Comment 84779

By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted January 07, 2013 at 12:58:56

Why are 'old buildings' in Hamilton recurring victims of Institutionalized Vandalism? - 301

"David Blanchard says the buildings – particularly the upper levels – were already shot when his company bought them more than a decade ago."

As one of the most media-packaged and savvy Realtors in Hamilton, Blanchard would have surely asked for a 'building inspection report' as a condition of sale purchase, before he agreed to buy these buildings.

Any fatal structural flaws as claimed now, would have shown up in his inspection report - and if they did, why did he still choose to buy these properties?

He either bought these properties for the land value, and is merely making revenues from the buildings standing on it, until the time is right to rip them down.

Or, he may have bought it for the right intentions but did not have the capital to fix them as he had hoped. But it is obvious from the media hype around his successes that he does not lack capital. The annual income from his parking lots at rear alone, would have been sufficient to carry out the renovations without any support from the city.

Also being the much celebrated star of downtown revitalization, he has to have been aware of the various city incentives that were available to all property owners in the core for renovating buildings:

Downtown Renewal - Financial Incentive Programs:

  • Commercial Property Improvement Grant Program
  • Hamilton Downtown Property Improvement Grant Program (formerly the Enterprise Zone Grant Program)
  • Hamilton Downtown Multi-Residential Property Investment Program
  • Commercial Corridor Housing Loan and Grant Program (formerly the Main Street Program)
  • Hamilton Downtown Office Tenancy Assistance Program
  • Hamilton Heritage Property Grant Program
  • The "Gore" Building Improvement Grant Program
  • Hamilton Downtown Commercial Facade Property Improvement Grant Program

Did he ever think of applying for any of these incentives and grants to start fixing 18-30 King Street East in any of the years since he purchased them?

If not, it would appear that he never had any intentions of converting the commercial status of the upper floors to residential use--as most property owners in the core have been doing to bring more residential units into the downtown market.

Property owners who leave old commercial units vacant on upper floors do get rebates on taxes. Once they convert them to residential, and if vacant, they do not get any tax rebates. Hence, the incentive to leave upper floors vacant as old commercial, with open windows and unpaired roofs, while 'pigeons'--the silent business partners of such property owners, work away at the upper floors for years, to accrue the much craved end-value.

True developers and risk-takers, who have converted scores of old commercial upper floors into lofts for living & working have never had vacancies for long. These are the real downtown developers who have been driving growth in our core over the last ten years.

But you never hear of them, as they are simply not sexy enough for our local press. The press needs a distinguished "Saviour", on whom they bestow the sex appeal--and even have the gumption of shining a holier-than-thou light on them. This is the only way they know how to sell newspapers.

Also, if Blanchard now says that these buildings "were shot on the upper levels" since he bought them, then as an upright citizen, why has he been jeopardizing the lives of countless human beings, by allowing tenants to occupy the lower floors for all these years? Countless lives seem to have been put at serious risk by allowing the occupancy of such structurally flawed buildings. Or, did he simply not give a damn for the lives or safety of those who occupied, visited or passed by his buildings?

Should the city even be allowing 'partial occupancy' for such developers to make money on buildings in such disrepair, which they have no intention of restoring, but every intention of tearing down at the first available opportunity?

“There are all kinds of people running around, they’re doing their thing, trying to tell us what to do,” he says. “We’ll talk to them. I don’t know what good it’s going to do and I don’t know who’s going to pay for it, but we’ll talk to them.” ~ David Blanchard

Seriously, no one is telling him what to do. If anything, the public uproar is about telling him what not to do, which is entirely based on what little he has shared prematurely with the public so far. And if he or his architect is incapable of realizing the gross inappropriateness of what they have shared so far, then they should simply not be in the business of real estate development.

About "who’s going to pay for it" viz the restoration, the city already has in place various programs and incentives to help property owners do the right thing by such buildings. One just have to apply for these incentives and get the project rolling - if that is the intent.

The city has never demanded a historical restoration job on these facades. The condition of his building's facades only call for routine maintenance and upgrades to the cornices, eavestroughs & drains, possibly new windows and such, and possible upgrades to the store signs if required. All of which is clearly covered in the city incentive program.

The public uproar has been purely about the claims that the building are structurally compromised, and therefore need to be pulled down; and about the visible lack of a plan to rebuild.

However, if the intent has always been to destroy these buildings in the first place, then still there is no issue. Our ever compliant City Planning Department, has also made that possible for speculators, by ascribing a 22 meter height limit to these heritage properties, with the added Site Plan control in this area (a left over of the old Central Business District - CBD ideology), where if one aspires to put up a hundred-floor building, one is most welcome!

It is also fascinating to know that The Gore Building Improvement Grant Program (PED 11167) was specifically developed to:

"To support the maintenance, attractiveness, functionality and viability of the historic building stock that fronts on King Street East between James Street and Catharine Street, known as the “Gore”.

The program is intended to provide financial assistance to bring existing properties to present-day Property Standards and Sign By-law requirements and, to improve their accessibility.

The program supports an objective of the Downtown Secondary Plan: conserve and enhance the Gore as the primary landscaped open space and concentration of heritage buildings in Downtown Hamilton.

Applications under the Program will be accepted to the end of December 2014 (subject to the availability of funding). Improvements funded under the Program must be completed no later than August 1, 2015.

But while this was expected to come into force in two years, our City Planning Department has already subverted the intent of such noble gestures by ascribing a 22 meter height limit to all these heritage properties across the core's east-west & north-south axis.

And our Planning Committee has facilitated such subversion by not communicating relevant information from the Heritage Committee to our Council.

So, much before 2015 rolls in, we may be seeing many demolitions in our core. All mimicking Blanchard's approach, if he is successful at leveling 18-28 King Street East.

But can David Blanchard or any other property owners who choose to follow in his footsteps, be really held responsible for dreaming BIG without a plan? when our press sensationalizes "Big", our media pundits promote "Big", and our City's Planning Department facilitates "Big"?

Our planners want both a concentration of heritage buildings and new high-rise towers, on the very same properties!!

After spending millions of tax-payers dollars over five years to develop a well scaled, heritage driven plan for the core, our Urban Planners also simultaneously give all property owners the "demolition tools" they require to destroy the very built-heritage they are being enticed to save with incentives.

When our planners are so utterly confused, do you expect our property owners to have clear thinking?

The question every Hamiltonian needs to ask is: do we really want to become known as the first city in the world to be known as the "City of Facades"?

This could well be the resulting effect now, given the contradictory signals our urban planners have been sending out to our property owners in the downtown core.

A long wall of two and three floor facades starting from the downtown gates at Wellington Street to Gore Park and beyond, block-after-block of hollowed out old building facades, standing forlorn like a Roman ruin -- with daintily set back slim towers, that may arrive if and when the market does, to eventually cover the exposed rear of the heritage we have just stripped naked for the whole world to see.

Is this the real vision of our Planning Department and elected Council for our downtown?

We simply cannot aspire to be "big" and "small" at the same time. Has that not been Hamilton's dilemma for the last five decades?

The funny thing is, a flourishing economy asks for neither "big" nor "small" - it just asks for self-assuredness, consistency, and connectivity--no matter the size, density or the direction of flow.

Someday, our planning departments will be driven by network thinking, until that day comes, we must ensure that those who are driving it now, don't do any further damage than they already have to the very fabric of our society.

Mahesh P. Butani

Comment edited by Mahesh_P_Butani on 2013-01-07 13:46:40

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