McMaster University Downtown Centre

McMaster University will have to relocate its downtown centre now that the city needs its old courthouse building for provincial offences courtrooms. (McMaster University)

The city will borrow $27 million to move its courtrooms into a Main Street East building it nearly sold a year ago. But it doesn’t really have a choice.

The city will spend the money to move its provincial offences act courtrooms from the John Sopinka Courthouse to its old courthouse across the street. Right now, McMaster University leases the majority of the building.

Now McMaster has to find new downtown space. And the building the city planned to sell for $5.6 million will now cost more than $30 million to renovate.

The city was taken by surprise when in August 2012, it met with the province to renegotiate its lease at the Sopinka courthouse, only to be told that the province needed the space.

“I don’t think anyone anticipated funding something like this several months ago,” Coun. Chad Collins of Ward 5 said at a general issues committee meeting Wednesday. “We were even anticipating selling the building to gain some of the proceeds.”

But asking McMaster to leave, and renovating the building instead of selling it, is the cheapest option, Collins said.

“We can stomp our feet all we want and we still have the issue in front of us.”

Years ago, 50 Main St. E. was a municipal courthouse. Since 2000, the city has leased most of it to McMaster for about $180,000 per year.

In 2012, the Ontario Realty Corporation told the city that it would not renew the city's lease when it expired on Aug. 21, 2017. That same year, councillors voted to declare the building surplus and sell it.

'We can stomp our feet all we want and we still have the issue in front of us.' - Coun. Chad Collins

Councillors gave Neil Everson, director of economic development, approval to move ahead with the plan. The debt will cost Hamilton $2.7 million per year, although provincial offences fines can cover $1.7 million of that.

Taxpayers will spend about $1 million per year for 10 years to pay off the debt, which amounts to $4 per household every year.

If McMaster leaves in early 2015, and the Sopinka Courthouse lease expires in 2017, that gives the city two years to do the renovations, Everson said. And they are complicated and expensive.

“This isn’t just a normal building,” he said. “You have to have cells and underground parking, and a sally port for prisoners being transferred. You need separate elevators and Justice of the Peace chambers. And a courtroom isn’t just putting up drywall. It has certain design standards.”

The city hopes to lease 34,508 square feet to tenants. 

According to McMaster's website, the downtown centre houses its financial services, Centre for Continuing Education, Foundation for Medical Practice Education, payroll, public relations, Ontario Physician Human Resources Data Centre and university advancement, among other offices.

McMaster is in the midst of building a new $84-million downtown health campus, which will house the city's Public Health Services and the university's departments of family medicine, continuing health sciences education, among others.