Revitalization

Can Stinson Break the Downtown Property Stalemate?

By Trey Shaughnessy
Published December 22, 2007

This week, CHML interviewed Toronto developer Harry Stinson, who has expressed interest in buying and developing the beleagurered Lister Block.

Harry Stinson is best known for taking on Donald Trump in Toronto in a competition to build the tallest residential tower. Fans of super-tall, skinny skyscrapers adore Stinson's buildings, and he is best known for One King West.

1KW incorporated the 1913 Dominion Bank Building into a magnificent 51-floor hotel/residential post-modern tower. With floor plates that measure a mere 17.1 by 51.8 metres, it stands out from the corner of Yonge and King as towering sliver.

Recently Stinson has shown great interest in Hamilton. More importantly, he's been kicking the tires of the Lister Block and Royal Connaught, two stalled and very prominent projects for the core.

He is no fan of bush-league scale projects. According to Stinson, the 50 unit projects are as much hassle as the 400 unit projects.

The Lister Block, he says, would make an ideal residential complex over ground/bottom floor retail. Perhaps Stinson would restore The Lister to its original glory and in the negative space on Rebecca build a towering condominium to get the economy of scale he prefers.

Regarding the additional costs to restore the Lister versus replicating he said, "A consumer will pay more to live in a well restored historical building that has charm. Give them the chance."

Stinson is right. People always pay more for something that is better: luxury cars, fine food, gracious accommodations. The Lister is no different - a perfect location to live with everything outside your door, and a gloriously renovated building would be easy to attract the buyers. Give the market a chance.

Harry Stinson wants to do something "outrageous" that will gain attention from all over the place and signal that "something is happening in Hamilton". He specifically mentioned 1KW and said he'd like to do the same thing with the Connaught and surrounding parking lots.

He also mentioned something that we've been writing about on RTH constantly: "There's seems to be an obsession with parking lots in this city."

Stinson grew up in Toronto and everyone knows how rare surface parking lots are there, but we can't seem to figure out in Hamilton that the lack of surface parking in Toronto is the reason why its downtown is successful and home to the most valuable real estate in the country.

Stinson says that he will finalize his first building location downtown in the next 30 days and it must be on the Gore. He sees the potential but is frustrated with the lack of desire to build or sell the land by the current landowners downtown.

He's correct when he observes a stalemate downtown with the land speculators waiting for someone to make the first move to 'seed' development and then increase their property value.

I hope Stinson is the one who breaks this Mexican Standoff so all Hamilton can realize the potential and be proud of our downtown.

Trey lives in Williamsville NY via Hamilton. He is a Marketing Manager for Tourism and Destination Marketing in the Buffalo-Niagara Metro.

His essays have appeared in The Energy Bulletin, Post Carbon Institute, Peak Oil Survival, and Tree Hugger.

And can't wait for the day he stops hearing "on facebook".

32 Comments

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted December 23, 2007 at 12:43:18

out out out with liuna.

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By Booster (anonymous) | Posted December 23, 2007 at 14:53:46

I wish Mr. Stinson well. But he was quoted as saying that he was bankrupt, but 'so is the United States'. I don't know if Hamilton needs any more bankrupt developers with big dreams and no money!
I liked his moxy on radio, though.

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By liveD (anonymous) | Posted December 24, 2007 at 15:18:18

Stinson will like it in Hamilton. He can join those activists with big dreams and no money...and we've already named a neighbourhood after him.

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By ancastertoo (anonymous) | Posted December 25, 2007 at 00:31:11

As least you got to give this guy Stinson credit for even looking at Hamilton. Donald Trump was also bankrupt a few years ago and look at him now. New partners ; new money; new opportunities. About time the Outsiders started seeing the potential here.All we need is a few good projects whether downtown , the east end or the Mountain.
I wish these type of entrepreneurs well.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 25, 2007 at 10:05:21

liveD...don't you mean, "he can join the 1/3 of the city with no money"?? Apparently all the 'business-first' wonks in town have done a great job at one thing over the past decades - ensuring that there is NO business and NO jobs in this town. Congrats!

