With another building on the Lister Block slated for demolition, will the Ontario Government finally stop sitting on its hands and intervene directly?
Laborers Union International of North America (LIUNA), the owner of the buildings on the Lister block at James St. N. and King William St., has applied for a demolition permit for the boarded-up building at 33-36 King William St., next to Reardon's and just a few doors down from the recently-demolished Balfour Building.
The municipal government has demonstrated amply that it is unwilling (or perhaps unable) to enforce the property standards that would require LIUNA to maintain its properties, or even, indeed to uphold its own basic responsibilities to the community.
It's up to the provincial government to step in under the authority of the Ontario Heritage Act and preserve the remaining buildings. Unfortunately, so far the government has been unwilling to exercise its powers.
Before 2005, the Ontario Heritage Act encouraged municipalities and property owners to reach agreements on protecting heritage properties, but contained no powers of enforcement to prevent demolitions.
Instead, it allowed a 180 day "cooling off" period after a property owner is denied a demolition permit, after which time the property owner could go ahead and demolish the building anyway. If a property owner was determined to demolish a building, they merely had to wait out the 180 days.
With changes enacted in 2005, this loophole is closed for buildings that have been designated as provincial heritage buildings. A property owner's only recourse is to appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board for the right to demolish.
Unfortunately, at least for the Lister Block, the province is still behaving as if the old rules apply. Instead of designating the Lister Building and preventing demolition, the government has acted as a facilitator to encourage the city and LIUNA to work out a deal.
The province even went so far as to offer $7 million to help finance the restoration of the Lister Block, but has stopped short of a provincial heritage designation.
The Ontario Ministry of Culture asked the Ontario Heritage Trust to prepare a report on the heritage value of the Lister Block. That report was not made public, and the Ministry is refusing to grant a freedom of information (FOI) request by local heritage advocate Kieran Dickson on the grounds that the report constitutes confidential advice given to the government.
The information that has been made available indicates that the report concluded the Lister Block has local, provincial and national heritage value and would hence merit designation..
However, according to a letter from Premier Dalton McGuinty to LIUNA Vice President Joe Mancinelli that was made public through an FOI request, the province prefers that the issue be resolved "with minimal involvement from the minister's office."
The provincial government's confidence that the issue can be resolved locally rests on reluctance to invervene in a local matter and confidence that all parties are willing to play fair. However, the evidence does not support this confidence.
Culture Minister Aileen Carroll denied a request by Grant Head of Heritage Watch Hamilton to issue a stop order on demolishing the Balfour Building, citing the assurance she received that the architecturally significant elements of the building façade would be preserved.
Instead, the building was demolished without preserving anything. Soon after, Hamilton Centre NDP MPP Andrea Horwath deplored the situation and called on the government to release the Ontario Heritage Trust report and "let Hamiltonians knows what's behind the secrecy."
The government's overall lack of commitment and follow-through can't be masked. It's hard to believe that this is the very government claiming to want to revitalize downtowns and support the city's preservation of significant older buildings like the Lister Block.
The Ontario government voted to give itself the power to intervene and preserve heritage buildings. It's time to use that power to save what's left of the Lister Block before neglect and disinformation lead any more buildings to ruin.
The economic, cultural and environmental benefits of preserving and restoring heritage buildings are exhaustively documented. Someone has to make LIUNA accountable for its shameful neglect of these anchor buildings in our downtown core.
A depressing article in Trehugger contrasts LIUNA president Terence O'Sullivan's call to renew and maintain critical public infrastructure with LIUNA's utter neglect of the its own properties in downtown Hamilton.
Pretty sad that we need to turn to an international magazine to rub our noses in the fact that we can't manage our own affairs.
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