Here's a discouraging milestone. It's now 20 years that the parking lot at Main and Bay has been squandering one of this city's prime intersections. But you would now not be crazy to start believing a crane could finally rise on that corner.
It's been just a lot for so long that many won't know what used to be on that site. In the 1880s, the grand house of a merchant named William Herman was built there. And in 1925, it became a funeral home. Dodsworth & Brown did business there for generations.The parking lot at Main and Bay isn't for sale. The developers who bought the land 20 years ago say they soon may be finally ready to put something up themselves. (Paul Wilson/CBC)
For the seniors who lived in the towers clustered around Queen, it was a handy place to say goodbye to neighbours. But with five lanes of Main Street moving east fast, funeral processions were sometimes dangerous. And taxes were high.
So the funeral home shut down. In 1992, the wrecker arrived. Many treasures were sold off — including five fine fireplace mantels. The place was demolished...and then they put up a parking lot.
City Hall is in plain view. In what other city would a prime piece of land sit for so long, just a patch of blacktop for 40-odd cars?
But change is a comin'. Right across the street from the parking lot, McMaster is about to knock down the lamented Board of Ed building and erect an $85-million health campus.
To the immediate west of the parking lot, a condo tower is rising. To the the north, a hotel. Both are projects of local developer Darko Vranich. He would have loved to buy that parking lot. It wasn't for sale, so now he's building right around it.
We need to talk to the guy who's owned that prime patch all these years. That would be Domenic Molinaro. He put up his first building nearly 50 years ago.
The Molinaro Group likes to fly under the radar and has simple offices on the ground floor of the Spring Garden apartment building on Market Street at Hess. But the firm does flashy work — condos on the Burlington waterfront, like the luxurious Baxter, where it's easy to pay seven figures for a unit with a view.
'We get it. It's the best piece of land in Hamilton.'—developer Sam Di Santo
Molinaro Sr. has stepped away from day-to-day operations, but it turns out he's here today. And he recalls buying that funeral-home land two decades ago for some $2 million. "I paid too much," he says. He figures it's worth at least $4 million now. But it's not for sale.
So what's next? He says that needs to come from Sam Di Santo, his general manager and vice-president.
"We get it," says Di Santo. By that, he means that he understands a parking lot is not the best use of that corner. "It's the best piece of land in Hamilton."
But the core had not been the place to invest. There was the brave developer who put up the 21-storey Bentley Place condo tower in the early '90s at Main and Caroline. A decade later, 20 units were still unsold and the others had dropped in value by a third.
So the Molinaro Group did grand things in downtown Burlington instead.
Now, however, there's something in the wind. "Hamilton is changing," Di Santo says. "There's a sense of optimism."
He sees what's suddenly going on all around them. When the Vranich and McMaster projects are complete, it might be time to dig up the yellow-lined asphalt.
Vranich owns the Sheraton, will finish the new Staybridge Suites next month, and is putting up another hotel next to the Molinaro parking lot. So Di Santo says they certainly won't be building a hotel on their land.
"We're highrise condo developers," he says. "That's what we do."
You can read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.