Special Report: Education

Uneducated Thinking

The Board of Education and the City of Hamilton consider squandering heritage and vision for expediency.

By Graham Crawford
Published December 13, 2010

Okay, so the stadium didn't end up in the west harbour. The current buzz I hear is it won't end up anywhere. We're still playing a game of "Guess the Budget" for the Longwood site, and the guesses are getting pretty high. As the circus in the west end continues its run, let's all turn our attention to yet another circus that's also in town.

According to the Spectator, the Board of Education has initiated discussions with the City of Hamilton and McMaster University to sell its downtown site to them for the Braley-sponsored family medical centre they said would be built at Innovation Park.

Located there, one presumes it would have catered to families who drive cars, or who don't mind taking their kids on very long walks, since the MIP site is hardly a public transit hub.

This news item raises a couple of concerns for me.

One - what will happen to the Joe Singer-designed Board of Education building?

Two - what impact will an office building, and its related surface parking, have on our vision for the West Harbour lands the City assembled?

Built Heritage

First, a declared bias. I'm a self-confessed heritage proponent. I value our built heritage as much as I do our social heritage. I embrace the symbolism of civic architecture. Of what it says about the people who chose to build it the way they did, when they did.

The Board of Education building is part of our built and social heritage. To say, "They don't build them like that anymore," is to state the obvious. Joe Singer, a still living Hamilton architect, chose to make a statement about the place learning had in our society.

From its classical Greek allusions, to its pride of place across from our seat of government and next to our Art Gallery and citizen-owned theatre, to its use of timeless and elegant materials of marble and copper, to its evocative statuary, to what it said about Hamilton as the Ambitious City when it was constructed in 1967, the year of Canada's 100th birthday - all contribute to the messages this building expresses so eloquently, that learning is important and education is at the heart of all we do.

Some may remember the debate that took place in early 2008 when the Board of Education first suggested the building was no longer suitable for their needs. Their plan? Although nothing was finalized, it looked as if they were willing to tear it down to make way for "progress".

If you saw the architectural renderings for what kind of progress they had in mind, you would have been permitted to question just how educated our educators were, at least in terms of quality of design and value of built heritage.

Mercifully, for a host of good and bad reasons, the discussions with McMaster broke down and nothing was done. In my admittedly biased heritage opinion, that breakdown had one positive result. We didn't tear down the Education Centre!

West Harbour

Let's fast forward a couple of years to today.

The City of Hamilton, in what later became a misguided belief their partner, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, was on side to build a stadium in the West Harbour, strong-armed the Hamilton Future Fund Board to commit $60 million of Future Fund money, some of which would be used to assemble a parcel of land in the West Harbour.

They used Future Fund money to acquire defunct and healthy businesses, as well as occupied homes. What you see now are vacant and boarded up properties. What you don't see is a stadium.

To see the stadium, you'd have to look skyward because apparently only God knows where, or even whether, it will it be built.

Now that the City of Hamilton has assembled land in the West Harbour for which they have no immediate use, they've been busy talking to the Board of Education about buying the land. It seems our City Manager, Chris Murray, can't get this parcel of land off the books fast enough.

First, he said he wanted to tear down the Rheem building ASAP to show Hamilton was ready for development. Now, he wants to cut a deal to put a single-purpose office building on prime harbour-side land.


I've got one word for Mr. Murray. Vision! As in, where is your vision? I fear a quick sale may have more to do with providing a fast few million dollars to help offset rising projected costs for the Ti-Cat stadium than it does with real fiscal responsibility.

I'm worried. The reasons, perhaps, are obvious. We vacate a grand and elegant heritage building and let it be torn down and replaced with a generic piece of architecture.

You know the kind - a glass box with a clumsily designed protrusion at or near the entrance that purports to be a design statement. Look at the renderings if you're not yet feeling my pain.

As if that weren't egregious enough, we propose to take precious public land on our magnificent harbour and squander it on a generic office building with attached on-site parking that will be empty on weekends and every night after 5 PM.

Like I said, vision! As in, where is it?

Take a Breath

What's my recommendation? Well, I'd start by recommending we take a breath. That we look not at a short-term sale, but instead at a long-term vision. We've already spent the money to acquire the land - "we" being every single citizen in this city.

While I don't want the site to sit vacant for the next 20 years any more than do City Manager Chris Murray or Mayor Bob Bratina, I recommend we focus on articulating a long-term vision for this remarkably precious harbour-side parcel of land.

A vision for the acres of land that overlook our harbour. A vision for the acres of land that connect the harbour to our urban core. A vision which honours this and every future generation of Hamiltonians.

At the moment, that vision appears to be an office building. Really? Why?

Do You See It?

You may already know I'm the guy who put together the You See It video about the stadium in the West Harbour that was featured on the Our City, Our Future website.

Many people loved it. Others didn't. But the common ground for all was that this was an opportunity for Hamilton to do something really important, something lasting as part of the continued redevelopment of our harbour.

People told me they could indeed "see it." What they didn't see was an office building. What they did see was a place for all citizens. Some would live there. Some would play there. Some would do business there. Some would just visit and enjoy.

