Lister Block

The Lister Chopping Block

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 09, 2008

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.

Protecting Heritage Buildings

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.

"Minimum Involvement"

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."

Time to Act

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.

Sidebar: LIUNA's Hypocrisy

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.

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 Frank (registered) | Posted May 09, 2008 at 14:34:57

Perhaps a call to the opposition leader would cause McGuinty to think twice about "minimal involvement". Property neglect by owners downtown is causing major eyesores to develop and they're having to bust down the buildings because they refuse to maintain them. I'm sick of major corps and big money individuals getting whatever the heck they want. Of course, as is the average Hamilton way, many will complain and mourn the loss of the buildings saying "that's to bad, I wish we could've done more" without knowing that they can and should....and at the same time lambast someone like Harry Stinson who has major plans and vision for downtown because "it's not possible". To many ppl think to small of our city and organizations like LIUNA are more than happy to live up to that image.

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By Common Sense (anonymous) | Posted May 10, 2008 at 09:48:25

The building they are now talking about has no architectural merit for preservation. It is just an old brick building. It displays nothing worth preserving. We can't be running around begging government to force private property owners to maintain every building because it is old, it is non-sense. To me the most critical streetscape to maintain as heritage is King Street and James Street North of York Blvd. The rest can go unless designated under the heritage act. Rather then spending all this money on the Lister we should be spending it on the repointing of brick, new windows and the removal of the big Cash Now signs etc that line King Street. That is truly what is worth preserving in my mind. The Lister may be structurally sound but it is not appropriate for use of office space in this day and age. I've heard the ceilings could possibly be as low as 8'. That is ridiculous for office but good for residential. Let's pick our battles people.

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By lost canon (anonymous) | Posted May 10, 2008 at 12:25:36

Common Sense, I don't understand the short sighted position you take. Precedent and accident are what developers are after. How do you prevent events that are transpiring from spiralling out of control? The fact that the newest target could be argued to have no historical merit isnt relevant. They want to get the building down and continue to discover more structure problems and through attrition finally gain what they want. Public Money, Big Project and Huge Profits

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By Rob (anonymous) | Posted May 11, 2008 at 01:20:39

LIUNA's actions just confirm my beliefs that large unions are no different than large corporations. Faceless, soulless entities with no collective consideration of anything but the bottom line.. but for workers instead of shareholders.

I really think that those on the left are going to have to re-evaluate any blind support of unions. In the games between large multi-national unions and large corporations, we're going to need to learn not to support the game at all. Localize our unions. Localize our corporations. Or stuff like this happens.

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By Lenin (anonymous) | Posted May 11, 2008 at 09:01:57

@Rob: "I really think that those on the left are going to have to re-evaluate any blind support of unions. In the games between large multi-national unions and large corporations, we're going to need to learn not to support the game at all. Localize our unions. Localize our corporations."

You sound less like Rob and more like Rob-in Hood. And he was as much of a myth as your statement suggests.

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By uncommon sense (anonymous) | Posted May 12, 2008 at 08:10:13

"The rest can go" Amazing what they call "common sense" these days. That exact mentality has been followed for decades in Hamilton, go downtown and see where it's gotten us.

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By Bada Bing (anonymous) | Posted May 12, 2008 at 10:36:24

Even Councillor Brattina said the Lister is not an important building to the downtown. So, if he is right and he is the local rep. Maybe a good razing isn't so bad after all.

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By uncommon sense (anonymous) | Posted May 12, 2008 at 11:30:52

Um, where did Bratina say the Lister is not an important building to the downtown?

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By highwater (registered) | Posted May 12, 2008 at 12:34:29

According to a comment made by Bratina on the Specblog, "The Lister Block is a fine old building and an ideal candidate for renovation. Its best use in my opinion would be residential, perhaps for students. It has a role in Downtown revitalization, but is not the critical piece...The proposal for the Lister Block would simply shuffle employees from one place to another at a cost far exceeding going rates for commercial space Downtown...The Lister redevelopment would provide no new taxes, and in fact would increase them.

The Lister Block is an old commercial building, privately owned, similar to the old post office building, the Alexandra Square office buildings and the old Eaton's Warehouse. These were all redeveloped at the owner's expense with some assistance from our Downtown Residential Loans Program which provide interest-free loans to assist in financing the projects...all successfully occupied and all paying significantly more in taxes than when they were derelict.

There are many examples of buildings like the Lister that have been successfully and economically renovated to residential use...If the Lister block were to become a City office building, those employees would be relocated from other space, and would leave for home after 5:00 p.m. If it became condominiums or apartments there would be more people living downtown, animating the streets and supporting the stores and restaurants....exactly what we're trying to achieve through our Downtown Renewal process.

The Lister is important to our Downtown, but so is the old Federal Building...Private money with some government funding is financing the new residential project beside Denningers..."

Clearly, Bratina is stating that using the Lister for municipal office space is "not the critical piece", however it's obvious that he believes privately funded residential projects are critical to downtown's revitalization, and that the Lister is an ideal candidate for this type of development. This is a far cry from saying it is not important.

I fear I'm wasting my breath, however. You could show Bada Bing the stack of reports showing that the Lister is architecturally and historically significant, structurally sound, and perfect for adaptive reuse, and you could show him/her the numerous examples of urban theorists such as Richard Florida showing the damaging effects of tearing down heritage buildings on a city's economy, and it wouldn't make a scrap of difference to him/her. He/she is immune to any facts that contradict his/her agenda. Actually, I think I'll go with 'he'. I'm beginning to think that Bada Bing is a sockpuppet for Mancinelli or Tony DePasquale.

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By uncommon sense (anonymous) | Posted May 12, 2008 at 12:40:29

Epic zing! So basically, Bada Bing claimed Bratina said the opposite of what he really said. Talk about an agenda laid bare. Pathetic.

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By Bada Bing (anonymous) | Posted May 12, 2008 at 15:36:42

Bada Bing on me...sorry for misrepresenting.

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By trey (registered) | Posted May 12, 2008 at 21:43:32

Stinson-- can you please buy Lister and make it a residential bldg over retail.

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By Bada Bing (anonymous) | Posted May 13, 2008 at 22:15:47

Yes, Mr. Stinson. Work your magic! Never mind the Spectator and snake oil salesman stuff....see what you can do.

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By councilwatch (anonymous) | Posted May 16, 2008 at 03:59:24

Rob, you are wrong in your statement that big unions are no different than big corporations.
LIUNA may leave you with that impression but believe me when I tell youthat LIUNA is a Union in NAME ONLY. It has never been part of the social and progressive fragment of LEGITIMATE TRADE UNIONS
in Hamilton for over the past forty years. It is a renegade organization with silk suit leaders who care not for decent interaction.

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