The issue of how to better preserve and protect Hamilton's heritage buildings from demolition kicked off a heated debate between city councillors during Tuesday's planning committee meeting at city hall.

The end result had one councillor declaring defeat.

'At this point in time, I have no hope that cultural heritage has a future in Hamilton.'—Brian McHattie, Ward 1 councillor

"At this point in time, I have no hope that cultural heritage has a future in Hamilton," said Ward 1 councillor Brian McHattie after the meeting.

During the contentious meeting, city council was divided between those who wanted to see the city take a more proactive approach to preserving the architectural heritage of the downtown core.

The debate began after Ward 2 councillor Jason Farr and Ward 1 councillor Brian McHattie, who also sits on the heritage committee, put forth a motion that would have effectively placed nearly 800 buildings in downtown Hamilton on the Municipal Registry of Cultural Value or Interest.

By placing these buildings on the registry, the city would essentially buy itself more time to adequately consider applications for demolition. Currently, the city must respond to an application for demolition within 20 days. But once a building is placed on the registry it falls under the Heritage Act, which allows 60 days for an application to be considered.

For Coun. Brian McHattie, that extra time offers a "stay of execution" for heritage buildings, allowing councillors and concerned citizens to have discussions with developers without "having a hatchet over our heads."

Gore Park

The motion was largely inspired by the circumstances and public discussion surrounding the potential demolition of a strip of buildings lining the south side of Gore Park, said McHattie.

Though it turns out two of the buildings — 18 and 22 King St. E. — will be partially restored and not demolished, that was the result of last-minute negotiations between councilors Farr, McHattie and the developer Wilson-Blanchard.

As McHattie points out, the permits for demolitions of all the buildings were essentially a done deal but for some minor details. The developer could have demolished all of the buildings if he'd chosen to go forward.

The motion to place 800 buildings on the registry did not pass on Tuesday, however, and that's largely due to opposition from some councillors who objected to such a large-scale move.

Coun. Farr felt many councilors who objected were "making a mountain out of a molehill."

And that the motion only buys the city more time in assessing permits for demolition.

"Obviously the majority of our colleagues aren't interested in doing anything away from the usual rigamorole as far as getting the bureaucracy involved," said Farr.

"It is unreasonable to unilaterally [place the buildings on the registry]," said Ward 9 councillor Brad Clark, one of the councillors who opposed the idea.

Ongoing process

Clark's greatest objection was that the registry negates a process that is already "ongoing" by the city.

"Two years ago, council gave [planning and development] staff a recommendation to compile a list of buildings that could be of heritage value."

That report, he said, is forthcoming in the next three months.

Part of that process, said Clark, would include public consultation in which the owners of those buildings would be informed of their rights under the Heritage Act. The motion put forward by Farr and McHattie would cut that public consultation aspect out, argued Clark, minimizing the rights of the owners.  

McHattie doesn't agree with that interpretation of the motion. He said council's decision to table the discussion for a full report on the implications of such an idea "an incredibly regressive step in planning."

"It is sort of emblematic of the state of cultural heritage planning in the city," said McHattie, who said that "cultural heritage is seen as an impediment to economic development" by many on the council and on the planning committee.

McHattie also disagreed with Clark's statement that city was already involved in a process to identify buildings of heritage value.

"How can you say that when properties on King Street East could have been demolished?" he said.

"That situation could very well happen again."