Once again, Hamilton looks like it might select the "lowest and worst use" choice from a list of "highest and best use" options. Expediency kills greatness. Expediency kills spirit. Expediency kills hope. And vision. And we're about to do it again.

Demand Excellence

Let's stop lowering our goals, silently. Instead, let's demand excellence, loudly.

Let's tell our councillors and our bureaucrats that we do in fact "see it." Let's tell them we are able to see greatness, even if they see only mediocrity. Let's tell them that we see and are inspired by the forest, not just the trees.

And based on past experience, let's be sure to tell them forcefully and often.

As Pier Giorgio Di Cocco, Toronto's Poet Laureate, said so poignantly when speaking at an event in Hamilton, "Our city is a poem we are all writing."

Please, together let's make sure the next few verses in the evolving poem we call Hamilton are as eloquent as we are capable of writing. Let's be sure our love for our city drives us to demand excellence.

Let's not allow those for whom expediency is the measure of success dim our vision.


Graham Crawford was raised in Hamilton, moving to Toronto in 1980 where he spent 25 years as the owner of a successful management consulting firm that he sold in 2000. He retired and moved back to Hamilton in 2005 and became involved in heritage and neighbourhood issues. He opened Hamilton HIStory + HERitage on James North in 2007, a multi-media exhibition space (aka a storefront museum) celebrating the lives of the men and women who have helped to shape the City of Hamilton.


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By hentor (registered) - website | Posted December 13, 2010 at 07:33:12

The last thing this city needs is another glass-clad office tower when there is practically an entire wing of Jackson Square/Hamilton City Centre that lies empty and dormant since the City offices moved back into City Hall and the Stelco Tower lies more than half empty and dormant save for the odd television/movie production. Not to mention the old, boarded up federal building across Bay St and a good number of buildings on King St. East.

Perhaps the City should focus its "vision" on turning over these places to become the family medical center...

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 09:15:59

great piece Graham, over the weekend, upon learning of this news I began to wonder the same thing as you: - what will happen to the beauty school board building? - will the WH now be turned into a mega, one-storey box surrounded by a massive parking lot.

I think you are exactly right in stating that both of these issues are very important. People need to remember that part of Hamilton's identity is found in the collection of buildings downtown that make up 'Civic Square'. Granted, we didn't finish of the 'square' part of it because this city values mega-freeways more than public squares, but nevertheless the architecture of the entire area is amazing. Tear all of that down and we look no different than Burlington or Mississuaga.

As for the harbour, I agree that we need to slow down and stick with the vision of creating a neighbourhood that people will want to live in along with associated amenities. I can see some office space being a part of the mix, along with condos, health clubs, restaurants, patios, parkspace, entertainment/sports venues etc..... but to plop down that uneducated, ridiculous looking plan the board came up with a couple of years ago at the harbour would be a huge blow to this city and our future vision.

Find me anyone who can stand at King and James today and not marvel at the redeveloped Lister Block as it is slowly uncovered. Our AGH and now City Hall has been redeveloped. The Board of Ed building should be next in line, and perhaps we can get rid of the useless 'front lawn' there and replace it with a space more in keeping with the 'civic square' plan that connects to the AGH sculpture court and city hall forecourt.

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By HamiltonFan (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 10:04:25

Graham, excellent read. I'm just curious about the buzz you speak of mentioning that the stadium won't be done in Hamilton. Do you have any sources that you are able to say publicly?

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By Mogadon Megalodon (anonymous) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 10:11:31

Given the Board of Ed’s estimates of renovation costs for the Singer building – if memory serves, an $11m-$22m premium over a $33m suburban site – anyone care to estimate the amount of public money needed to revive 100 Main West? Better yet, can anyone forecast a hypothetical scenario whereby private sector forces can be emboldened to the point when they see our architectural history as having value? Or are we fated to reenact a Lister-style 15-year-turnaround strategy again and again?

Consider for a moment the 50-year economic history of the land mass from Bay to James, Hunter to York. DO a rough tally of public to private investment. Although I would agree that "part of Hamilton's identity is found in the collection of buildings downtown that make up 'Civic Square'", I would say the part of our civic identity is the unfortunate habit of thinking that the massive infusion of city dollars could jumpstart excitement about/private investment in the downtown – that and the legacy of consecutive watering down of utopian blueprints, both of which endure to the present day. You can see the limitations of this practice in the surviving artifacts of the Civic Square era, which produced more monotony than wonder.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 10:13:37

Do you have any sources that you are able to say publicly?

Well, there's that whole, 70 million dollars short bit no one seems to know what to do about.

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By HamiltonFan (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 10:18:18

I realize that nobrainer but I think Graham was alluding to something he may have heard from someone in-the-know that it won't be done. Perhaps.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 10:25:50

I can't speak for Mr. Crawford but I think basic thing is it won't be built, not unless a truck load of money drops on our laps. Since there's no truck load of money there'll be no stadium...

