Lister Block

Lister Meeting: Identify Timelines, Produce Workable Deal

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 15, 2008

The Hamilton Spectator carried a brief teaser in last Saturday's edition on a meeting between Mayor Fred Eisenberger and representatives from LIUNA to revive the collapsed negotiations over the Lister Block.

City Counci panicked last week and backed out of its deal with LIUNA after hearing that the restoration of the Lister Block would cost $37 per square foot, much higher than the original estimate.

After several days of confusion over where the $37 price had come from (it actually came from Hi Rise, LIUNA's partner), why Council didn't wait to see an independent review of the proposal, and whether the city would still be entitled to the $7 million in provincial development money (it would not), Eisenberger called the emergency meeting with LIUNA to try and salvage the deal.

I contacted the Mayor to find out more about the meeting and what comes next. He responded that the intention of the meeting was not to produce specific details.

Rather, the purpose was to reconfirm that all the parties are committed to producing a workable agreement and to identify timelines and action items required to meet the provincial deadline of March 10 to finalize the deal and qualify for the $7 million.

The developers committed to flushing out and pricing the various options and presenting them in a proposal form to the city. Staff will then evaluate the options and present them to Council.

If Council agrees to a plan, the city will go ahead and ask the province to conduct a peer review to ensure building standards are met and pricing is reasonable.

The meeting also produced a general agreement that $37 per square foot, a number provided last week by Hi Rise, is not realistic, and "was not a number LIUNA believes is rational either."

In an attempt to forestall future misunderstanding and miscommunication, the meeting confirmed that Eisenberger will speak publicly on behalf of the city and Joe Mancinelli will speak on behalf of the developers.

According to Eisenberger, Hi Rise was aware of the meeting but did not attend.

I asked the Mayor for his personal preference for a final plan. He demurred that he just wants "to have something happen that's positive" but that "it has to be affordable." He is open to rehabilitation and added that LIUNA seems committed to this route.

One possible option would involve LIUNA and Hi Rise rehabilitating the Lister and selling it outright to the city instead of renting it. This would be contingent on its affordability and agreement from Council.

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 Larry Di Ianni (anonymous) | Posted January 15, 2008 at 14:17:18

This is a positive step.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 15, 2008 at 15:12:24

I hope it's a positive step. If the city is going to negotiate to buy and own this place, they need to ensure that 'we' own a profitable and well-renovated property. In other words, LIUNA's recent plan which removed ALL streetfront retail should be unacceptable to council. Little cubicles with frosted glass windows creating a dreary and blank streetscape (like the old Eatons store on York) should be be allowed by the city. Furthermore, the city doesn't want to end up owning a building that it can't lease. Perhaps now is the time to direct LIUNA to renovate it into condos/apartments with some professional offices and ground level retail instead of filling the entire building with little cubicles. If there were gobs of money to be made by leasing the space, LIUNA would keep it and lease it themselves. I fear a cheap, tacky reno that fills LIUNA's pocket with money once the city purchases the property, only to now have the city own an empty, yet renovated, building. Sure, that's slightly better than an empty, decaying building, but not necessarily a recipe for success. Mixed-use with an animated streetscape is necessary in order for the city to have success in finding tenants for this wonderful building.

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By statius (registered) | Posted January 15, 2008 at 15:46:55

I highly doubt if the city would consider purchasing the Lister if it were to be sold off as condos (although in some ways I wish it would). If the city were to take ownership, I suspect the only sort of residential development we would see would be some sort of social housing initiative, whether in the form of low cost or subsidized apartments or co-ops. While some of the more strident (read dogmatic and irrational) anti-poverty advocates might skewer me for saying so, I really don't think that more public housing would be in the economic best interests of the downtown. But I guess there's no way to avoid offending class sensibilities when we're talking about turning a downtrodden area back into one of high economic output ...

