Hamilton residents, store owners saying goodbye to City Centre mall, as doors to close Dec. 26
A pop-up market this weekend is celebrating the space — and the people who still work there
When Whitney McMeekin goes to Hamilton's City Centre, it's usually because she wants to be alone. The mall, with its lofty ceilings, skylights and balconies, doesn't get the foot traffic it once did when it was the city's downtown Eaton's headquarters.
These days, it's a unique, central spot, a series of bright, empty hallways beside the comparatively dark yet busy Jackson Square mall. With its pastel colours, glass elevator and public art, the City Centre seems straight out of an era long forgotten in modern commerce.
"It's like going back in time," says McMeekin, who runs a clothing store on nearby King Street East. She is also the co-founder of Hamilton Flea, which is hosting a pop-up market and family dance party at the City Centre on Saturday.
McMeekin says the event is the chance for the community to say goodbye to the 32-year-old shopping centre, with a public closing date set for the end of year and demolition expected to begin in a few months.
"As much as I wish it was busy and that the businesses had tons of customers, I also love that it's a place I can come and just really experience it and be alone," she said, describing the atmosphere of the space in more recent times.
"I feel like, also, everyone dreams a bit when they're in here, about what could be here. And I think what I find so sad about it is that we all have that feeling, but yet it's kind of going to be gone."
Store owners told to vacate by the new year
The mall's remaining store operators – there aren't many left – have been told to vacate their units after December holidays, as several told CBC Hamilton during a recent visit.
The mall was sold to IN8 Developments in 2019, and the company plans to build four residential towers on the site, ranging between 26 and 30 storeys tall, above a nine-storey podium, said City of Hamilton spokesperson Michelle Shantz.
The plan has conditional approval from the city, pending a series of required studies, plans and fees, Shantz told CBC Hamilton this week.
"Imagine if it was a mall-themed condo," said McMeekin, as she looked out over the City Centre from a third-floor balcony. "That would be dreamy."
IN8 president Darryl Firsten says his company, which has partnered with Harlo Capital on the project, expects to get its final approval and building permit very soon, and is planning for demolition of the City Centre to start in February.
He says the demolition will take most of the year, with construction of the nearly 2,000-condo project to take close to a decade.
"Boxing day is the last day" the mall will be open to the public, he told CBC Hamilton on Thursday. "Everyone will be out of the building by Jan. 10."
Firsten says the units will range between studios and three-bedroom condos, but says price points have not been set. The project is now expected to cost more than $1 billion, he added, a jump from the $700 million projected when it was first announced, in large part due to inflation.
Units in the building will start to go on sale around late 2023, Firsten says, adding that the development will have street-level retail that he hopes will integrate into the community better than the long, brick wall of the City Centre.
He says it will also integrate some elements from the old building, such as the clock tower that originally came from Hamilton's old City Hall.
"We honour the clock tower and its history in the new development," he said, noting it would be relocated into a "a huge pedestrian courtyard area."
IN8 is also planning another condo development in Hamilton at 1107 Main St. W., the current location of the now-closed Grace Lutheran Church.
'It's hard for us… We'd like to stay here'
For some of the shop owners still doing business in the space, the next few weeks will be difficult.
Ammar Hassab, owner of Dollar Store Plus Outlet on the mall's main floor, has a hard time picturing his shop anywhere other than the City Centre.
The store, which also stocks a variety of international foods and spices, has been in that location for more than 10 years. Hassab says he's not sure what will happen to the business after it leaves the mall, saying other commercial units are asking for rent that is out of his price range.
"It's hard for us… We'd like to stay here," said Hassab, who says he got notice about six months ago that he'd have to be out of his store by Jan. 1. "Maybe something will come up."
Jai and Wanti Ramwani have owned Mountain Gift and Toy in the mall's lower level for 21 years. They're in their seventies now, so not up for the hassle that would come with opening in a new location. But they say they will miss the daily interactions with the people they had at the mall.
"I liked having contact with people, and it's a good way to pass the time," said Jai, who has a PhD from McMaster University but found he enjoyed working in retail more than his previous career running a science startup. "Plus some income was coming… Everything was positive."
The business, which previously had two other locations, came to the mall in the early 2000s, just a couple years after Eaton's declared bankruptcy in 1999.
"It was really, really quiet," Jai said.
Even still, he was able to sell more from the store than he expected, and the rent was significantly lower than his other locations. The Ramwanis had originally planned on just opening a holiday-season pop-up, but decided to stick around.
"December 31st is our closing date," said Wanti, who says they've been given a few days after that to clear out their unit. (CBC interviewed the developer nearly a week after speaking with the Ramwanis. He said the mall would be closing after Boxing Day.)
As of last week, the mall still had a banner advertising space available for rent at its York and James entrance. Its website as of Friday continues to have a prominent banner saying "now leasing retail and office."
A historic block
Before the location held the Hamilton Eaton Centre, it was home to Hamilton's old City Hall. It still bears the clock tower from the municipal building, at the corner of York Boulevard and James Street North.
The Hamilton Eaton Centre was built in 1990 through a business partnership between Eaton's and Cadillac Fairview, the same team that built the similar-looking Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto, according to the Hamilton Public Library (HPL).
HPL archives list the building's architect as S.M. Roscoe., its corporate architect as E.L. Hankinson and its general contractor as Pigott Construction.
Eaton centres in smaller cities such as Brantford and Guelph had also been built but changing consumer tastes, competition and what were considered poor management decisions caused the demise of Eaton's in 1999.
By the early 2000s, when Solomon Zewge began working there, things at the City Centre were already on the decline, he says.
I felt like I made a difference in society… I will really miss helping people here.- Solomon Zewge, Hamilton City Centre site supervisor
As the building's site supervisor, Zewge, 61, has spent 18 years helping people who were lost or sick in the mall, and dealing with other security-related incidents. He says he hasn't been given the date that he will no longer be needed at the City Centre, but is already dreading it.
"I [will] miss the society here, people who I've known for a long time," said Zewge, who said he has helped save people who have overdosed and gone into other crises in the mall several times.
"I felt like I made a difference in society… I will really miss helping people here.
"Goodbye is not something we are happy about."
Like 'the Emerald City from Wizard of Oz'
McMeekin, from Hamilton Flea, hopes the event on Saturday will help bring some closure to those sad to see the mall go, and also help draw customers to the remaining businesses looking to get rid of their stock.
The pop-up market will feature 40 vendors, and will kick off at 11 a.m. with a group mall walk, led by "Hamilton's dancing man Jed."
The vendors will sell goods until 5 p.m., and School House Rave will host a family dance party in the old HMV store from 3 to 6 p.m. There will also be other children's activities throughout the day including a parachute-making activity allowing children to launch their creations from the top floor of the mall.
McMeekin says she's heard from many nostalgic people who learned the mall was closing from her event listing.
"I heard from someone who, when they were a kid… thought this was the Emerald City from Wizard of Oz," she said. "There was another person who sent a message to the Hamilton Flea Instagram who said his mom worked in the food court when he was a baby and he took his first steps in these halls.
"That's part of why we wanted to do this, so people can have their moment with it. They can say goodbye. We can, you know, fill it with joy."
With files from CBC News