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By AntiProgress (anonymous) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 10:47:16

Two-way street conversions, lrt, dowtown waterfront stadium, cycling network... And I could go on.
It's obvious that if you have vision in this city you're seen as some sort of kook who is out of touch with 'Hamilton's realities' (as some old timer's may put it). Face it, if you have vision for a better downtown Hamilton, consider yourself out of a job (Fred).

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted December 13, 2010 at 11:01:26


I won't mention sources, but I will say that nobrainer has it exactly right.

There are NO, as in zero, private sector investors who have come forward. The costs for acquisition, not to mention relocation of an active business with specific/unique requirements including direct rail access to the facility, are still being negotiated. I'm led to believe that the numbers already mentioned ($55 million) are merely the beginning and that they are moving up quickly.

The Feds have said no to more money than that already allocated.

The Ti-Cats are in for $8-10 million over 10 years (they should live that long).

That leaves only two remaining investors. The Province and the City of Hamilton.

Budget deliberations begin today at the municipal level. Mayor Bratina wants to keep property tax increases at zero, or as close to zero as possible. Even if the Province steps forward with another $25-40 million, it's still not nearly enough. And even if they do pony up $25-40 million, what do you think the implications will be for any other "gifts" from the Province in the short term? The question Council and senior bureaucrats are wrestling with is, "Do we risk using up a lot of financial favours from the Province to keep the Ti-Cats in business?"

No matter how you feel about the Ti-Cats, that is, in my opinion, a very fair question to ask.

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By HamiltonFan (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 11:07:16

It is a fair question H+H, I agree. Of course I could say another fair question might be is it worth spending money to be able to bring Grey Cups to Hamilton that have generated in the order of $60 mill in spending by fans and tourists for the cities of Edmonton and Calgary for the last 2 Grey Cups? Albeit Hamilton doesn't have the hotel rooms that would see nearly this money as cities like Edmonton and Calgary have. Certainly without being able to host financially very positive Grey Cups, then forget building a stadium in Hamilton.

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By PseudonymousCoward (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 11:19:37

There are NO, as in zero, private sector investors who have come forward.

Why would they? The CP land arrangement is designed to funnel all the private-sector money directly into the Ticats' own spinoff properties. By refusing to share and cock-blocking any broader economic benefit (the same reason, incidentally, they vetoed the West Harbour), they've sabotaged their own salvation. The sooner Council pulls the plug on this fiasco, the better.

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By HamiltonFan (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 11:27:24

I think council will pull the plug on the stadium Pseudo. And this doesn't mean it's necessarily a bad thing for some of us CFL fans in the area, far from it actually. But that's a different issue and better to be discussed at cfl.ca as it's not really pertinent to this discussion.

Comment edited by HamiltonFan on 2010-12-13 10:27:56

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted December 13, 2010 at 11:44:37

I must say, my sympathies lie with Mogadon Megalodon. "Civic Square" is a disaster worthy of sending a time-travelling cyborg back in time to prevent. These buildings - the AGH, School Board, City Hall, Copps, the Market etc - all woefully inadequate, all in need of major repairs, all sporting "avant-guarde" 60s and 70s architecture which, at this point, is largely just embarrassing. I feel the same way I did about City Hall - not all wines improve with age. "Heritage" needs to mean more than "30+ years old".

We can learn a lot of important lessons here. Don't knock down a neighborhood for some fancy, expensive, megaproject and the associate parking. Don't assume office, store, retail or stadium space will be filled simply because we build it. Don't try to look ultra-modern or you're just going to look really really silly a decade down the road. And don't assume that by spending tons of cash on construction, long-term economic benefits will follow.

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted December 13, 2010 at 11:48:30


Rather than spend all this money on a stadium for a couple of Grey Cups over a 10 year period, here are some more questions for us to consider.

What if we took the $60 million from the Future Fund and bought $60 million dollars worth of real estate in the core? The Royal Connaught, old Federal Building, Stelco Tower, some or all of the buildings that line Gore Park? All of them?

What if the city allocated $40 million to refurbish as many of them as $40 million would permit? What if they turned around and sold them to the highest bidder? What if we implemented the well-considered Gore Master Plan to enhance our real estate holdings?

Or better still, what if they went into partnership with some real developers, versus the bunch of speculators who only have enough money to buy properties but never enough to develop them?

What if we could get the Province to invest $25 million in the scheme? What if we took the lead in kick-starting development partnerships that weren't based on hand outs, but rather on a reasonable ROI for investors?

What if we paid a true rainmaker (rather than a naive bureaucrat who may be good on process but who lacks vision and deal making savvy) and paid him or her either a flat fee and/or a bonus based on re-sale price of refurbished real estate?

What if we took the profits of such a venture and plowed every single nickel of those profits into soil remediation on the West Harbour site? What if we then put together a consortium of developers who bought into a master plan for the West Harbour lands that the citizens of Hamilton now own, that allowed them to make a fair return while at the same time helping us to build something more than a generic, and mostly lights-out office building on a premier site overlooking our remarkable harbour?

What if we told the Ti-Cats that they are holding the people of Hamilton back from creating the kind of Hamilton many of us can see? (the kind of city AntiProgress says he/she can see)

What if we started to think bold thoughts instead of insipid ones?

What if?