Ancastertoo...I agree with you wholeheartedly. It's funny to hear all the self-proclaimed 'big business' crew in town rail on Stinson because he hit hard times. Almost like they don't want him to succeed in the Hammer because that might actually help turn things around. I wish him all the best and hope upon hope that he can do a few good projects downtown...help Hamilton get back on it's feet while he also gets back on his feet. With each passing day, and each passing blog entry it becoms very clear who the real 'pro-development and pro-business' folks are in the Hammer. Cheers to Harry!

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By liveD (anonymous) | Posted December 26, 2007 at 15:37:58

I hope you are right Jason. We'll see.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 26, 2007 at 16:33:28

right about what?? I merely wished Stinson the best of luck. Are you hoping he fails??

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By liveD (anonymous) | Posted December 27, 2007 at 00:28:38

Of course not, but Hamilton deserves better than bankrupt dreamers is all. We have had too many of them in our history.

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By Pro Dreams (anonymous) | Posted December 27, 2007 at 08:17:41

Guess what folks, Canada is bankrupt too! Yet "Canada" and "US" are still in existence. Hamilton needs a chance just like everywhere else. We need to restore rather than tear down. Let's give us a chance. Trump, the Reichman's and may more have made huge combebacks so give the guy a chance. Goodbye Liuna who is relying on the city to pay for it all with "rent", hence WE pay for it all! Wake up folks!

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By trey (registered) | Posted December 27, 2007 at 09:58:00

Jason very good comment about "who is really pro/anti development in the Hammer".

I support Stinson and hope he succeeds in developing the Hammer. I guess I'm pro-development.

Bankruptcy does not mean he doesn't have money. It means he's protecting the money he has. Do you think he just likes to waste his time and other people's time?

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By ancastertoo (anonymous) | Posted December 28, 2007 at 02:18:51

Appears some folks will take pot-shots at anything that doesn't fit the "OLD " Hamilton mold. Stinson is not bankrupt but in bankrupcty protection. Seems the Reichmans and Trump and many other companies have taken the same route while they reorganize ( even some steel companies have done the same ). And to LiveD, who are these dreamers you refer to ?? The ""Doers"" and politicos are NOT creating opportunities.
We really have to get POSITIVE about ourselves.. Hamilton IS a great place but for some reason WE tend to revert to the "those outsiders aren't good enough for us " syndrome.
Look what's happening in the Golden Horseshoe insofar as growth ,jobs, housing intensification, transportation... it's happening all around us.Mississauga has tripled in twenty years as has Burlington and Oakville Maybe the key point is "all around us"
The sooner we get on the bandwagon , the better.If any of you want some good bedtime reading, try the new provincial Smart growth or Places to grow documents. The Province has targeted Hamilton for help as the Province / golden horseshoe absorbs some 150 / 200,000 new residents per year. We need to get our share of that housing, urban renewal and the jobs and economic benefits that go with it.
As an aside, I was over to a Christmas party on the west Mountain ( Scenic Drive )and I see the locals have vandalized the City's/ developer information proposal sign. Here is another out of town builder we are giving the Royal Hamilton welcome too. Maybe he is a dreamer, too.
Sorry to get emotional, but after nearly forty years in the Hamilton area,I am tired of being one of the silent majority who does nothing but complain.
One of my New Year resolutions,,, get involved and speak my mind.. Hey, maybe my 3 kids will want to come back here to live and work instead of those communities east of us.

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By trey (registered) | Posted December 28, 2007 at 09:29:14

Well said ancastertoo, and surprisingly positive coming from someone with that handle. I'm happy to hear about your new years resolution. RTH was born from similar circumstances that you're talking about. Personally for me I/Hamilton has 15-20 years before it turns itself around and then my children will be leaving this city too. Sorry to hear that has happened to you and it's a story that is too common for Hamilton. We're losing an entire generation and missing out on the longest period of economic growth since WW2.

You mention Burlington and Mississauga growth, some of that has to do with pure geography and dumb luck, their growth is unsustainable and those suburbs will crash hard when their entire cities have to be rebuilt over 10 years without having the same sprawl/build model in place that the Places To Act legislates. But you're right that Hamilton has missed a large portion of the GTA growth. And them some of GTA builders come looking to build in Hamilton better developments (like the Scenic proposal) then we've been getting from the Meadowlands and Summit Park sprawl and people complain about it. Then they later say that Hamilton is rusting out and lacks any outside investment. Well folks Stinson and the Scenic Developers are the people that we need to get things going in the Hammer. Proper infill, density, downtown, walkable neighbourhood focus, the things missing from the faceless sprawl between Hamilton and Toronto. The future is not the status quo, but the future is to change or die.