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 15, 2008 at 15:52:32

CityHousing currently owns some wonderful units in downtown highrises that are geared to students at Mac etc... the new 5-storey building going in at King and John (being built by City Housing) is being advertised as Mac residence housing). City Views and City Places at King and Walnut were built by CityHousing and are wonderful apartments. I think they even have a provision allowing for future conversion to condos.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 15, 2008 at 16:11:44

I must confess to being mystified. If LIUNA is willing to sell, why not sell to someone like Stinson? I would support the city buying a heritage building if it were the only way to save it, but when there are other potential buyers, what's the point of the city being involved? Perhaps the more economically gifted among you could enlighten me.

Statius, it doesn't have to be all or nothing. There could be some subsidized units along with higher end condos. Some of the most dynamic developments and neighbourhoods in TO are mixed income.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 15, 2008 at 16:28:20

Maybe because LIUNA will make more money by doing a cheap reno and selling it at "Restored Lister" price to the city than it would selling it as-is, after 9 years of decline under their watch? I mean, there has to be a reason and we can only surmise that whatever proposal they come up with is going to be with their own best interest in mind...

LIUNA is not in the business of doing us any favours. After their recent smokeshows and backflips we need to be very wary of any of their ideas.

It's sad, but how can we trust them?

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By statius (registered) | Posted January 15, 2008 at 16:42:20

"Statius, it doesn't have to be all or nothing. There could be some subsidized units along with higher end condos. Some of the most dynamic developments and neighbourhoods in TO are mixed income."

As I've said many times before, the urban dynamic of Toronto is vastly different than Hamilton's. Nevertheless ... when people talk about vibrant "mixed income" neighbourhoods in Toronto they usually reference West Queen West. The problem with this reference (and pretty much every example like it) is that the area is a traditionally low-income area in transition to high-income (gentrification). The fact that it is currently "mixed income" (combining yuppies with artists, students, addicts, ect.) is truly ephemeral and incidental. This just won't last. Almost every truly successful residential neighbourhood in downtown Toronto is monolithically middle-income and above.

While I am not advocating any sort of economic segregation by design, I do maintain as a simple matter of fact that the vast, vast majority of upper income home buyers simply would not purchase a unit in a building which contained subsidized units, or even in a building next to or in the vicinity of a social housing community. These are serious NIMBYs.

Toronto does have some social housing which was converted into low cost co-ops and condos. These, many located around Jarvis, are now trash heaps and an impediment to the economic rehabilitation of that area.

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By statius (registered) | Posted January 15, 2008 at 16:47:18

I suppose my ultimate point is that wealth is so much more delicate, and the wealty so much more fickle, in Hamilton as opposed to Toronto that if we are really serious about getting these people to live in downtown condos and to frequent downtown businesses we need to cater to what they want and expect.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 15, 2008 at 17:09:01

for many years Vancouver's condo builders were forced to provide 10% (or thereabouts) of their new building's units as subsidized or low-rental housing. the rest were left-coast condos...expensive and snatched up in a heartbeat.
People most certainly will buy units in a building if it's done right, regardless of whether or not there are some lower income rental units included.

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By baystreeter (anonymous) | Posted January 15, 2008 at 17:17:19

How many times have we been told that the Lister deal is imminent? I just don't believe anyone any more.
As the movie said, "Show me the money" until then I'm just not going to get excited.
Stinson? Does he have money?
The city hasn't been a good steward of heritage buildings. If you think Liuna is bad, look at what's happening to some of the heritage properties the city bought in order to 'save'. They are rotting as we speak.

Someone show us the will..and the money to do the job.

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By statius (registered) | Posted January 15, 2008 at 18:41:09

jason,

Again, the problem here is with analogy. Vancouver has had, for probably the last 20 years, the most robust and insatiable residential real estate market in Canada, and one of the most dynamic in North America generally. The city knew that yuppies would submit and buy into mixed income integrated buildings even though it goes without saying that they didn't want to live next to, above, or below low income individuals or families. There has never been a glut of residential realty in Vancouver, and prices have for a long time now been so astronomically high in that city that the compulsory integration of subsidized and market rate units actually makes sense. In Hamilton it does not. The market is just too weak. The simple fact is that people really, really want to live in downtown Vancouver. Very few people, as it stands, want to live in downtown Hamilton. There might come a time when Hamilton seriously has to think about income integration, but it's a long way off.

