Special Report: Education

100 Main Street West: We Deserve a Better Solution

If we're going to build a second tower on the back of City Hall, why not use that tower to house city offices which we're currently leasing elsewhere?

By Matt Jelly
Published January 29, 2012

For the past year or so, I've been vocally opposed to a plan by the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board and McMaster University that would see McMaster purchase the School Board headquarters at 100 Main Street West, and demolish the building to make way for a proposed Downtown Health Campus.

The City of Hamilton has contributed a $20 Million grant to the project, as well as an above-market long term lease to house the Public Health department in the new development, valued at $27 million over 30 years.

Board of Education Building (Image Credit: Matt Jelly)
Board of Education Building

What I'm not opposed to is the concept of the Health Campus itself. I'm one of many people who would love to see McMaster finally play a larger role in our downtown. I've always felt McMaster could play a progressive role in the ongoing efforts to revitalize our downtown core.

Considering the many great examples of adaptive reuse and heritage preservation that exist on McMaster's own campus, I always thought McMaster could play a role as a major tenant in one of many vacant and underutilized buildings downtown.

I guess my expectation of our City's foremost educational institution is at the heart of my disappointment with the proposed development.

With all of its considerable resources, McMaster has decided the best way to arrive as a major player in our downtown is to do what our civic leaders already do so well: knock down another beautiful building that could just as feasibly be restored, incorporated and adapted for ongoing use. Failing that, we also have countless acres of underperforming vacant lots and parking lots that could be filled in with new development.

There's no shortage of places McMaster could develop, especially since the City of Hamilton itself is paying for half of their tab on this project. But they've made up their mind - they want to knock down the building at 100 Main Street West, seemingly no matter what the public has to say or wants to know about it.

After a while, I feel like I'm beating my head against a wall when it comes to trying to convince seemingly otherwise smart and well-intentioned people that demolition doesn't have to be the default option when it comes to redeveloping the downtown core.

Why Does it Matter?

When I try to advocate for the preservation of any building, people ask me why it matters. I suppose I've tried to establish myself as someone who fights for what's important, the fundamental issues that Hamilton needs to overcome. So people ask me, why do buildings matter? Why is heritage important? When Hamilton is facing other enormous challenges, why does it matter whether a building is torn down?

And then they say the same old thing: You know, we can't save every building.

I've heard the phrase countless times, every time I suggest that a building should be restored rather than flattened and thrown into the landfill. Those who say it like to pretend that we normally do a good job of preserving our building stock.

Those who say it never actually want to save any buildings, and the phrase is a handy way for them to shrug it off and be thoughtless.

Tell me if I'm wrong, but this is what I've seen Hamilton do, time and time again: We unanimously complain and agree that Hamilton needs to move forward, to live up to it's potential, to once and for all shake off whatever atrophy that has hung over the City like a dark cloud for too many decades. I know this frustration because I listen carefully to what my fellow Hamiltonians say.

In that frustration, we get excited about ONE BIG THING that we think will make that frustration go away somehow. We're a city that desperately wants to believe in a silver bullet.

In the 1960s and '70s, we lost entire blocks of buildings, hundreds of homes and businesses expropriated and demolished to make way for Jackson Square and York Boulevard.

In the '80s, we thought it wise to build a giant new arena to house our inevitable NHL franchise.

In the '90s, an old Big Idea gained traction in The Red Hill Creek expressway; we spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build eight kilometres of highway through the last large natural area in the East end.

In 2010, we spent an entire year fighting one another over what part of town the next Big Thing would go.

We do it again and again - we gamble away our long-term assets for short term gain. We fall in love with well-drawn concept sketches and unsubstantiated claims. We decide we need to destroy something in order to create something.

Here We Go Again

McMaster and the School Board may be on the verge of striking a deal which would see the Board vacate 100 Main Street West and McMaster demolish the building.

Board of Education Building
Board of Education Building

The school board will either move to a location on the property where Crestwood school currently stands, sending 450 Board of Education jobs to a residential neighbourhood, where the only retail environment in proximity is Limeridge Mall, where conglomerates paying minimum wage will enjoy all of the economic spinoff.

Two buildings will be crushed into the ground, and two expensive boxes of glass will replace them.

Preservation Not Seriously Considered

Preservation has never been seriously considered.

In November 2007, the Board was considering several options for what to do with 100 Main Street West, and to address the issue of accommodating their staff - which for some reason needs more space, even though enrollment in the public board is steadily in decline.

The board was presented with a number of concepts, one of which was restoring and adapting their current headquarters. The staff report estimated that this concept would cost $65 million. However, that number included an addition onto the building, as well as underground parking - suggesting that the actual cost of restoring the building itself is much less than $65 million.