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By statius (registered) | Posted December 31, 2007 at 00:05:16

To say "we can't seem to figure out in Hamilton that the lack of surface parking in Toronto is the reason why its downtown is successful and home to the most valuable real estate in the country" is complete bollocks. Anyone who knew Toronto in the 70's, 80's, and 90's can recall that the city, during those decades of unprecedented growth, was absolutely rife with surface parking lots. Of course they disappeared as the city densified. But the success of this densification process in no way relied on their presence/absence. Classic post-hoc fallacy.

Further, I know how beloved the Lister Block is in this city, but is it really worth it? It is absolutely mediocre (maybe submediocre) pre-war small city North American commerical architecture. Hardly anything to distinguish it at all from the countless hordes of such buildings which have been torn down without tears in cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, etc. over the decades (yes, indoor shopping arcades did exist before the Lister). Give us a bit of decoish terracotta detailing and suddenly we think we're in possession of the Chrysler Building or Selfridges.

The truth of the matter is that Hamilton, given its relative size and wealth, should start taking cues from cities like Manchester and Liverpool, where decaying Victorian hulks in the city centre have been pulled down to allow for the erection of exciting pieces of contemporary architecture which make a genuine contribution to the cityscape. Mind you, I would rather have the crumbling shell of the Lister than another parking lot, but if preservationist tactics prevented something serious from taking the Lister's place, that would surely be an injustice to the city.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 31, 2007 at 09:42:33

FYI... Lister was the first indoor shopping arcade in Canada. Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo are in the United States - that's a different country.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 31, 2007 at 10:23:44

"decaying Victorian hulks in the city centre have been pulled down to allow for the erection of exciting pieces of contemporary architecture which make a genuine contribution to the cityscape"

Hamilton has been doing precisely this for half a century. What we have to show for it are a collection of ugly, impractical, unusable period buildings downtown that failed to generate interest and hurt their surroundings.

Today's "exciting pieces of contemporary architecture" are tomorrow's awkward modernist / postmodernist / Internationalist / Brutalist eyesores. For the most part, the only buildings downtown still worth caring about are the ones that the preservationists you decry managed to save from the wrecking ball.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 31, 2007 at 11:23:18

I guess some people like the wonderful warmth, urbanism and vibrancy that can be found in downtown Mississuaga - aka - Square One.

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By statius (registered) | Posted December 31, 2007 at 17:20:18

"Today's "exciting pieces of contemporary architecture" are tomorrow's awkward modernist / postmodernist / Internationalist / Brutalist eyesores. For the most part, the only buildings downtown still worth caring about are the ones that the preservationists you decry managed to save from the wrecking ball."

I love the progressive spirit here. This has been the problem with Hamilton's urbanism for decades: an inability to distinguish between "good new" and "bad new". Admittedly, almost all of Hamilton's attempts in the past to catch up with the zeitgeist have been wretched failures. This doesn't have to be the case in the future. The problem is that so much of the "new" architecture in Hamilton's core originated during the period of "urban renewal" which saw vast, usually government-funded, projects replace whole neighbourhoods with inhuman concrete/brick/glass facades. New architecture doesn't always have to be like that. Look at the Urbis building or Beetham Tower in Manchester - could anyone seriously argue that that city would have been better off with the heavy old brick and masonry junk they replaced?

I despise the chintzy glass and stucco condo architecture of Mississauga's "core". I would never suggest that Hamilton embrace such mediocrity. Rather, a city of Hamilton's size should be able to summon up some serious architectural talent, whether local or international, to make a serious, aesthetically legitimate contribution to the cityscape.

Admittedly, Hamilton, is in possession of a few legitimate architectural gems (although, by international standards, even many of these barely rise above the level of mediocrity): the GO Station (probably the best building in the city); the Bank of Montreal (Gowlings); Landed Banking and Loan; the Piggot; the Customs House; the Port Authority building; LIUNA station; possibly also City Hall (although that is just Internationalist pastiche); and obviously a few others (I'm considering only non-residential architecture). I really don't think the Lister deserves to be catalogued along with the edifices listed above. It was basically just functionalist commercial architecture when it was built, and that is all, I think, that it remains (albeit in probably hopelessly decayed state.

