Hamilton city council has halted the demolition of a historic row of buildings in the Gore by suddenly designating them as heritage properties.

The developer, Hughson Business Space Corporation, had a pair of demolition permits that would have seen the demolition of 18 to 28 King St. E. But in a surprise motion at Wednesday's council meeting, Coun. Jason Farr moved to designate the buildings and won unanimous support from fellow councillors.

That means the developer will have to reapply for the permits all over again, this time following the city's rules when it comes to heritage properties.

'We cannot afford to have the famous Bobby Clark smile represent our main street.' - Coun. Chad Collins

The developer had two demolition permits — one that expires next July, and one that expires in a month. Farr made the last-minute move, which was a surprise even to his fellow councillors, because he worried the buildings would disappear over the holidays.

"My fear was that quite realistically, we could see this gap in the Gore, and not the department-store kind of gap we could live with, but just nothing, and for who knows how long," he said after the meeting.

David Blanchard, a partner with the Hughson Business Space Corporation, was unavailable for comment Thursday morning. A receptionist at his office told a CBC reporter he is in a meeting this morning, then leaving to go out of town for a week, and wouldn't be available to comment.

The move comes after nearly a year of meetings between Farr, the city and the developer to save at least the facades of the buildings, which date back to the 1870s. The city also pre-approved $1.1 million in grants if the developer would designate them as heritage buildings.

"There was this feeling that we'd finally made some progress," Farr said.

But in the last week, he told councillors, he lost faith that the developer would do anything but demolish them. He walked away from the last meeting "completely deflated," he said. And the city hasn't seen a solid development plan for what would be built in place of the buildings.

The city will notify the developer tomorrow and notify the public via a newspaper ad, at which time the demolition permits become void. The city is fulfilling this criteria as quickly as possible, said Steve Robichaud, manager of development planning, heritage and design.

Once the designation goes through, the developer will have to remove the fencing around the properties and restore the fronts to meet city property standards, Robichaud said.

Coun. Chad Collins of Ward 5 worried that like recently at 20 Jackson St., the buildings could be demolished and replaced with a parking lot, which means the owner pays lower taxes. That would fly in the face of the revival of Hamilton's downtown, he said.

"We cannot afford to have the famous Bobby Clark smile represent our main street."

Blanchard told CBC Hamilton this month that the buildings are crumbling and beyond repair.

"The only part (of the buildings) that will be maintained, if it is maintained, is the facades," he said. 

The buildings are in such poor shape, he said, that "we have nothing to attach to the facade right now."

Blanchard and his partners have plans for a multi-use development that includes retail and condos.