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By HamiltonFan (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 12:00:27

H=H, the city of Hamilton is in deeper dire straits than I could ever have imagined if, as you say, the a Canadian Football League team in the TiCats "are holding the people of Hamilton back from creating the kind of Hamilton many of us can see." Let's just hope that the TiCats are really not that important to the city's economic renewal. My goodness.

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted December 13, 2010 at 12:23:51


From where I sit, $125 - $140 million is a great deal of public money. We seem to be bending over backwards to try to get the Ti-Cats to partner with us to spend it. I've never been a proponent of a stadium as a catalyst for downtown renewal, but I have been a proponent of ensuring the money we seem determined to spend on a stadium provides the highest and best use of our money in terms of the vitalization of downtown, and Hamilton as a whole.

The only reason we can't seem to combine both (stadium and downtown vitality) is because the Ti-Cats don't want to share our vision, only our wallet.

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By HamiltonFan (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 12:46:35

If that's the case as you allude to in your last paragraph that indeed, the TigerCats are that crucial to develop this essential vision for downtown vitality, as you say, then I would say it was the city's responsibility to purchase the team when it was up for sale so that someone like a Bob Young couldn't "sabotage" the city's vision with the team and the stadium. There is nothing agains't community ownership of teams in professional sports leagues like the CFL and NFL.

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By TomRobertson (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 13:01:34

Do we need a palace for the school board or functional office space? How much empty space is there in schools now where some board departments could be located resulting with a smaller headquarters needed? What would the cost be to renovate Scott Park High school or any of the schools on the closure list into the headquarters? No property purchases would be involved. If the will is to locate it at the west harbour it should be off to the side. The old city yard across from rheem comes to mind. It's the taxpayers money the Board will be spending. Let's see how much they care for us.

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By Build the Stadium (anonymous) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 13:27:28

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By PseudonymousCoward (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 13:40:33

I see the RTH ploy

The "RTH ploy" in a nutshell: if we are spending Future Fund money, the stadium should have public benefits. If the stadium does not have public benefits, we should not spend the Future Fund on it.

So dastardly!

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By George (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 14:01:01

@TomRobertson - Scott Park is now the National Art College of Canada. http://www.nationalartcollege.ca/About-N...

Does the B of Ed need a new building? As mentioned, there is plenty of vacant office space in Stelco tower.

Or couldn't they build an addition on the site of their current parking lot, thus keeping the Singer building intact and occupied?

Please,please,please DO NOT put an office building at the WH lands.

Here's an idea (I know, I'm dreaming) - Build the perimiter road, so there would be two "quick" ways across town ( LINC is the other), build the stadium at WH, convert both Main and King to 2-way and build LRT.

There you have it. A livable, walkable downtown, a WH stadium with road access and visibility, satisfied drivers, and an LRT that will transform the urban core.

Comment edited by George on 2010-12-13 13:02:57

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By billn (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 14:18:08

I believe I read back in 2008 that Singer designed and constructed the building in such a way that an additional tower could be built on the existing footprint. Sounds like some vision!

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By George (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 14:29:51

Taken froma Spec article found at: http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread...

Scroll down to a post by STEELTOWN on Oct 27th, 2007 at 1:15 a.m.

"...Singer believes the board of ed can successfully renovate and expand its present headquarters. About 250 people work in the building today. The board says it needs space for 604.

Those jobs are gold for the core and there's no reason to send them to the suburbs. Singer says he designed the building to easily accommodate a six-storey wing on the north side."

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 14:32:26

There are NO, as in zero, private sector investors who have come forward.

What are you talking about Graham? Whitestar came forward. Molinaro came forward. Gehry was in the mix. Katz may have been in the mix. McMaster Investments was involved.....

Oh, sorry, my bad. You're talking about the "other" site.
I was talking about the site that actually DID work, and actually DID have private interest and DID have great spinoffs etc..... sorry for the confusion :)

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 15:47:03

It's interesting the difference in what happens when a project is geared to benefit a specific individual and when it's geared to benefit a community.

Funny about that, eh?

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By Mogadon Megalodon (anonymous) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 16:25:58

Thanks for the link, George – that’s the cost structure I remembered. The two-building option seems to be the $55m option. Interesting that the story refers to the fact that "trustees heard three of four options"... wonder what that would be?

Those 600+ public sector salaries would certainly be a boon for the core in terms of business meals, coffee breaks and catering (underground parking presumably comped to employees), but they won't necessarily be captured as residents – there's nothing to stop them from driving out of the core at day's end, especially given the excellent highway access. Still, it saves a building, and since it's already got more square footage than Lister and the Board of Ed will actually own the site, it should compare favourably.

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By HamiltonFan (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 16:29:16

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Comment edited by HamiltonFan on 2010-12-13 15:41:58

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 18:11:48

"Build the perimiter road, so there would be two "quick" ways across town ( LINC is the other), build the stadium at WH, convert both Main and King to 2-way and build LRT."

If the perimter road doesn't cut off access to the harbour front and doesn't detract from the park lands, I think the above sounds great.

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By kevin (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 18:14:18

Antiprogress: you nailed it.

