere before he ever rebuilds.

At a time of growing buzz when Hamilton is attracting interest, we're going to create a huge ugly vacant hole next to our best downtown asset - Gore Park.

I sure hope Jason Farr and Council are scrambling to find a solution and save these critical buildings, or at least prevent Blanchard from leaving a vacant hole for a decade ... but I don't think City Council 'gets' it yet as they're still mired in the 80's.

I really hope some of the new wave of downtown entrepreneurs will seriously consider running for Council next year.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted October 26, 2013 at 10:02:01 in reply to Comment 93750

The problem is he's not "required" to do anything. Once the demolition permit is issued, he can create an empty lot and sit on it forever. Why don't we have laws in place to restrict demolition and neglect and force redevelopment timelines? Good question - ask your councillor!

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By Boyhowdy (anonymous) | Posted October 24, 2013 at 20:44:36

I think that if the building is structurally unsound and it is going to be replaced with something that will make the city better, then tear the sucker down. We can put up a memorial plaque for those who wish to hang onto the past. Time for Hamilton to start moving forward!

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By childhood's end (anonymous) | Posted October 25, 2013 at 09:53:45 in reply to Comment 93680

Well Boyhowdy, I guess we can't really fault a child for thinking that tearing down = moving forward. You'll grow up someday!

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