Special Report: Pearl Company

Demise of The Pearl Company

It's puzzling that City Hall would actively discourage such an excellent example of adaptive reuse for an abandoned industrial building.

By Michael Cumming
Published September 24, 2010

A surprising event happened recently in Hamilton: the Pearl Company announced it was shutting down.

The Pearl Company is a cultural enterprise owned and operated by Barbara Milne and Gary Santucci in the Landsdale neighbourhood of Hamilton. The reasons given for their decision to pull out was that they were no longer willing to fight City Hall in a long-running zoning dispute, which apparently has cost them a lot of money over the years.

The Pearl Company has been instrumental in bringing cultural events to one of the most distressed neighbourhoods of Hamilton. It is well known locally for putting on an almost absurdly large number of musical, theatrical and artistic performances in their converted industrial space. They also operate the successful Art Bus, which conducts tours of Hamilton's art galleries twice a month.

By all accounts, and from personal experience, their cultural contribution to the city is of the first order. They are the energizer bunnies of cultural entrepreneurship within the city. In any sensible regime they would be made heroes of urban renewal or be given the keys to the city. But not here.

There has been some discussion about the procedures involved in zoning applications and whether these procedures were followed, but the bottom line is that the good The Pearl Company is doing is readily apparent while the bad they might be doing is not apparent at all.

Development resulting from cultural initiatives such as the James St North Art Crawl gets a lot of press in Hamilton. But running The Pearl Company out of town seems not only to be a bad idea, it seems like a crazy idea.

What would be 'no-brainers' in other places - e.g. supporting venues like The Pearl Company - are controversial here. Could this be another example of Hamilton shooting itself in the foot? Has Hamilton completed its transition from the 'Ambitious City' to one in which no good deed goes unpunished? Many people seem to think so.


What newcomers to Hamilton quickly learn is that how they view the city may be diametrically opposed to how many long term residents view the city. We see the same place but may come away with sharply differing conclusions.

This disparity of perspective is typical of polarized social, economic and political environments, which I suppose is what we have here in Hamilton. In some respects it is like a northern industrial version of the Deep South. Some benefit from the status quo while others do not.

The epicentre of polarized viewpoints is in the Lower Town of Hamilton and most particularly in its East End near King and Steven - exactly where The Pearl Company bravely set up shop. This is Hamilton's Downtown Eastside. Poor people tend to live in this part of town, rich people elsewhere, and never the twain shall meet.

Micro-managing investment

You would think that a poverty-stricken city like Hamilton would try to encourage as much private investment as possible in this age of declining public coffers. Yet, City Hall appears to chase away people with real money to invest - with a stick. This city is not always open for business.

City Hall in its planning policies seems to have a preference about where private money ought to be spent. It has a desire to funnel investment into officially-sanctioned areas such as James St North, Locke and Ottawa Streets. These are attractive areas, with great potential to be sure, but what about the rest of the city? Neighbourhoods such as Landsdale are ignored and marginalized even though physically and architecturally there is not much difference between it and its more fashionable cousins.

Surely the city should focus on the fact that money is being invested rather than on where it is being invested. Trying to micro-manage private investment decisions through the planning and building departments seems absurd.

The power structures of some cities work against artists while some work against business people. In Hamilton they manage to work against both these camps. Those on both the left and the right wings of the political spectrum can experience the neglect of City Hall!

Marginalization of Neighbourhoods

Hamilton, partly due to its archaic planning and zoning systems, intentionally concentrates poverty in areas such as Landsdale. Despite this concentration of poverty one can easily see the attraction of opening an arts and performance space in the middle of it.

This is what normally happens in cities lucky enough to have entrepreneurs like the Pearl Company's owners: investment takes place in distressed neighbourhoods since costs there are low. Fighting City Hall year on end obviously adds to investors' costs.

In the US, neighbourhood marginalization and red-lining often has a racial component. But not so much in Hamilton - ethnic minorities can be found in most parts of the city. Here, marginalization is more poverty and environmentally based with poor people coming in all colours.

Another important factor in the marginalization of neighbourhoods is environmental degradation. As in many cities, especially those with heavy industry, the East End is poorer than the west due to prevailing winds and the particulates they carry.

