Condo projects spur life downtown

Steve Kulakowsky takes satisfaction in standing on the roof of Witton Lofts and knowing he's helping change the landscape of downtown Hamilton.

Shovels in the ground for numerous downtown condo units

“We were scared at first because it's a first mover,” says developer Steve Kulakowsky of the Witton Lofts. Now there are only six left. The project is one of at least nine in the works in downtown Hamilton. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Steve Kulakowsky takes satisfaction in standing on the roof of Witton Lofts and knowing he's helping change the landscape of downtown Hamilton.

The president of development firm Core Urban Inc. and a lifelong city resident, Kulakowsky has seen Hamilton endure good times and bad. He's seen industries come and go. He's seen condo projects started and abandoned.

Now, there are no less than nine active condo projects downtown, resulting in what the City of Hamilton estimates to be about 300 new multi-residential housing starts in the works. Kulakowsky is pleased to be in charge of 36 of them as developer of Witton Lofts.

"It's a proud moment," he said, looking out at the west harbour on one side and the downtown skyline on the other.

"Even though it's only 36 units, [the project] represents a shift to the waterfront and a shift back to downtown."

Kulakowsky is the first to admit that Witton Lofts was a risk. It's at 50 Murray St. in a traditionally rough neighbourhood that has been stagnant for years.

Witton Lofts is in the 88-year-old former McIlwriath School. Recently, it was home to Mission Services shelter kitchen services.

"It's a complete 180 for the area," Kulakowsky said.

Drastic change

Kulakowsky's project is just one of many. Perhaps the largest downtown residential development underway is Bella Towers, a two-phase project from Vrancor on 150 Main St. W.

Phase 1 will have 135 condo units. Phase 2 will have 277. A third phase with 275 units at 20 George St. is in the design stage. The project is expected to create 687 condo units over the next three years.

The Vrancor project also includes two hotels — the 129-room Staybridge Suites at 20 Caroline St. S. and the 182-room Homewood Suites at 40 Bay St. S.

Other projects include:

  • Stinson School Lofts (71 units) is at 200 Stinson St. 
  • Hamilton Grand (90 units plus office and retail space) is at 64 Main St. E.
  • Urban West Condos, with its 33 units at 427 Aberdeen Ave. W., will open this fall.
  • Acclamation Lofts will bring 60 units to 185 James St. N., planned to open in 2014.
  • City Square 1 and 2 on the former Thistle Club property will see another 175 units, with a third phase in the planning stages.

It all seems like a lot of expensive optimism, but it’s justified, said Derek Doyle, a Hamilton native and real estate agent who does some business downtown. Doyle bought one condo for himself in the Witton Lofts and a second condo as an investment.

Downtown revitalization still has a long way to go, he said. But when it comes to the real estate market, "things have changed drastically."

"A lot more people are interested down here, so as a result, we’re seeing prices go up. It’s good for people who got in early and it’s good for people still interested."

Steady, stable growth

The core hit rock bottom in recent years, Doyle said, but real estate and buyer attitudes are gaining momentum.

Downtown is transitioning, which is what it needed to do. It’s happening little by little.

"I think as we see those prices continue to go up, we’ll see more interest from people knowing it’s secure."

Cameron Nolan, president of the Realtors Association of Hamilton, has watched the upward trend in prices throughout Hamilton. He’s also seen more listings and sales in the downtown core in the last two years.

"It’s not happening wildly," he said. "It's steady. It’s stable and it’s comfortable."

Downtown real estate attracts a different market from those looking for single-family homes on the Mountain.

Condo buyers tend to be first-time buyers or older residents who want to be within walking distance from entertainment venues and other amenities, Nolan said. Commuters also are drawn to the proximity of the GO train.

More people living downtown will bring the perception that the area is safe, which makes it more attractive, Nolan said.

City needs to help

Jeff Paikin, developer of the City Square and Urban West projects, is another Hamilton native who sees a shift in people wanting to live downtown.

Sales for City Square have been brisker than anticipated, Paikin said.

People moved away from downtown because there were affordable homes in the southwest area of Hamilton. But the more people moved, he said, the more expensive housing got in that area and now it's too expensive for many to afford. That’s sending more first-time buyers downtown.

"Downtown is transitioning, which is what it needed to do," he said. "It’s happening little by little."

The market could easily become saturated.

It’s a "delicate balance" right now, he said. To continue to spur development, the city needs to keep approval costs for developers low and turn around applications quickly.

"Toronto has 138 cranes building condos right now," he said. "Hamilton has two or three. It’s a very sensitive price scale."

Witton Lofts will open in September. This summer, the glass will be enclosed and the old school structure will merge with the three levels Core Urban has added.

Kulakowsky sees it as a harbinger of things to come.

"Downtown is absolutely turning around," he said. "There are indicators all over the place, specifically people wanting to live back in the city."

This story is part of a four-part series on the downtown revitalization that continues until Thursday. Articles published earlier this week include Downtown making slow, sure gains and Hamilton artists leading downtown's rebirth.