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By statius (registered) | Posted January 15, 2008 at 18:47:03

I have to agree with baystreeter's sentiments here. If Hamilton is going to submit to unreasonable demands from any developer, that developer should be able to offer not only good intentions and positive rhetoric, but a clear cash committment and a pragmatic resolve to get things done.

Stinson clearly means well, but in Toronto, while sometimes beloved, he is largely regarded as a huckster. I question his ability to raise the sort of capital to redevelop the Connaught and Lister sites. I do wish him the best, though. And I think Hamilton certainly needs the sort of ambition he put into his past projects.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 15, 2008 at 19:04:25

statius...downtown Hamilton is not nearly as bad as you might think. In the census 2001, there was over a 10% increase in the downtown population from 1996. In 2006 it showed another 3-4% increase since 2001. Compared with other urban 'built-up' districts in Hamilton it was one of the fastest growing during that decade. I'm not saying we're Vancouver, but we're certainly not Detroit. Many people do WANT to live downtown. My wife and I could have moved anywhere in the Hammer. We chose downtown and have loved every minute of it.
People are looking for homes, condos and lofts downtown and I think you'll see more loft/condo projects spring up in the next few years as the number of available 'fixer-uppers' for sale declines in the downtown area. Hundreds, if not thousands of fixer-uppers have been bought and reno'd in the downtown area in recent years. Many people don't notice it because the homes already exist. Now local architects and real estate agents tell stories of people calling regularly looking for nice condos or lofts. We've got a ways to go, but have certainly already begun the journey to seeing downtown look and operate in the way we all dream of.

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By statius (registered) | Posted January 15, 2008 at 19:26:56

jason,

I apologize if I seemed excessively pessimistic about Hamilton's prospects (this is a tendency I have). If I didn't think Hamilton had any prospects of rehabilitation, I wouldn't bother reading and posting on RTH. I know downtown has shown some population growth over the last few years, but it has been relatively slow and property values have only crept up slightly as a reflection. I think there is a growing but still weak market that needs to be catered to obsessively, with every possible impediment to stabilization removed.

I'm glad that people who are in a position to move elsewhere, such as yourself, still make the decision to live downtown. I myself will be moving back to Hamilton soon and have every intention of living downtown. My partner on the other hand - who I have to admit is a thorough yuppie in taste and sensibility - has serious apprehensions about living there. For her it's still an ugly, gritty place with a lack of quality retail and attractive new housing. I'm committed to living downtown because I have an abiding love for Hamilton and a desire to be a part of its regeneration. For her, though, there are other much more desirable options, and I can totally sympathize with her perspective. My point is that Hamilton still has a long way to go before it is seriously marketable to people of means and mobility who do not have a connection to the city.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 15, 2008 at 22:30:29

Statius wrote, "Vancouver has had, for probably the last 20 years, the most robust and insatiable residential real estate market in Canada, and one of the most dynamic in North America generally."

I wonder if you're getting the flow of causality backward with regard to Vancouver's popularity. You're saying they can get away with building dense mixed developments because the city is desirable, but I submit respectfully that the city is desirable in part because of its very commitment to building dense mixed developments.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 15, 2008 at 22:33:53

Ryan and Statius...you're above 2 posts are bang on.

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By statius (registered) | Posted January 15, 2008 at 22:46:42

Ryan,

I wish that were the case. I for one - and I know I'm not the only one - am somewhat cynical about the principles of west coast liberalism. While the dominant culture which exists from San Francisco to Seattle to Vancouver undoubtedly espouses popular "leftist" causes (environmentalism, gay marriage, abortion rights, etc.) I think there has always been a deep undercurrent of classist elitism running through it. I simply find it impossible to accept the proposition that the average upper middle income (or above) Vancouverite finds the prospect of living next to a lower income (or otherwise disadvantaged) person a major incentive of the city, but that's just my view ...

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 15, 2008 at 23:10:01

I wasn't refering to Queen W, but rather the sort of planned mixed income housing such as you find in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, developed in the 70's. I also lived next to a mixed income condo tower at Bay and Bloor back in the 80's. There are numerous other examples that were successful long before TO was the hot spot it is today. I see absolutely no reason why these sorts of developments wouldn't be similarly successful in Hamilton. I'm sure there are some affluent people who will never be convinced to have less affluent people as their neighbours, but then they aren't exactly the sort to be buying downtown condos anyway, now are they?