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By statius (registered) | Posted December 31, 2007 at 17:50:57

Oh, and FYI - the first indoor shopping arcade in Canada was the Lister Chambers building, which the Lister Block replaced after the former was destroyed by fire.

At any rate, being the first precursor to the modern shopping mall is a rather dubious distinction, wouldn't you say?

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 31, 2007 at 18:14:38

just to keep the facts on the table. Lister is not in a "hopelessly decayed state". Multiple engineering/architectural firms inspected the building and found that not only is it fixable, but suggested that it is so structurally sound that if we were to tear it down and build a new building, that new building would run it's course and need major retrofitting before a refurbished Lister. Photos of ripped wallpaper and broken windows might sell newspapers, but don't mean a thing factually. Lister is now being saved, not because some bleeding hearts intervened, but because common sense intervened. Now THAT is front-page news in Hamilton.

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By statius (registered) | Posted December 31, 2007 at 18:47:49

Righto. The old "they sure don't build 'em like they used to" argument.

In truth, to say that the Lister "is so structurally sound that if we were to tear it down and build a new building, that new building would run it's course and need major retrofitting before a refurbished Lister" is simply untrue. This depends obviously on the quality of the structural engineering which would go into the new building. We can, quite simply, build stronger, longer lasting buildings today than could have been built in 1924. It's all a question of how much money you want to put into design and construction.

Now, considering that this is Hamilton, it is unlikely that such an investment will ever be made in the core again (at least within the near future) so your point is well taken that it is more practical to refurbish the Lister than to build anew (especially given the extraordinarily low architectural value of all of the published proposals for the site). I am basically just lamenting the fact that such investment probably will not be made. But if it were to be made, I just don't think the Lister should be allowed to stand in its place.

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By statius (registered) | Posted December 31, 2007 at 18:51:13

Righto. The old "they sure don't build 'em like they used to" argument.

In truth, to say that the Lister "is so structurally sound that if we were to tear it down and build a new building, that new building would run it's course and need major retrofitting before a refurbished Lister" is simply untrue. This depends obviously on the quality of the structural engineering which would go into the new building. We can, quite simply, build stronger, longer lasting buildings today than could have been built in 1924. It's all a question of how much money you want to put into design and construction.

Now, considering that this is Hamilton, it is unlikely that such an investment will ever be made in the core again (at least within the near future) so your point is well taken that it is more practical to refurbish the Lister than to build anew (especially given the extraordinarily low architectural value of all of the published proposals for the site). I am basically just lamenting the fact that such investment probably will not be made. But if it were to be made, I just don't think the Lister should be allowed to stand in its place.

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By trey (registered) | Posted January 01, 2008 at 12:54:51

It's true that if the buildings replacing the torn down buildings were more appealing then we wouldn't lament that fact that another piece of history was gone. We can't trust builders today (in Hamilton anyway) to build an architecturally significant building. We just know that what will replace the Lister will be a cheap, profit motivated building. It does say something about how we used to care and how we today care about the environment we live in.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 01, 2008 at 18:39:43

I apologize Statius. I didn't realize you were an engineer who has spent more hours and done more research on Lister than the folks hired by LIUNA, the province and the city. Thanks for bringing the truth into the light.

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By Baystreeter (anonymous) | Posted January 02, 2008 at 08:50:14

I was really hoping the lister would be saved; now I just want it improved and I don't care how they do it. It is a festering eyesore and I don't care whose fault it is. As a downtowner something has to be done....anything will do because it will be better than what's there....restore it, remove it...who cares. Act is all we want.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 02, 2008 at 08:59:38

In response to statius:

"I love the progressive spirit here."

Of course I cannot speak for RTH as a whole, but personally, I consider myself progressive in the sense that I generally support ideas based on empirical study rather than a priori morality. I don't support new ideas or methods merely because they're new: they have to be better that existing ideas or methods.

To put it bluntly, most new architecture is crap by any reasonable standard I can come up with. It's megalomaniacal, designed to be appreciated by helicopter, visually oppressive at street level, and engineered to last for maybe 20 years.