The staff report is not included in the minutes of the November 5, 2007 Committee of the Whole meeting at which it was presented. I've asked the board several times since July 2011 to supply me with that staff report, and that request has been repeatedly ignored.

I believe we need to see the cost breakdown of this estimate, and know for certain how much it would cost to preserve and incorporate this building into any new development.

Behind Closed Doors

Just recently, the Ombudsman of Ontario publicly admonished-for-web.pdf) [PDF] Hamilton City Council for holding a meeting last June 27, 2011 behind closed doors.

At this meeting, five McMaster representatives had the luxury of presenting their plans for the Downtown Health Campus to councillors in private, asking for a grant of $20 million towards their project from city coffers.

Even though City staff warned councillors that they were wrong to be in camera on this item, they proceeded behind closed doors anyway.

This plan has seen many permutations over the years, but not once has anyone meaningfully forwarded the concept of the current Board of Education building be incorporated into the development - that option has never been examined at any length.

We hear it all the time from councillors who are frustrated that we make decisions not based on all of the information and evidence, but rather on what is politically expedient. But, here we are again.

We have a bubble around us in Hamilton that seems to block out any sort of progressive development mentality. And until we pop that bubble, the cloud of atrophy will still hang over us, no matter how many buildings we destroy or how many boxes of glass we manage to build underneath it.

A Second Tower at City Hall

A new idea has been forwarded to prevent the Board of Education from leaving the downtown core, by Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr - to build a second tower on City Hall to lease out to the school board.

Councillor Farr introduced this idea as a notice of motion at the January 25, 2012 meeting of City Council, in which he points out that City Hall was designed with foundations already built for a second tower.

While I appreciate Councillor Farr's effort to keep the Board of Education in the downtown core, I feel he's on the wrong side of Main Street on this issue. This plan would still mean we're demolishing the Board Headquarters at 100 Main Street West, and the City would be aiding and abetting that senseless demolition entirely with public dollars.

Maybe Farr's idea is not completely without merit: If we're going to build a second tower on the back of City Hall, why not use that tower to house city offices which we're currently leasing elsewhere?

Rather than pay an above-market lease in the new McMaster development to house public health, we'd be far better off to house public health in the proposed second tower.

The Board of Education can be McMaster's anchor tenant, and Public Health can still enjoy the synergy of proximity to the Downtown Health Campus.

One Solution Makes Sense

I believe only one solution makes sense: for the Board of Education and McMaster to enter a partnership at 100 Main Street West, one that sees the current building restored and incorporated into a Downtown Health Campus on the large lot on the North side of the building facing King.

It's the only solution that both keeps the Board of Education in the core, and doesn't involve unnecessary demolition of a civic landmark.

But it can only happen with the Ministry of Education's approval of a partnership, and time is running out. It's time to give this option the consideration it deserves.

Please contact your School Board Trustee, your City Councillor and most importantly, the Minister of Education Laurel Broten and McMaster President Patrick Deane.

Tell them it's time for McMaster and the School Board to rethink this project entirely.


Or just simply copy and paste this to the address line:

tim.simmons@hwdsb.on.ca, robert.barlow@hwdsb.on.ca, studenttrustee@hwdsb.on.ca, judith.bishop@hwdsb.on.ca, ray.mulholland@hwdsb.on.ca, todd.white@hwdsb.on.ca, laura.peddle@hwdsb.on.ca, lillian.orban@hwdsb.on.ca, wes.hicks@hwdsb.on.ca, alex.johnstone@hwdsb.on.ca, jessica.brennan@hwdsb.on.ca, karen.turkstra@hwdsb.on.ca, dlcouncil@hamilton.ca, lbroten.mpp@liberal.ola.org, ahorwath-co@ndp.on.ca, presdnt@mcmaster.ca, mattjelly@gmail.com

(This article was originally published on Matt's personal website.)

Jelly is a local artist, graphic designer and map maker living in Downtown Hamilton, Ontario in the Central Neighbourhood. Matt is an advocate for built heritage, toxic waste eradication and the revitalization of downtown Hamilton. www.mattjelly.com


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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted January 29, 2012 at 21:46:58

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By mrgrande (registered) | Posted January 29, 2012 at 22:00:09 in reply to Comment 73473

If you don't post a novel, you post shit like this. Christ, you really piss me off sometimes, and I've never even met you.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted January 29, 2012 at 22:11:49 in reply to Comment 73475

Then I suggest you make time to meet me, Mr. Grande, or at least post your background here so we can begin to have a real conversation.

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By MattJelly (registered) - website | Posted January 29, 2012 at 21:58:47 in reply to Comment 73473

Thanks Mahesh.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted January 29, 2012 at 22:15:15 in reply to Comment 73474

Your are welcome Matt, I have my reasons for stating what I have, and if you are interested, you could ask me, and I will elaborate here.