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By George (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 18:32:56

@SpaceMonkey - I think the idea was for the perimeter road to be "hidden" below grade along the tracks so therefore it would not interfere with existing pedestrian and road access.

I think it would be a fair trade if it resulted in the two way conversion of both Main and King, and a stadium at West Harbour.

It would also alleviate traffic concerns by LRT taking up limited road space on King.

Main and King would no longer need to be the expressways they are now.

Comment edited by George on 2010-12-13 17:38:28

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted December 13, 2010 at 19:05:42

I totally agree George. I know the rules of RTH are to not simply just agree without offering much else. In this situation though, I think it's important for me to express my agreement because a lot of people here have the wrong impression of me.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted December 14, 2010 at 01:15:37

The irony is delicious.

And speaking of Mr. Katz, love these lines in an article in the Edmonton Sun. Dead on. Hamilton and now Quebec City are being used as guinea pigs for Mr. Katz to get the deal he wants in Edmonton:

"Consequently, for the second time, a plan that inevitably is designed to further enrich the richest man in Edmonton is bolstered with the use of a scare tactic. Last time, it was Hamilton. Perhaps next time it will be Quebec again, or maybe Winnipeg.

Give it up, Mr. Katz. The future of the Oilers’ arena project must be decided by the citizens of Edmonton, so that it suits the greater good and the greater purpose.

These kinds of shenanigans don’t exactly endear your side of the debate to the public."

Apparently we like these shenanigans in Hamilton, but not in Edmonton.

Katz is a jerk but Young is a hero. Who's drinking the koolaid?

Comment edited by Brandon on 2010-12-14 00:16:30

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted December 14, 2010 at 01:33:57

There really isn't anywhere to put a perimeter road that wouldn't seriously interfere with either rail, trails or homes. Add to that the serious complications with the already hair-raising highway interchanges (somebody a while ago cited this as the reason it didn't go through) in that section already, and the already very crowded nexus at the Desjardins canal.

And in any case, more roads draw more traffic. Devoting another huge chunk of change to urban highways is not going to decrease the vehicle strain on our roads.

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By George (registered) | Posted December 14, 2010 at 08:32:33

@Undustrial - Agreed, but, as I said, it would hopefully mean less resistance to the "redesign" and slowing down of King and Main. Is such a pie-in-the-sky idea worth it, if it meant a "slow" and pedestrian friendly King and Main? And furthermore, it would be a much easier decision to take away lanes for LRT. There would be much less resistence to idea of not having the east-west traffic flow impeded. What essentially happens is that the current "expressway traffic" we now see on King and Main would be diverted and "hidden" away from downtown.

I think that would go a long way in creating the livable downtown we seek by "decreasing the vehicle strain on our roads", as you say, in the downtown core.

Alleviating Bob Young's stadium access and visibilty concerns would be a bonus, and would allow us to spend our FF on the downtown and draw at least quarter miilion people a year there, as well as showcase our city and its waterfront to regular, national TV audience.

I'm not so sure there isn't room for it down by the tracks. There's lots of room down there. I could be wrong, and again, being below grade would lessen any impact on housing for the few blocks to Wellington.

I could be mistaken, but I thought the two main reasons for cancelling the perimeter road were:

1) The LINC ended up being the East-West link between the 403 and QEW, and... 2) cost.

As far as a bottleneck at the Desjardins canal, I don't know about that. I'm sure anything can be done if it can be paid for which i believe is the single biggest stumbling block.

I think it allows for many of the urban friendly changes being discussed here as of late.

Comment edited by George on 2010-12-14 07:35:16

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted December 14, 2010 at 08:41:56

I am having a hard time finding office space vacancy rates in Hamilton. After reading this post I've google'd it a few times but I can't find anything current. If anyone knows the vacancy rates for A, B and C class space could you please post them. Thank you.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted December 14, 2010 at 10:21:45

While the old building is now a historical structure with unique architecture and that muddies the water a bit... can I ask why the Board has a purpose-build building in the first place? Why isn't the bureaucracy simply renting downtown office space at the market rate?

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 14, 2010 at 10:53:54

I like the idea of a 6 storey addition behind the current Board building. Whether it's Mac or the Board who builds it I could care less. Just to throw another thought into the discussion, a new office building is being built in Toronto's waterfront:


I could certainly live with an 8 storey building designed by a great architect with a cafe and waterfront restaurant at our WH. However, as Graham has pointed out, the school board showed the type of imagination usually displayed by Walmart and Zellers when it unveiled plans for their new HQ on the Mountain. A big box surrounded by a parking lot. The city owns WH land and needs to ensure that any development going there is among the most urbane, ped-friendly, attractive and multi-use as possible.

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted December 14, 2010 at 11:21:01

Many larger municipalities have erected single-purpose buildings for their Boards of Education over the past 50+ years. Toronto, Hamilton, even North York.

Hamilton, and others, also built Public Health buildings and Utilities/Hydro buildings as well. The Stanley Roscoe-designed Public Health Building was (is) on Hunter across from the current Go Station. It has been modified and is now an office building with a law firm as its prime tenant.