All aesthetics aside, I don't believe we can afford the luxury of fashionable, throw-away architecture in a society that will soon have to deal with the very real problem of persistent energy constraints.

As Jason points out elsewhere, a rebuilt Lister would not last as long as a restored lister - that should tell you something about modern construction methods and the economic models that justify them.

"Look at the Urbis building or Beetham Tower in Manchester"

The Urbis building is far from the worst example of new architecture, but it's not great, either. It offers no sense of scale to the pedestrian - just a smooth steel-and-glass facade that offers curves and diagonals for their own sake and squanders a wedge-shaped slice of land beside it that is overshadowed and fails to operate as a public space. At a similar scale of height, Haussman's Paris is much more convivial.

Similarly, the Beetham tower is devoid of architectural 'hooks' that might provide scale. It's a banal, steel-and-glass tower with arbitrary runners stuck on one side and a pointless extension that juts out near the top. Nothing makes pedestrians feel disoriented and unsafe like overhanging structures that seem to be unsupported. Also, the building occasionally "whistles" in the wind.

If these buildings are the best today's architects can come up with (and they can certainly come up with much worse), I'm not persuaded they meet my criteria for "progressive", i.e. new and better.

"the Lister ... was basically just functionalist commercial architecture when it was built, and that is all, I think, that it remains"

I agree completely. In fact, RTH published an essay in March 2006, titled, "A Humble Workhorse Again", that made a similar case:

http://raisethehammer.org/article/272/

However, the very fact that the Lister is a modest example of its period underscores my point about the decline in architectural and building standards since the early 20th century. Today, no builder would even contemplate trying to reconstruct the Lister to its original, robust standards - the cost would be prohibitive.

It's ironic that poor societies cannot afford the luxury of cheap buildings, so they invest in buildings designed and constructed to endure for a very long time. LIUNA argues that it's cheaper to demolish and reconstruct Lister than to restore it - mainly because a reconstructed building would be cheaply built of prefabricated materials and designed to last only a few decades. What a waste of energy and resources!

"albeit in probably hopelessly decayed state"

Jason responded to this, but I'll add that despite LIUNA's best attempts to expose Lister to the elements, Lister remains structurally sound and an excellent candidate for adaptive reuse, as several architects have noted.

"The old 'they sure don't build 'em like they used to' argument."

Many things are built much better today than they were in previous decades (automobiles spring to mind). However, the economics of construction, as I've noted above, does not lend themselves to the construction of enduring buildings today. We're a rich society, and we design buildings to be fashionable, not enduring. As fashions change, we rip down and reconstruct our disposable buildings so they remain au courant.

With global energy production sliding into permanent decline, this is a luxury we can no longer afford.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted January 02, 2008 at 09:16:34

I share the same feelings as Baystreeter on the Lister Block. If McHattie hadn't interfered with that Hertiage Site nonsense the redevelopment of this building would probably be underway. As it now stands, the same thing will happen to the Lister Block as what happened to the Tivoli - collapse.

The sooner we rid the city of this eyesore the better.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 02, 2008 at 11:08:30

"The sooner we rid the city of this eyesore the better."

Famous last words that have been uttered over and over in Hamilton. Take a nice stroll in the John/Rebecca area to see how much 'better' off we are having gotten rid of all the 'eyesores' that previously occupied that land. Or go check out Bay/King, Jackson/Catharine, King William/Mary, Hughson/Augusta etc......

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted January 02, 2008 at 15:05:17

Jason, I think that you are missing my point.

I like to see classic old buildings being preserved as much as it is possible economically. Yet in the case of the Lister Block, efforts and time involved to preserve the building may be working against us as the building begins to deteriorate even more and the downtown spin-off impacts of a revitalized Lister Block keep being delayed.

Tearing the old building down and replacing it with a modern replica would have been in the city's best interests.

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By statius (registered) | Posted January 02, 2008 at 20:45:40

Regarding Ryan's thoughtful comments above, I think I should offer some response.

Firstly, you write "I don't support new ideas or methods merely because they're new: they have to be better that existing ideas or methods. "

How could anyone sanely disagree with this? I embrace the statement wholeheartedly, and would refer to my comments above to dispell any suggestion to the contrary. Of course where we must disagree - although I'm not necessarily sure that we must disagree - is on the topic of what constitutes the "better" as opposed to simply the new.