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By jacob (registered) | Posted January 29, 2012 at 22:23:04

it's too late for this one, but we need to look to the future. Why should the HWDSB be allowed to shutter Delta and Parkview just because of declining enrolments, and yet also use this as justification for building a new school. They're talking also about closing THREE mountain schools and building another. Adaptive reuse is not even a topic of conversation. Heritage preservation is a nonstarter. This should not be in the hands of trustees.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted January 30, 2012 at 00:33:30

Matt, that is a clear well crafted argument. Hopefully this is turning the tide of political will. Before we even get a chance to finish patting ourselves on the back for saving the Lister, we are now ready to destroy more heritage. Isn't it ez to see the benefits?

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By Argy Bargy (anonymous) | Posted January 30, 2012 at 04:49:57

I would love to see this happen, and I agree that there are no logical deterrents thereto. The one main hindrance I that McMaster has no credible history of architectural preservation or inspired example of adaptive reuse. The closest precedent -- nay, maybe the only precedent –– is their rework of the old Camco building into MIP. And that was pretty inelegant. Still, where there's a will...

What's the deal with the provincial funding component? Are there any conditions attached on that end in terms of residency dates?

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By Argy Bargy (anonymous) | Posted January 30, 2012 at 11:00:37 in reply to Comment 73486

One answer:

"The university has a commitment to the province to occupy a facility to train new family medicine residents by July 2013. This means they need to have possession of the site at Main and Bay streets by early January 2012 to begin construction, [McMaster spokesperson Gord Arbeau] said."


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By DanJelly (registered) | Posted January 30, 2012 at 10:04:58 in reply to Comment 73486

McMaster's Burke Science Building is a good example of preservation. The 1960's building has been completely renovated and they proudly display a LEED certification in the main lobby. It's no Taj Mahal, but it's a good example of what could be done at 100 Main West if there was a will to do so.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 30, 2012 at 10:32:47 in reply to Comment 73488

If only they respected our heritage as much as they respect their own.

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By Fred STreet (anonymous) | Posted January 30, 2012 at 13:29:24 in reply to Comment 73489

I often wish that the Chamber of Commerce had rebuffed the cronyism of Westdale developers and given up a plot of downtown land. Had they done so, we might have a campus instead of a shopping mall.

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By Argy Bargy (anonymous) | Posted January 30, 2012 at 10:54:44

I wasn't entirely clear, granted, but that's not really what I'm referring to. While both Burke Sci and Hamilton Hall have undergone retrofits, they were never not university buildings. You could point to the Cont Ed "camps" in the former courthouse across from the Sopinka, but again, that was a functional building that (AFAIK), never required much in the way of creative adaptation to fit a purpose. They tweaked their operations to fit a building that they never had any intentions (again, AFAIK) of knocking down. (And it's a red-headed stepchild that always gets left out of the McMaster institutional development highlight reel. In this case, the question is more one of reverse engineering a years-old blue sky architectural concept that (again, AFAIK) always involved knocking down 100 Main West. That's far trickier than goosing an existing building that's in the middle of campus.

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By synxer (registered) | Posted January 30, 2012 at 12:29:29

You know, we can't save every building.

Reverse it: You know, we can't make every building a big-box, stucco, driveway-to-parking-lot experience.

Here's the thing: we've hardly saved any. Citing the Lister Block and City Hall is laughable. If I were more knowledgable, it would be nice to make a video, much like Matt's video on cleaning up the harbour, that cites all of the major cities in Ontario with heritage buildings. I wonder where Hamilton stacks up in that list?

Toronto: X heritage restorations, 5,000,000 people London: X heritage restorations, 350,000 people Ottawa: X heritage restorations, 1,000,000 people Mississauga: X heritage restorations, 1,000,000 people Hamilton: X heritage restorations, 500,000 people

Willing to bet Hamilton sits low on the list...

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted January 31, 2012 at 19:38:33 in reply to Comment 73497

I would cite the Lister Block, City Hall, Victoria Hall, Whitehern, Auchmar, Central Public School (and the Church across the street from it whose name eludes me), the Right House, LIUNA Station, the TH&B station, and (hopefully) the Federal Building to name a few that the city got involved in.

Plus you also have the Stinston School, the Spec Print Warehouse and (hopefully) the Royal Connaught that the private sector seems to be stepping up to the plate on.

However this might help your research.


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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted January 30, 2012 at 14:22:19

I would hate to see the school board building be demolished.

So let me get this straight:
- McMaster University is subsidized heavily by our tax dollars
- The city (which is funded by taxpayers) is subsidizing McMaster's project (which is subsidized by tax dollars) to the tune of $20m and above market rents.
- So one taxpayer funded entity is subsidizing another taxpayer funded entity for their pet project.