While I have not done any research as to why this practice was adopted, I've read enough to know that it was largely symbolic. Those public departments that were deemed to be significant in terms of value to/impact on the general public were often given stand-alone buildings. As to the Education Centre, this was built during the years when soon-to-be future Premier Bill Davis was the highly visible, popular and well-respected Minister of Education for the province. He was Minister of Education from 1962-1971. He put a lot of provincial money into education. Perhaps this fact contributed to the Hamilton Board of Education commissioning a somewhat grand structure for itself and its citizens?

The Feds have been doing the same thing since we've had the Feds. The old, and now boarded up, Federal Building at Bay and Caroline is an example. So is the old Post Office, now Courthouse. If we adopted the "put them in any space that's available/affordable" approach to housing civil servants, I fear we'd be looking only at generic, cheapest-possible-to-construct buildings rather than the few architectural gems we still have to look at. The new Federal Building on Bay is a perfect example of efficient and stultifyingly bland architecture. It neither makes a statement about the importance of the work going on inside, nor to strength or solidity of the owner/tenant - the Canadian government.

No matter the reason, the fact is the Board of Education building is an iconic building. Some may not appreciate its style, but it's a remarkable piece of modern architecture that tips its hat, albeit a modern one, to the classical and neo-classical movements.

Some people don't like/get Stan Roscoe's City Hall design. Others see it as a high quality example of the International Style of architecture. I admit I'm one of them. Its attention to detail, use of materials, and its assembly of exterior and interior volumes is considered by many current architects to be exceptional. You don't need to agree, any more than we all need to agree on whether the Mona Lisa is a better painting than Monet's Waterlillies, or Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Can. The fact is, they are all examples of art of their time. Which of these three pieces of art would you shred if you were told you had to pick one because it would be more efficient if you did? Why?

In my view, I don't mind paying more for high quality civic architecture. Certainly in Hamilton, the private sector isn't building anything important any more. In Hamilton, when glass curtain walls don't rule, stucco does. It's not only is cheap, it looks cheap. Mediocrity should not be our standard. At least I don't want it to be the standard by which I judge the quality of my civic institutions, whether that be where they are housed or how they provide the services they're mandated to provide. Combining both, in my view, is a goal worth considering.

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By LoveIt (anonymous) | Posted December 14, 2010 at 12:13:42

"Combining both, in my view, is a goal worth considering."

Absolutely way to go, as you can get the best of both.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted December 14, 2010 at 15:33:44

While I agree that architectural taste is somewhat subjective, we really need to start examining some of these structures along stricter lines. Is the City Centre (Eatons Centre) an example of public art circa 1990? In another twenty years will Heritage advocates be trying to save it?

The fact that the thing looks a little like a 1960s film set aside, the the Board of Ed bulding makes very little use of the property's footprint, most being totally unused "greenspace" and a parking lot. One could say the same of the the new Federal Building (though not the previous two, both some of the better examples of architecture downtown).

If you were new to Hamilton, or just visiting your old steelworker friend who suddenly has lots of time on his hands, which buildings would really impress you? The courthouse. The Pigott building. The Wright House. A number of the Churches and a whole bunch of streets like James North would easily do it. But most of the big, iconic building projects of the last 50 years - Jackson Square, the convention centre, all the Effort Trust/Homestead concrete towers...not so much. They're ugly, and while budget concrete & steel construction might be imposing if we were the only ones who did it, but we aren't, and it isn't. The fact that so many of these buildings fall into serious disrepair within decades is no surprise - if it's cheaper to build a new structure than maintain an old one, there's something seriously wrong.

Once upon a time, we built things to last and to age gracefully. Why did we stop? And how do we get back to that point?

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted December 14, 2010 at 18:00:51


You make a number of really good points, the last of which is, "Once upon a time, we built things to last and to age gracefully. Why did we stop? And how do we get back to that point?"

I think we stopped because developers and municipal bureaucrats and politicians all seem to put money ahead of lasting contribution to society. Joe Piggot didn't build the Pigott building the way he did or where he did because it was cheaper. He built it that way because it made a statement about Pigott Construction and Hamilton. And remember, he built it during the Depression. The old City Hall, the one they tore down at Market and James North didn't need to be made of limestone and have a copper-topped clock tower, but it said something about Hamilton and its citizens.

I'm with you about bad art and bad architecture. We have a lot of it. Jackson Square is one of them. So too is the City Centre, a misguided and poorly executed pastiche of all the worst of post-modernism designed after PoMo had already been criticized for its poor design and construction. It's junk. Was then. Is now. Always will be. I know of no heritage advocate who will fight to keep it. Informed citizens don't fight to keep junk just because its old. Certainly, we can debate the qualities of a particular building is, but I suspect we would have no debate over what is simply bad architecture.