Anything near or downwind of a steel plant is bound to suffer some marginalization. But this does not explain The Pearl Company's case since areas further east of it that are much closer to the belching furnaces (e.g. Ottawa Street) are on the upswing.

Architectural resources

One of Hamilton's greatest resources is the huge number of old brick warehouse buildings that dot Lower Town and elsewhere.

The Pearl Company is an excellent example of adaptive reuse for this type of building. It is surprising how few of these industrial buildings are converted into productive uses as you might see in larger centres.

This huge resource exists here but is not being exploited. Indeed, City Hall appears to actively discourage its exploitation. This is puzzling.


There is a battle of ideas going on here but it's difficult to sort out exactly what kind of ideas are in play. The politics are certainly parochial, the processes of neighbourhood marginalization are severe and the planning policies appear to be self-defeating. However, I can't quite understand this situation.

What The Pearl Company episode does suggest is that private investment in unfashionable areas of Hamilton is extremely risky even though some of these areas appear to be full of economic potential.

This can't be good.

This article was first published on Michael's personal website.

Michael Cumming is a designer, writer and photographer concerned about sustainable design and urban development. He has training in Architecture and Computational Design and has lived in several cities in Canada, the US and Europe. He is delighted to have settled with his wife and two children in the Strathcona neighbourhood of Hamilton. You can view his website or follow him on Twitter.


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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 24, 2010 at 15:07:35

City hall could have prevented this, but they didn't. The fact that they CAN give a zoning variance only means that much. Unless we ask really nicely, they have no requirement to let us do anything. It's their time, their city, and their rules. They don't know or care much about arts and culture in Hamilton - only enough to keep their jobs.

Noise is an issue? Let people soundproof. Parking? Sell them bulk-price bus tickets. Both of these would be an issue with or without the Pearl Company - it's King Street East not Sulfer Springs.Don't punish people for trying to do something interesting with unused spaces.

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted September 24, 2010 at 15:18:15

Political and Culture dogma is still dogma, satire below.

In a surprising turn of events the Tiger Cat football team is leaving Hamilton. The reason given is the long running stadium dispute with city hall. The Ti-cats are instrumental in bringing sporting event to a depressed area of town. By all accounts the cultural and identity contribution to the city is of the first order. They are the sports marketing energizer bunnies of the city. In any sensible city they would be given the keys to the city, but not here.

There is some discussion about the procedures in stadium site selection and whether the Tiger-Cats followed them, but the good done by Bob Young is readily apparent but the bad is really not apparent at all.

Development from sport marketing initiatives gets a lot of press in Hamilton but running the Ti-Cats out of town seems like a crazy idea.

What would be a no-brainer in other places (supporting the Ti-Cats) are controversial here. Could this be an example of Hamilton shooting itself in the foot?

Hamilton is really two different cities. This disparity of perspective and geography is typical of polarized social, economic and political environments, which I suppose is what we have here in Hamilton.

etc etc etc

This article kind of scared me. This isn't much different than what I read from Bob Young's trolls supporting him on ditching the West Harbour. They made any of Bob's actions justified for the greater good of the community. His minions are as equally passionate about the Tiger-Cats as the people on RTH are about the Pearl Company. Blind support of any cause worries me, especially when the greater good of the community is invoked at any cost and the tactics of owners to get what they want are justified. I'm new to RTH coming in support of the WH stadium... is the community here only to blindly follow what the collective believes in, whether people did what they should have or not? Is it OK for us but not for them? How much does this contribute to the polarization of this city? I don't know, but I just saw the mirror image of something I didn't like with Bob's boys. I have a deep love of music and art, when I can put them aside to think critically about this I still keep coming up with confusion about the Pearl Company's owners. Would any of this happened if they waited for approvals like any other business person? Was this the right property for their enterprise if the zoning was this big an issue? It was zoned to allow for a condo conversion I'm guessing, would this be a bad thing for the area?

Has anyone contacted city hall to find out if citizens in the area have made noise or parking complaints. I know they track those calls and may have to release the statistics on them if requested. If there are no complaints then, OK, I support the Pearl Company blindly. If there have been complaints to Bernie or city hall directly, maybe the Pearl Company should have done due diligence, waited or bought a different property.

Let the hostility begin...

