The historic buildings on the south edge of Gore Park will likely be designated as heritage buildings so that they can qualify for the city's heritage property grants and be restored by their property developer, a local councillor says.
According to Councillor Brian McHattie of Ward 1, "there is a good chance" that city staff will assign the heritage status to all or parts of the five buildings on King Street E. under the Ontario Heritage Act, so that Wilson-Blanchard, the property management company that owns the buildings, can take advantage of the city's heritage property grant program and community heritage fund.
The Hamilton Heritage Property Grant Program supports the restoration of heritage features of properties, while the Hamilton Community Heritage Fund provides up to $50,000 in interest-free loans for similar purposes.
"Over the years it's been difficult to get people to invest in downtown Hamilton," he said, adding that the grants are a common ground for those who want to see the corner of King Street E. and St. James Street redeveloped and those who would like to preserve the century-old buildings.
"This really is a compromised solution."
The heritage designations are expected to come "fairly quickly" in the next few months, McHattie said, but there is no word on the specifics of the restoration plan.
The turn of events came a weekend after heavy machinery was moved to the site Friday morning. Demolition planned for Saturday was abruptly called off after a last-minute meeting between councillors, city officials and Wilson Blanchard Friday afternoon. The parties have verbally agreed to halt any demolition to allow a peer review of the developer's engineering report and more time for public input.
Behind the buildings on Tuesday, an excavator continues to park against the graffiti-filled walls. While remaining tight-lipped about the future plans of the site, Robert Miles, property manager at Wilson-Blanchard, said the company doesn't know how long the demolition machines would remain on site.
"It could be a couple of days and we'll have them all out of there or they could stay there," Miles told CBC Hamilton. "It depends on what the city says."
Province unlikely to intervene
Meanwhile, heritage organizations are reaching out beyond the city for more definitive answers on the fate of the site, but the province is unlikely to intervene.
Heritage Canada Foundation has sent a letter to Michael Chan, Ontario's minister of tourism, culture and sports, and asked him to issue a stop work order on 24 and 28 King Street E.
Carolyn Quinn, spokesperson for the foundation, described the verbal agreement between the councillors and Wilson Blanchard as "a gentlemen's agreement." Something more concrete, like a stop work order from the minister, is needed to buy some time for more community input and peer review.
But that is unlikely to happen.
The ministry acknowledged that it has received the letter, but said the primary responsibility of identifying and protecting heritage properties falls on the city.
"The ministry believes that local municipalities are in the best position to determine how to manage properties within their communities," said the ministry's spokesperson Denelle Balfour in an email statement to CBC Hamilton.
The two buildings—built in 1876 and 1874, respectively—have intact upper floors that contribute to the downtown streetscape, which includes pre-confederation commercial structures, according to the heritage foundation.
"Together they help define the character of Gore Park and are considered by many to be integral to the area’s rejuvenation," CHF's letter reads.
The foundation has recently added the two buildings to its list of top ten endangered places in Canada.
Hamilton Councillor Sam Merulla of Ward 4 also contacted the minister and asked him to intervene in the situation by helping the city come up with a plan to preserve the buildings.
Workers have begun removing the non-heritage parts of the buildings — such as signs — this week so restoration workers can get a closer look at the facades.