The Board of Education Building looks like it's from a 60's movie set because it is. 1967 to be exact. That doesn't make it bad, even if some people don't particularly love it. Presumably somebody said the same thing about the old City Hall in order to make a case to tear it down. The people who come in to Hamilton HIStory + HERitage to talk to me about Hamilton, many of them steelworkers (some old and friendly as you suggest), all regret its demise. Not a single person has said to me that demolition was a good thing. I can tell you that dearly departed Jack MacDonald, long time Councillor and Mayor, hated it. As I have been told, he led the charge to tear it down. I, and apparently many others, would beg to differ. But it's gone forever. Heritage buildings don't all have to have curved window tops and stone lintels to be heritage buildings. Styles change. Quality shouldn't. I think your point about aging gracefully is right on the money.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 14, 2010 at 18:39:26

Didn't Jack McDonald call the old City Hall (or was it Birks?) "ugly as sin"??

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By highwater (registered) | Posted December 14, 2010 at 18:48:56

He built it that way because it made a statement about Pigott Construction and Hamilton.

...and the country. The Pigott building was the tallest building in the Commonwealth when it was built. Canada was still a relatively young and self-conscious country at that time. J.M. was very much cognizant of the fact that he was building a nation, in fact he published a book at about the same time entitled Building in Stone, in which he argued that stone was the most appropriate building material for a rising nation rich in natural resources. Oh for the days when builders and architects (and engineers!) built with legacy and meaning in mind.

I'm with you about bad art and bad architecture. We have a lot of it. Jackson Square is one of them.

Hey! Don't let JS's dreadful city-killing function blind you to its great form. Seriously. Stand on King William facing west toward JS and the City Centre one of these days. When you see them together, in the awkward spot where they were forcibly married, JS's handsome simplicity and vast superiority is immediately apparent. It's a fine example of the International Style, and a perfect partner for the Stelco Tower.

Comment edited by highwater on 2010-12-14 17:58:59

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted December 15, 2010 at 02:12:50

Pigott construction also built the new City Hall, which has been literally falling apart for decades now. There was a big scandal, if I remember correctly, after one of those marble slabs dropped off and nearly squashed a councillor. Even within the same companies, this is an alarming trend and it's been working for a while. For the record, I do think the HWDSB is a much more tasteful building than the new City Hall, Convention Centre, Art Gallery or the Mall(s).

When I pass buildings these days, I'm literally scared by some of the quality of construction I see. Railings which once were cast iron now are made of sheet steel and aluminium scarcely thicker than beer cans. Exteriors once done in brick and stone are now simulated with styrofoam and stucco. Things which once lasted generations now barely last a childhood. And sure, it saves money in the short run. But how many times must you replace something before you realise that it might have been worth building to last in the first place? I mean, if we want to provide construction jobs...

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By Mogadon Megalodon (anonymous) | Posted December 15, 2010 at 09:35:36

It would be interesting to determine the relative scale of the public sector workforce 50 years ago as compared to today. That, to me, seems entirely germane to the matter of whether or not we should be investing in symbolic buildings to house the bureaucratic bodies of various public sector agencies. I would imagine that Singer’s Board of Ed was built at a time when private sector employers were far more thick on the ground than they are today, but I can’t put any stats to that hunch.

I understand that the state will probably always invest in architectural symbolism (that was especially true in the ideologically fraught Cold War era), but the province doesn’t really do that to the same extent and certainly by the time you’re getting down to the local/regional level the showbiz budget should have mostly dried up. I’m not unsympathetic to the argument that Graham is making, and I do see beauty in 71/100 Main West (even Stelco Tower as the sun rises and sets... but my aesthetic charity doesn't extend to JS's plate-peastone bunker), but again I ask: Can anyone forecast a hypothetical scenario whereby private sector forces can be emboldened to the point when they see our architectural history as having value? Because if the answer is no, it seems to me that sooner or later we will have to get used to goodbyes.

Unindustrial: “Once upon a time, we built things to last and to age gracefully. Why did we stop? And how do we get back to that point?”

Off the top of my head, I think it is a matter of two things: A value-driven public sector and a risk-averse private sector. It’s hard to calculate the ROI of architectural grandeur, and if it isn’t inherently important to you, you don’t see the point in investing in it.

On the whole, I would say that the public sector, ever responsive to the temperament of the electorate, is simply mirroring private sector priorities. In the easternmost tip of Gore Park, out front of where Pino Fagnilli used to keep shop in the storefronts of the Connaught, there’s an historical plaque that tribute to the Five Johns – the bold captains of industry who branded Hamilton as “The Electric City” and fuelled its rapid industrial expansion a century ago. They owned and/or ran railways (inter-city, intra-city and incline) and power companies, their corporate interests ran to lumber, textile, agricultural and industrial concerns and a couple of them held provincial offices, including a legislature seat, Attorney General of Ontario, Lieutenant-Governor. This was all in the third act of what were generally distinguished lives:


It has become fashionable to give fortunes to hospitals and universities, but back in the day the priority was city-building, and the criteria attached to things built in that era were somewhat different than they are in a shell-shocked foreign-owned manufacturing city taking baby steps into a post-industrial age. (Admittedly, some of the earlier economies – a more ethnically and religiously homogeneous society that was ignorant of environmental costs, for example, and to exploit labour, some of it indentured – are not available to us today.) Quarterly earnings reports were not an altar on which they sacrificed first-borns. They saw things differently.