Comment edited by mrjanitor on 2010-09-24 14:22:45

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted September 24, 2010 at 15:34:28

This isn't much different than what I read from Bob Young's trolls supporting him on ditching the West Harbour. They made any of Bob's actions justified for the greater good of the community. - mrjanitor

Nice try, but the Pearl is not asking for tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money, just a chance to run their business without tens of thousands of dollars in illogical fines.

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted September 24, 2010 at 15:37:56

Very true Kiely, the comparison was not about funding but about dogmatic justification whatever the cause may be. Blind following removes thinking IMHO.

Comment edited by mrjanitor on 2010-09-24 14:38:18

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By highwater (registered) | Posted September 24, 2010 at 16:22:14

I'm sorry mrjanitor, but you can't separate the funding issue that easily. You seem to be suggesting that this is a matter of blind support of arts vs. blind support of sports, and nothing could be further from the truth. The Ticats are asking for over $100m taxpayers' dollars while being unwilling to negotiate a location that will provide even a modicum of benefit to the people putting up 100% of the bill. This would be an unconscionable misuse of public funds.

The Pearl on the otherhand, is merely asking for the same kind of exemption from zoning laws that has been offered to others, so that they can continue to offer a benefit to the community that far outweighs any public investment that might be made in the form of waiving of onerous, and arguably unecessary, fees.

Nor is the seemingly blind support of the Pearl based on the fact that it is an arts organization. The outcry is due rather, to the fact that many other small, entrepreneurial businesses have faced the same obstacles in their efforts to adaptively reuse older buildings, and bring much needed jobs and economic investment to the depressed areas of our city. How many economic opportunities have been lost because other entrepreneurs faced the same sort of barriers as the Pearl? We may never know, all we know is that it has to stop.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted September 24, 2010 at 16:24:13

Blind following removes thinking IMHO - mrjanitor

I'll give you that one ; )

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted September 24, 2010 at 16:48:47


It is a matter of blind support of any kind, not blind arts support vs. blind sports support. It's not about funding at all. It's about tactics and people towing the line. I see similar arguments and tactics and it disturbs me. The situation are not perfectly the same but I see a shadow of the balls to the wall anything is justified for what we think is the greater good Tiger-Cat supporters.

I have said on other threads I don't understand the Pearl's owners decisions but I do admire and ultimately support them. What I have not heard discussed is whether the residents support the Pearl, once again I'd like to see if they have been complaining. The Pearl's owners took away the forum for the residents to raise issues when they by-passed the zoning/plan change process. I think that was profoundly unfair and undemocratic... and yes, even the dreaded e-word elitist.

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By Gary Santucci (anonymous) | Posted September 24, 2010 at 17:08:24

Parking Concerns at the Pearl

The City of Hamilton upon calculating our need for parking has set a limit of 25 spaces.
We have also had access to a parking lot 20 feet away from the building since our opening in 2006. It provides 24 spaces for our patrons exclusively after 6:30pm everyday of the week. We are also located 150 feet from King Street East where you will find metered parking on both sides for approximately 30 cars. We are also located within 150 feet of two major bus routes and 1000 feet of two others. Taxis are also in abundance in the urban core. Our capacity is 150 patrons and we rarely exceed the imit of our parking lot. We always have a volunteer stationed out front to direct our patrons in cars to the appropriate spaces.

I hope this addresses the parking concerns of those who have never been here or who may be planning to attend at some point in the future.

Gary Santucci

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By Gary Santucci (anonymous) | Posted September 24, 2010 at 17:17:10

Consultation with the Neighbourhood

When we purchased the building we took this obligation seriously. We printed 2000 flyers announcing our intentions and delivered them door to door in the Landsdale Neighbourhood. The response was so positive that we co-founded with our neighbours the Landsdale and Area Neighbourhood Association (LANA for short). LANA has met at the Pearl Company on a regular basis on the fourth Monday of every month. Councillor Morelli was a regular attendee for the first year of our meetings. He continues to send his assistant Nick Westoll. Just to clarify for those who have never been to the Pearl Company and for those who have assumed that our neighbours have had no input.