"For her it's still an ugly, gritty place with a lack of quality retail and attractive new housing." Would she settle for some attractive old housing? There's plenty of that to go around. My advice would be to have babies. Then you won't be able to go out anyway, so it won't matter if the shopping and dining suck. Just kidding! Just kidding! ;) The last thing I want to do is frighten your partner!

Seriously though, I lived in TO for 10 years and loved it. I still miss it and feel very at home there, but I am so thankful to be raising my kids in Hamilton, and it has gotten into my bones in a way that TO never did. I guess I have a soft spot for ugly and gritty.

A hearty Hammer welcome to you and your partner. I hope Hamilton is as good to you and your partner as it has been to me and mine.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted January 16, 2008 at 18:28:57

Great discussion... I live in the St Lawrence neighbourhood and I would echo Highwaters comments about its livability. It's a great neighbourhood. It occurs to me though, after living here for 18 months now, that the income mix is a very delicate thing to design. In amidst the co-op housing is a couple of high end condos with no affordable housing built in at all. The condos are very desirable. At the bottom of my street of 3 and 4 bedroom town houses are some split level co-op houses and rentals. This is known as the 'dodgy' end of the street, although, interestingly, apart from the fact that it runs onto Parliament and butts onto a humungous, bland, imposing co-op condo block with no appeal, there is really nothing 'dodgy' about it. It appears that this small concentration of affordable housing is enough to warrant the label.

My point is that, if you get the housing mix right, and don't concentrate one housing type in a specific area, you can get a really good neighbourhood. As soon as you get a square quarter mile of strictly middle class houses or rentals then you get that concentration which is so destructive.

As for the Lister I say it should be turned into high end condos. There is already a lot of low income housing and services downtown and the only way to get the right mix would be to encourage more yuppies and middle class types. I think folks would buy into it, but like anything, it would take a little more than just a nice condo. Higher incomes types would need to see amenities and jobs and good transit to go along with it. Downtown has a lot of these to offer. However, the problem with Hamilton is that it has so many problems! And there is still very little indication that the City knows how to deal with any of them. The only folks that appear to be moving there are the ones who can't afford to live anywhere else, or the ones who are naive enough to think Hamilton will turn around anytime soon. I hope it does, and for certain there are signs of change, but the momentum is not really there right now.

Turn the streets two-way, put in a light rail, turn the Lister into high end condos - now there's a recipe for change :)

Cheers

Ben

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted January 18, 2008 at 14:09:15

The way I see it. LIUNA bought the Lister because they thought they could get the federal building in there. Now that did not happen. Why did LIUNA not plan for the possibility of this and develop a plan B?

Why must the city taxpayers have to foot the bill for LIUNA's poor business decisions?

If the city did not openly announce that they were willing to buy the property perhaps some private developers would have come forward. LIUNA would love to dump this on Hamilton taxpayers at a profit because the know that a private developer is not as desperate for a deal.

Also, the last thing the downtown needs is more subsidized housing. Walking through the downtown you are given the impression that everyone in Hamilton is either on welfare or on crack.

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By brodiec (registered) | Posted January 18, 2008 at 16:39:36

Capitalist: I agree. We should build more affordable housing in your neighbourhood. Where would that be? Anywhere on the moutain, ancaster, westdale?

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted January 21, 2008 at 14:33:31

brodiec,

I don't want anymore subsidized housing anywhere in Hamilton. Taxes in this city are way too high as it is.

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By markwhittle (registered) - website | Posted February 02, 2008 at 18:57:54

Buying the Lister will never happen considering Hamilton Council is in the hole to the tune of $46 million and wants to foist an 8% tax increase on us residents. Perhaps the proponents of this project should get on with it and forget about getting anything from city hall. We have by-laws to ensure the proponents secure the building. It's time to start applying them in this case. I'm sick of being held hostage by these greedy developers, enough is enough.

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