Imagine you’re new in town, seeing this place for the first time. You step off the train at the old TH&B, stroll along Hunter, turn right onto James.

Talk about powerful first impressions. There, spread out before you, Hamilton’s Famous Five. James Street Baptist, 1878. St. Paul’s Presbyterian, 1854. Bank of Montreal, 1928. Sun Life, 1905. Pigott Building, 1928. 

Religion and commerce. All that stone. All that history. 

In a city where the past hasn’t always mattered, we knew these structures actually do. Council made sure all of them are designated and protected under the Ontario Heritage Act.

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The developer's plan is to knock down most of James Street Baptist Church and erect some kind of residential structure behind the facade. (McCallum Sather Architects)

But now, a hard decision. Do we let the developer who bought James Street Baptist this year tear down most of it?

Stanton Renaissance of Toronto, and McCallum Sather Architects of Hamilton, brought a 129-page Heritage Impact Assessment with them to City Hall two weeks ago. The bottom line was a shock. 

The report says the church can’t be saved, not economically anyway. The walls are crumbling, the foundations unstable. The developer wants to prop up the front facade, knock the rest of the church down and build something new in behind.

Meeting on Wednesday

Michael Adkins, who leads the city’s heritage permit review subcommittee, said this item was a big one – there would need to be another meeting. It’s tomorrow, Wed. Oct. 9. Normally such sessions are held in a compact committee room. Jason Farr, councillor for the downtown ward, saw to it that this one was moved to the council chambers.

Is it enough to just save that facade?

Downtown lawyer D. Robert Findlay doesn’t think so. He wrote a letter to The Spectator last week saying the owner knew he was buying a protected asset that would need repairs. “The list price of this property was drastically discounted to recognize there would be costs related to maintaining the building’s integrity,” he wrote.

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Louie Santaguida is president of Stanton Renaissance, the Toronto-based development company that bought James Street Baptist Church. (Ryerson University)

James Street Baptist was on the city rolls with an assessment of nearly $1.5 million. It went on the market in August of last year at $1.1 million. It was reduced to $850,000, and sold in February for $610,000. The deal closed in June.

Developer Stanton Renaissance has been quiet here. It’s a new outfit and has not built anything yet. It does have plans for a 27-storey condo in the GTA called On The GO Mimico.

The firm’s president is Louie Santaguida. He was also president of an outfit called Terrasan Corp. A couple of years ago, two of its divisions filed for bankruptcy. Terrasan Environmental Solutions told creditors it owed $9.5 million and had assets of $27. Terrasan Metal Fabricators said it owed $5.5 million, with assets of $12. 

Projects derailed

That bankruptcy caused problems for the city of Brantford, counting on Terrasan to clean the soil on a 20-hectare industrial site for housing, commercial, and parkland. 

It was a game changer too for the Town of Blue Mountains, which had been working with Terrasan on a large development that was to include 200 residential units and a large commercial space. 

Santaguida, in a quick interview yesterday on his way into a meeting, said the bankruptcy is “unrelated” to present operations.

melbourne

After the interior of Cairns Memorial church in Melbourne, Australia was gutted by fire, new apartments were constructed within the old shell. (WalkingMelbourne.com)

Hamilton is new territory for him. “What drew me to the development was the historical value of the church,” he says.

And yet, now the proposal is to tear most of it down. “I probably should have had more details about the condition of it,” he says. “I fell in love with the history.”

Santaguida says some would now say the whole building should be knocked down. But he declares he’s ready to preserve the most important part of it. He says saving that facade could cost nearly $2 million.

No plan in place yet

There is no firm plan yet on what would be built behind it. The Stanton website refers to a 22 to 30 storey mixed-use building, but Santaguida says they are still considering options. “There’s no question that housing will be the prime component.” 

This is the kind of scenario that makes Hamilton anxious – a request for a quick demolition of a heritage property, and no firm plan for what’s to come next.

It’s possible that the facade is all that we can save. And maybe Stanton Renaissance is the outfit that can put together something visionary at James and Jackson. The architectural firm it’s chosen, MSA – with heritage-minded Drew Hauser leading the project – is respected in this town.

front

James Street Baptist is protected under the Ontario Heritage Act, but new owners say only the facade can be saved. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

But caution is warranted. Adkins of the heritage subcommittee favours an independent engineering report, paid for by the developer. That makes a lot of sense.

We cannot afford a repeat of what happened to the Lyric/Century Theatre. Out-of-town developers bought the Mary Street property at the fire-sale price of $148,000.

They said they would turn the 1913 Renaissance Revival vaudeville house into condos. Instead, they sat on it for a decade. They failed to maintain the building and a few years ago it collapsed.  Downtown got one more weedy lot. 

So now, for James Street Baptist Church, let us pray.

Paul Wilson is a member of the Hamilton Municipal Heritage Committee.

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca | @PaulWilsonCBC