As for some of your other remarks, I find them a little more difficult to stomach.

You write of the Urbis building in Manchester: "It offers no sense of scale to the pedestrian - just a smooth steel-and-glass facade that offers curves and diagonals for their own sake and squanders a wedge-shaped slice of land beside it that is overshadowed and fails to operate as a public space. At a similar scale of height, Haussman's Paris is much more convivial. "

Your remarks on the building's lack of "scale" are typical architectural conservancy anti-modernist rhetoric. Such rhetoric is problematic because there is often a general lack of agreement on what constitutes an appropriate "sense of scale" for any given city. Haussman's Paris, as you note, is often cited as an example of liveable scale, but we forget that in the 19th and early 20th century, before Parisians became completely acclimated to the comprehensive redesign of their city, the "street walls" and unnecessarily broad boulevards imposed by Haussman were commonly thought to be inhuman and imposing. To that end, it is no surprise that Paris, in high Modernist art and literature, often figures as a faceless, grinding machine city alongside London, Berlin, New York, Chicago, etc. The truly humanly-scaled Paris was pre-Haussman. Further, it is worth noting that urban North Americans (particularly New Yorkers) are often decidedly disappointed with the "groundscraping" architectural scale of Paris. Manhattanites, despite living in an urban environment which Gallic snobs (and their sycophants) would decry as inhumanly scaled, have managed nevertheless to forge the most vital and successful urbanism in the history of Western civilization (at least arguably). I would thus humbly suggest that the conservative fetishization of scale is largely fallacious.

I would raise similar points about the Beetham tower. It is not sufficient simply to say, when a building is "out of scale" with its surrounding neighbourhood, that it lacks a "sense of scale" altogether. I think scale was very much contemplated by the architects of the Beetham. Their intention was to create a juxtaposition with the two and three story brick and masonry shops in the vicinity. They wanted something visibly and indisputably to rise above the tired, downtrodden old Manchester and I think they succeeded without causing too much offense (really, I think without causing any offense at all). In other words, a more moderate, tasteful incarnation of the Dubai effect. As for your remarks about the building causing alarm amongst pedestrians because of its unconventional design, the cantilevered upper half of the tower does not hang out over the street as you suggest. Nor does it cast any sort of imposing shadow, etc. In fact, while I tend to agree with you that it is not "great" architecture per se, the building is decidedly elegant and does not in any way look chintzy or disposable (at 150 million pounds to build, how could it?).

At any rate, I think your aesthetic critique of these two buildings, while undoubtedly valid in some respects, largely misses the point. These buildings were proferred not as examples of "great" architecture qua architecture but rather as proof of the ability of a midsized regional industrial city to break out of the bonds of its stereotypes and embrace a new urban identity and aesthetic. Just think, Manchester, twenty years ago, was a city far worse off than Hamilton, plagued by rampant unemployment, decaying infrastructure (to an almost third world scale), and depressingly mediocre architecture. Today, the city's economy is characterized more by graphic design and financial services firms than the textile works of yore. Young professionals flock to the city and its environs, even though condo flats regularly sell for well in excess of a million pounds. Much of this rebirth is credited to the architectural renaissance which occurred in the city's core following a major IRA bombing in 1996 (I wouldn't be so daft as to suggest that this was the only factor, but it certainly was one). I dearly hope Hamilton doesn't have to wait for someone to set off a bomb in the core before we start building too.

The fact of the matter is that young, educated people want to live amongst current, interesting architecture (as a young educated person, I can attest to this fact). They want to feel as though they are part of something more important than a blue collar regional city and new, thoughtfully designed buildings are a very eloquent way of communicating to them that indeed they are.

Hamilton is clearly no longer a manufacturing town either. It's future, like Manchester's, lies in education, research, health care, and hopefully the creative and professional industries as well. Naturally, the city certainly oughtn't to eschew its heritage altogether; but it mustn't be allowed to wallow in its past glory and prosperity either. Some buildings are important, still relevant windows onto Hamilton's past. Others are not. I know that for myself, and - I would conjecture - for many others of my generation, the Lister Block barely speaks at all. Having been more or less abandoned for so long, and being of such unremarkable architectural merits, it stands more as a blight than a valuable bequest from an earlier generation. While I do not harbour any particluar dislike for the building, I maintain that it would be an injustice if its preservation in any way hampered or compromised the regeneration (and, I might as well say it, gentrifaction) of the core.