Civilizations build monuments in defiance of time, but we are a society in thrall to the stopwatch.

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By Mogadon Megalodon (anonymous) | Posted December 15, 2010 at 09:54:46

As a post-script, I wonder if the shift in priorities isn't also somewhat reflective of the priorities of a knowledge-based economy – when we privilege the ephemeral, make millions off of zeroes and ones and smear the workplace across borders and hemispheres, maybe it's no surprise that material artifacts don't occupy the same place in our imaginations. (Google's Mountain View campus, for example, is a sweet place to work but it arguably has the architectural DNA of a shopping mall.)

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted December 15, 2010 at 10:01:10

Mogadon Megalodon

Great post.

Corporations have narrowed their focus over the past 30 years, it seems to me. In the past, many of them were focused on making money for shareholders over the long term and in investing in communities. Today, far too many of them focus on share price in the short term at the exclusion of almost everything else.

I experienced this exact thing when the company that bought mine was in turn purchased by a billion dollar plus U.S.-based education company. With one year left on my "golden handcuffs" contract, and as a member of the senior management team, we had to sit through weekly conference calls with the California-based executives and talked about share value and never once about community. It was soul-destroying. How not to promote self-fulfillment in your job.

Thankfully there are still people like Jeff Feswick, owner of Historia Building Restoration, who just purchased Treble Hall on John Street and who will be restoring it, ensuring this important piece of built heritage lives on. He sees it as an investment in real estate and in community. What a concept!

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By Mogadon Megalodon (anonymous) | Posted December 15, 2010 at 10:30:19

Hats off to Mr. Feswick, definitely. Too bad we don't have a dozen other historical restoration execs willing to tackle projects based on long-term conviction and personal passion.

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By HardKnocks (anonymous) | Posted December 16, 2010 at 21:22:40

I find it odd all this for a building with a fate yet to be decided, when Sandford Avenue School is nearing its date with the wrecking ball. Why not put up a defence for this building? Why not use Sandford as a template, a practice run, a success to then replicate with the BoE building.

Mark my words, if demolished Sandford is demolished without opposition it will be one more step in the Board of Ed's track record of removing our institutional architechural heritage, and making the BoE building that much more disposable.

Take a look at beauty of the building; http://www.flickr.com/photos/metro_images/3122580812/, in an area that needs projects that realize revitalization.

In Toronto the Shaw Street School is being repurposed and turned into condos by Artscape, http://torontoist.com/2010/03/shaw_street_school.php. In our crazy city we seem to feel that revitalization and employment creation starts with the demolition firms.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 20, 2010 at 10:03:15

you have to be kidding me. They're proposing to demolish that building?? They tried to demolish Stinson but public outcry saved it. Perhaps it's time for the same thing to happen again. For all the talk on this forum recently of needing affordable living spaces and artists spaces, why would we even think of demolishing this building? What is the board planning on doing with the site? A parking lot?

Everything on RTH ties in together. 2 decades of being a satellite city of somewhere else has led to little investment in the old city. We're dragging on LRT, allowing sports teams to derail brownfield waterfront renewal and generally focusing our efforts on the periphery of town. I'm guessing this school in Toronto or Montreal would be re-purposed and would be beautiful. Much like Stinson will be. A sad day if we do lose another great building like this.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted December 20, 2010 at 14:30:56

In terms of building quality, I see the following factors driving the trends we're talking about:

  • Administration costs - housing/building costs have risen a fair bit in the past three or four decades, but structure costs (actually building it) haven't, and neither have wages. What has gone up is the price for lawyers, real estate agents, banks and city bureacrats. This puts a tremendous pressure on builders to cut corners and shave costs.

  • Availability of capital - James Howard Kunstler basically relates all of America's economic growth since 1950 to sprawl, and while I don't totally agree, he still makes a valid point. Between mortgages, public and private construction, development corporations, as well as the myriad jobs needed for people to pay for this, housing drives our economy. And if this fast-paced orgy of construction were to slow, it would have disasterous effects on other industries which have come to depend on it (see the mortgage meltdown). We've painted ourselves into a corner where we need to keep building "or else", and at this point, the only way people see to do this is to start purposely building things to quickly need replacement.

  • Awful Accounting. Our systems of currency and economics do not recognize the benefits of well-built structures. There is no accounting of what such buildings do for others around them (unless you own a neighbouring property). Because construction costs tend to be multiplied many times over by intrest and administration costs, their actual savings (ie: better insulation and lower gas bills) don't save any money. Worst of all, because of the real estate speculation market, it often pays much better to simply let a building rot, or build a "placeholder" like downtown's many parking lots, until the area "picks up" and they can build a high-end condominium or hotel.

  • Class and poverty: if we can't afford to build quality, lasting housing for wealthy individuals (and there's more than a few condos around, like the Chateau Royale, which demonstrate this), how are we supposed to do for the vast majority of people in this town which can barely afford their homes as is? Stagnating real wages, overy exactly the same time that building prices (and not structure costs) have gone through the roof, mean that people are far less able to afford "good architecture" in new buildings.

It's more expensive to build, and people have far less money to afford it. How else would this turn out?

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