Gary Santucci

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted September 24, 2010 at 17:29:59


Thank you for clarifying the parking points and thank you for entering the discussion. Can you please explain why you did and have done so much work with community consultation but still by-passed the approval process, which to me is also a consultation with the community? I just keep running into the same wall with the Pearl and I am REALLY trying to understand why you are having these problems. The mystery just got bigger for me with your Consultation with the Neighborhood post. Thank you again

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By Gary Santucci (anonymous) | Posted September 24, 2010 at 17:38:31

Planning Process

Please visit our website www.thepearlcompany.ca and select the rezone tab. There you will find all of the information you require to reverse your assumption that we did not engage in a process with the City. More recent documents will be posted to relfect our ongoing work and consultation with the City. Should you have any further questions you many contact me by telephone at 905 524 0606 and I will be happy to meet with in person to help further your understanding of our situation.

Gary Santucci

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted September 24, 2010 at 18:02:46

That is quite a reading list Gary, just amazing. I will take the time this weekend to read everything. It is obvious an incredible amount of time, love and capital has been invested in your project. I understand the amount of work you have done since opening to get a zoning change, I will take you up on your offer and ask some questions I have about timing away from this forum via e-mail if that is OK with you. After all of the reading.

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By rednic (registered) | Posted September 24, 2010 at 18:18:33

this situation reminds a lot of the situation in the early 80's regarding king St ( both east and west in toronto ), These buildings were decrepit and for the most part not (legally) used. The city under Barbara hall basically took a hands off approach to the enforcement of zoning bylaws, in these areas. The area began to flourish, and is now completely out of my price range hence ... i live in Landsdale. Certainly outright gentrification is not the answer neither but it enforcing the laws in such a way that there is no hope for the neighborhood. My understanding of the zoning of the pearl company property is there is no hope of it being residential either since there is no on site parking, so the city seems to have boxed itself into a corner where the only legal use is to plywood over the windows and let it rot. That obviously is not a very sane solution, but it seems one that makes the powers that be happy.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted September 25, 2010 at 00:12:03

Something was recently brought to my attention: awhile back Jeremy Frieberger organized a fundraiser to help save The Pearl and pay the fees. My understanding is that the owners took that money and decided to fight city hall. If this is just a vile rumour let me know.

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By Gary Santucci (anonymous) | Posted September 25, 2010 at 00:51:57


Jeremy Freiburger attended a fundraiser for the Pearl Company and had no role in organizing the event. The money raised was for the efforts to continue the process to clarify the zoning issues of the Pearl Company. TNT please refer to the recent article posted on RTH Fletcher: No alternative to Rezoning for Pearl Company. You will see the potential fee schedule that would have resulted should the Pearl Company have submitted a rezoning application. You can also see the process that the Pearl Company has been engaged with the City Government by visiting the website www.thepearlcompany.ca and select the rezone tab. More recent information will also be posted soon. Money raised and earned has gone into to legal fees and consulting fees to continue the struggle. The money raised at the event was less than approximately 4% of the total money required to satisfy the potential fees resulting from a rezoning application. Entering the re-zoning process would initiated the onerous fee schedule effectively bankrupting the Pearl Company. It is curious that you bring this up as I had the opportunity to discuss this very subject with Jeremy Freiburger over a year and a half ago. Should you wish further clarification please contact me at 905 524 0606. We have nothing to hide.

Gary Santucci

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By TnT (registered) | Posted September 25, 2010 at 08:18:17

Thanks for the clarification, my earlier post did sound a bit inflammatory. Just a rumour I had heard.

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By In_the_Core (registered) | Posted September 26, 2010 at 05:28:13

As a longtime resident of the area, I've got to set a few things straight.

The Community fully supports the Pearl Company. In a few years, they have done more and been the catalyst for more change in the area than Councillor Morelli or the City in the past 20 years.

There are NO noise issues! Never!

There are no parking issues. The Pearl has ALWAYS gone to extremes to insure not only that patrons had a safe place to park, but that neighbours weren't impacted.

Local bars and social clubs are a heavier burden on the area. As a matter of fact, most of the street parking around the Pearl is occupied by social club patrons.

For the first time in years we are seeing families with children coming into the area. We attribute a lot of this to the positive activities and climate of the Pearl.

Comment edited by In_the_Core on 2010-09-26 04:29:27

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