And people wonder why taxes in Hamilton are so high???

The really sad thing about this is that there is no evidence that this project will add to the commercial/industrial assessment this city needs.

We contributed $5million towards MIP and I am still waiting for a return on investment to the city's taxpayers for that one. Perhaps someone could tell me if there is any business at MIP that is actually paying commer/industrial taxes to this city?

Is Hamilton so deperate to have Mac presence dt that we would made these ridiculous financial decisions?

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted January 30, 2012 at 21:00:03

You are right Matt.

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By MattJelly (registered) - website | Posted January 30, 2012 at 21:36:31 in reply to Comment 73510

Thanks Graham.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted January 31, 2012 at 11:26:29 in reply to Comment 73511

"This is like deja vu all over again" ~ Yogi Berra

This quote elegantly captures the reality of our BoEd state of mind:

"Stop being so hysterical, Graham. The BoE is just a quirky building in a city with no architecture of substance. If you had any knowledge of architectural history you would know this." ~ Highwater, Nov 17, 2011

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 30, 2012 at 22:03:14

We just don't build things to last anymore. Especially buildings. Why bother? Why would anyone risk investing the extra effort into putting up something that can stand for centuries when the economic/bureaucratic/political environment makes it unlikely that it'll last more than a few decades? Why put the effort into maintaining it if letting it run down guarntees a shiny new building?

We've created an institutional culture of spoiled children, who feel free to break their toys at will, knowing there will always be more.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted January 30, 2012 at 22:40:44

Incredibly, no comments.


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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted January 31, 2012 at 06:55:11 in reply to Comment 73513

It's a story from 2007. I don't know if commenting existed then.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted January 31, 2012 at 06:52:30

The HWDSB has no track record of retrofitting anything they own to accommodate growth, or to modern spec. Take a look at all the schools they've closed, torn down, then rebuilt (Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria); take a look at all the schools they've closed then sold off (Dundas District, Central Park, and now all the high schools in Dundas and Hamilton, and schools on the mountain). Some of it makes sense because they were too small, poorly sized and proportioned; some don't. Sadly it's cheaper to tear it down and rebuild than it is to retrofit. Or, when we do retrofit it's sometimes at a premium (for example, the above-market leases the City enters into to save places like the Lister).

To be honest, I really don't care about the building at 100 Main. It's a neat looking building, but if tearing it down and rebuilding something that's more efficient and made for modern technology (that's a big deal in heritage buildings - most were made for old power spec, boiler heat, and very drafty, not network cabling, forced-air HVAC, double-pane windows, and so on) is the answer, then I say do it. I'd disagree with a previous poster on the inventory of heritage buildings relative to our size - check out all the period-piece movies filmed downtown, in Dundas, on Barton, Durand, etc) but it would be nice to see how we stack up.

I love to see some of our old buildings and the amount of detail in some of them. My girlfriend also notices the little things when we go on walks in the various neighbourhoods. I don't like to see the nondescript buildings taking the place of buildings with character. For example, Prince of Wales. That building used to have character, a soul. For those of you who had been inside, there was marble, hardwood flooring, thick wood doors, patterns in the brickwork, masonry, huge staircases, everything. The new building looks just like every other school now - institutional, faceless, easily confused with another one. Sure, they kept parts of the original building (the old scroll over the main entrance, some of the masonry...) but that's about it. The new building is much brighter, cleaner, newer inside but feels almost like a jail (the 'cell' concept reminds me of the jail cells in the TV show Oz).

So Matt, this is a case where I disagree with you. I don't see the purpose of starting a 'save the Board of Ed building' campaign after it's been pretty much decided. Put them in an unused building like the Stelco tower, the Eaton centre, or any of the other massively underutilized buildings downtown; put them in an addition at City Hall (but that should have been pondered in-depth during all the renos recently); try everything in Council's power to keep them downtown, but if they move, then they move.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted January 31, 2012 at 11:54:59

I've never liked the notion of a medical facility (no matter what its profile) being regarded in such 'saviour-like' ways. I can easily visualize what the downtown will look like at night once it's built...and it ain't much different than it is now. Sorry, but medical facilities don't have knock-on effects the likes of which the genie-bottle-polishers seem to be hoping for...no matter how much 'teaching' is going on within the walls.

Instead, I find myself going back to this:


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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted January 31, 2012 at 19:23:00

Even though I do not feel the building is architecturally are aesthetically pleasing to my eye (although it's not as bad as Hamilton Place/The Convention Center). At least I can understand why people are seeking to be save as opposed to attempting to save generic three story townhousing that dominates the core and seems to be a perpetual deterrent in increased density.

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