I would thus suggest that your sustainability argument is not really apropos given the almost complete lack of development in Hamilton's core over the last quarter century, the almost complete lack of fashionable architecture in the city, the almost complete lack of anything suggesting a rich and faddish society in this city. The sustainability argument is a standard knee-jerk reaction of conservative urbanists and I'm not surprised to find it here. But it just isn't relevant, not yet at least. If the doctrine of sustainability strangles the society its ultimately supposed to protect, then it's really self-defeating. Suggesting that a city like Hamilton (finally reversing a long trend of decline) ought to be held to the same standards of sustainability in its urban development as cities like Toronto, New York, London, etc. is like suggesting that India and China should be held to the same environmental standards as the first world: it is untimely, inequitable and unfair.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 03, 2008 at 00:03:07

Statius, thank you for a considered response. In reply:

"How could anyone sanely disagree with this?"

Well, many conservatives and most ideologues disagree with it.

"Your remarks on the building's lack of 'scale' are typical architectural conservancy anti-modernist rhetoric. Such rhetoric is problematic because there is often a general lack of agreement on what constitutes an appropriate 'sense of scale' for any given city."

By "sense of scale" I mean broadly that pedestrians standing beside it A) can easily determine approximately how tall it is (i.e. how many storeys) and B) aren't likely to feel as though it's about to crush them.

Note: I'm not suggesting that buildings shouldn't be tall (though careful consideration of the diminishing returns in economies of scale is warranted given the unfolding energy situation); only that they shouldn't be oppressive in their appearance and bearing.

An anecdotal observation: I'm generally not a big fan of very tall buildings, but when I had the pleasure of walking around Midtown Manhattan a couple of years ago, I felt very comfortable walking next to 60 storey towers that dwarfed Haussman's height restriction. They did so through the classical method of using ornament to convey information about scale by delineating storeys, framing windows, giving special treatment to the first to storeys plus the top floor, etc.

Manhattan's most iconic buildings come from the neoclassical, beaux-arts, art deco (a kind of streamlined classical style), and early modernist schools of architecture: the Flatiron, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Woolworth, the American Radiator - even the Seagram Building is essentially classical, though it reduces ornament to a minimum.

Classical buildings also tend to reserve the street level for more or less public uses. A streetwall of classically designed buildings is accessible and permeable.

Contemporary buildings, by contrast, consciously and conspicuously lack ornament. If anything, the building itself is a mega-ornament that may or may not (but generally does not) play nice with its surroundings.

They tend to put their functional workings on display but hide their entrances, and the main floor gets no special treatment, since the entire building is an ornament in itself.

Indeed, the drabbest, least interesting and most oppressive buildings in New York are the modernist and postmodern offerings: the blocky UN Headquarters (thanks, Corbusier), ganky UN Plaza, the ill-fated WTC towers, the featureless steel-and-glass Time-Warner buiding, and the pointlessly curvy "Lipstick" building at 885 Third Ave. (contrast the flatiron, shaped to fill the odd intersection of Fifth, West 23rd., Broadway and West 22nd).

Of course this is not an exact science and people won't react identically to a given building or configuration of buildings, but classical architecture in its many styles is based on a systematic set of guidelines and basic forms around design, engagement, and communication.

By contrast, postmodern architecture is a conscious rejection of these guidelines. Each new building reinvents the wheel - or to use the metaphor of architecture as a language made out of basic phonemes, each new building is its own language.

It may be that a new language is invented one day that improves dramatically on the vocabulary offered by classical architecture, but since architects refuse to let themselves be constrained by anything other than their budgets and the limits of materials and engineering, they are predisposed not to adopt such a language for common use.

As a result, each building disorients by design. To be perfectly frank, I think most cutting-edge architecture is simply fraudulent, or else so narcissistic as to be indistinguishable from fraud.

