What's happening with Century Manor? Advocates say they're no closer to an answer

Two years after the province cancelled plans to sell a long-vacant historic building to Mohawk College, Hamilton heritage fans say they're still frustrated and waiting to hear something — anything — about Century Manor. 

The province issued an MZO for the land but isn't commenting about its plans for the heritage building

Sandy Shaw, NDP MPP Sandy Shaw for Hamilton West, Ancaster and Dundas, says the lack of response from the provincial government about plans for Century Manor is "disheartening." (Cailen Speers)

Two years after the province cancelled plans to sell a long-vacant historic building to Mohawk College, Hamilton heritage fans say they're still frustrated and waiting to hear something — anything — about Century Manor.

After some false starts that could have meant a bright future for the 138-year-old building — and a ministerial zoning order (MZO) making way for a residential development on the property — MPP Sandy Shaw says there has been little to no response from the province regarding what it plans to do with the building.

She's asked questions in the legislature and sent letters to Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark and Premier Doug Ford asking to rescind the MZO, but says there has been no response.

"Nobody asked for an MZO. The province didn't consult," said Shaw, an NDP MPP who represents Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas. "They just issued an MZO, and from that time, the land has just been sitting there."

Hamilton residents like Leanne Pluthero and Diane Dent, who are involved with advocacy groups like Save Century Manor and Friends of Century Manor, said they are concerned about losing the historical property to residential development or demolition by neglect.

Heritage advocates say they're still worried about the fate of Century Manor, shown here in 2014. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"I just want it saved," Pluthero said. "It's been sitting for so long."

Century Manor, which is just off West 5th Street, was built in 1884 as the East House for the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane. It had several functions over the years, including as a reception hospital, addictions and forensic psychiatry wings, and a school for adolescents. It closed in 1995.

One by one, the former asylum buildings have disappeared, starting with the grand Barton building in the 1970s. Infrastructure Ontario (IO) owns Century Manor, but didn't respond to CBC News requests for comment last week.

In 2018, Mohawk College had a flashlight tour of the building and struck a deal with the then-Liberal provincial government to turn it into a student residence. Mohawk pledged $9 million to restore it, and at least one developer was interested.

Mohawk also planned to buy 8.5 hectares for $9.52 million to expand its campus. The province would have used that money, plus $5.5 million of its own, to build a tower at 191 York Blvd. with 20 per cent affordable housing.

Century Manor is described as a prime spot for ghost hunters. The province owns the 1884 building, and local heritage advocates fear it will soon disappear off the map. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Later in 2018, the new PC government backed out of that deal. The province issued the MZO in 2020 without saying what it plans for the building. 

Mohawk College president Ron McKerlie said he doesn't think the college buying it is an option anymore. 

"When we first did the deal, we would have got the entire parcel of land and to have that much land would have made sense," he said. 

"Since then, the pandemic provided another opportunity for us to reduce our land needs by being able to take some of our programs online. So our need for land is not as acute as it was, and the government's changed its mind and has a new purpose for the land."

McKerlie said that Infrastructure Ontario has indicated to the college that they are not interested in selling the property to Mohawk for educational purposes, and they want to use the space to provide long-term care beds.

(Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Shaw said that she fears that the province won't listen to what the community wants for the property.

"The Ford government comes to town and they blow up the deal, issue the MZO and rezone the land to a zoning designation that would allow residential development," she said. "That's all they did. They didn't say what their plan was."

Pluthero started a petition which she said has seen a lot of local support and is almost at 5,000 signatures. But the pandemic slowed progress, she said, as the group was not able to go out and meet with community members and let them know what is happening.

"The building is an historical, important part of our local society," Pluthero said, "I will fight this because it's so important. It's not just a building."

She said that the past few years has also seen increased vandalism and trespassing at Century Manor, which is why she is passionate about protecting this piece of Hamilton's history and mental health history in Canada.

(Samantha Craggs/CBC)

During the pandemic, Pluthero said the property also took a hit because of people breaking into the building to explore. At one point, when she was on location to take some photos, there were four cars lined up with people looking to get inside.

"In late 2020, someone set one of the wood boards on fire, so I contacted [Ward 8 councillor John-Paul] Danko and said we need security now," she said. 

Since then, the property has been staffed with security and it has been fully boarded up for over a year, she said.

Dent said that Friends of Century Manor hopes the government can consider positive solutions in moving forward with the property that include community input. 

"Friends of Century Manor want to look at positive solutions, not negative, even though the negativity is there," Dent said, "which is, the government will not talk to us because they've got the MZO zoning and Bill 84."

(Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Bill 84, the fewer fees and better services act enacted in 2022, introduced an amendment to the Ministry of Infrastructure Act from 2011.

This change has introduced a "Centre of Realty Excellence" responsible for identifying government property that can be put back into effective use, or identifying and "disposing of government property that is no longer required for the use or purposes of the government."

Dent said many local residents have reached out to Infrastructure Ontario over the last six years, but "they don't want to talk."

"We know we need tax dollars, but we also need to preserve our culture, to preserve our built heritage," Dent said.

"If there were no other vacant sites in the city, you might say that you have to give in, but look at all the empty parking lots downtown."

'Perfect canvas'

Shaw said the first step in moving forward is that these public lands need public input. 

"We don't want any government official to show disinterest for any concern of a citizen," Dent said. "That's why we elect public officials, to reply when we have a concern.

Shaw said it is disheartening to see the lack of response from the current provincial government.

She says that the land that Century Manor stands on could be the perfect canvas to showcase community engagement surrounding development.

"We've been hearing so much about post-pandemic, how can we build back better," Shaw said. "That land there could be the perfect canvas to showcase how we can really build back better."

"How we can respect the environment, how we can understand climate change, we can build good green infrastructure and how we can have really amazing community engagement."


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