"At any rate, I think your aesthetic critique of these two buildings, while undoubtedly valid in some respects, largely misses the point. These buildings were proferred not as examples of "great" architecture qua architecture but rather as proof of the ability of a midsized regional industrial city to break out of the bonds of its stereotypes and embrace a new urban identity and aesthetic."

I think you actually missed my point. Hamilton has already demonstrated amply that it can "break out of the bonds of its stereotypes and embrace a new urban identity and aesthetic", as evidenced by the Internationalist City Hall and School Board, the Brutalist Hamilton Place and Central Library, the Cartoonalist Jackson Square and Eaton Centre/Hamilton City Centre, and so on.

Whether Hamilton can do this is not really in question; rather, we must ask, Should Hamilton do this, particularly where existing buildings are already excellent candidates for adaptive reuse?

Hey, if a developer wants to hire Frank Gehry to turn the parking lot at John and Rebecca into a giant titanium Meringue and investors are willing to back him, godspeed to them. I just seriously doubt that the resulting building will be good for pedestrians or its surroundings in general.

"The fact of the matter is that young, educated people want to live amongst current, interesting architecture"

From my experience and the research I've done (or, more often, read), young, educated people want to live in vibrant urban centres. That's only tangentially connected to the presence of "current, interesting architecture", as the robustness and vitality - both economially and culturally - of a city like Boston can attest.

Between its coherent downtown, vibrant streets, cultural amenities and copious universities, Boston manages to attract plenty of young, creative professionals with architecture that was mostly built in the 18th and 19th centuries. It notably resisted the "renewal" and "modernization" that decimated so many American cities in the mid to late 20th century, and is further notable for a fairly uniform density between two and four storeys (with the exception of the small financial district).

"I would thus suggest that your sustainability argument is not really apropos given the almost complete lack of development in Hamilton's core over the last quarter century, the almost complete lack of fashionable architecture in the city, the almost complete lack of anything suggesting a rich and faddish society in this city."

It seems you've got causality backwards in your analysis: you seem to be arguing that efforts to preserve functional buildings (successful efforts like the Pigott, and unsuccessful efforts like the Birks) have prevented the downtown from flourishing, but the evidence runs decidedly against this thesis.

In fact, the most successful sites downtown are the historical buildings - whether or not they meet your "world class" criteria - and the least successful sites are those that actually followed your prescription to replace "unremarkable ... blights" with buildings of "current, interesting architecture" - which have aged far more rapidly and far less elegantly than the buildings they replaced.

Hamilton has an underinvested, hollowed-out core due to the following:

  • Postwar "renewal" efforts that oblitered the coherent Victorian streetscapes that form the foundation of other successful older cities;

  • Endless sprawling development into the surrounding rurals with zoning regulations that enforce low-density, single use design and penalize infill.

  • A property tax system that discourages investment.

  • Investment in road and highway infrastructure and under-investment in transit.

  • Conversion of all major downtown streets to one-way to facilitate flow-through.

In short, the sad state of Hamilton's architecture is a symptom of its piss-poor governance, not the other way around.

Your FUD about "conservative urbanists" seems to be mostly a straw man, since you have not demonstrated that replacing rather than adaptively reusing the Lister would represent any improvement in outcome other than to the short-term bottom line of its owner.

Again: I'm all for being progressive if I can see evidence of improvement. Replacing a reasonably tall, structurally sound, architecturally significant building with a cheap prefab steel-and-glass building that has a shorter use life and a much shorter design life is simply not an improvement.

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By trey2 (anonymous) | Posted July 02, 2008 at 23:41:12

Just because a building is "imposing" doesn't mean the building can't be magnificent. Stinson is proposing an imposing building no doubt, but I thing no less imposing and grand as the Grand Central Station in NYC.

Many great historical and important buildings were criticised for being TOO IMPOSING. and today we celebrate them as architectural achievements and significant landmarks. In fact they often identify the place which they occupy by their existence.

Stinson's vision tower for Hamilton is the greatest thing to happen to Hamilton since The Steel Company of Canada (Stelco) chose to locate in Hamilton 100 years ago (every major city in Canada was bidding for the steel plant). I sincerely hope the best for Stinson.... I am 80% decided in purchasing a unit in his building. Not because I believe in him and his development but because I believe it will be a good investment. An investment that has not been realized for a long while... that is an investment in Hamilton realizing its potential.

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