Downtown brick buildings housing families and businesses for decades to be demolished

Metrolinx to begin demolition on 21 downtown Hamilton homes and storefronts that bear decades of history and character
Some of the buildings due to be demolished featured Edwardian or Art Deco design architecture. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

After years of debate to make way for a light-rail train, the provincial transit agency Metrolinx expects to begin knocking down 21 brick buildings along Hamilton's King Street East and Main Street East this month.

The buildings are the two and three-storey brick homes and storefronts that typify downtown Hamilton, contributing to the character of one of the oldest local thoroughfares. Most of the buildings being demolished are between Wentworth and Gage in the central city.

For the last century, these buildings have housed families and businesses, fallen into disrepair, been fixed up, formed the spine of a neighbourhood. As Nrinder Nann, councillor for the ward where the demolition is happening, put it: They are the sites of "first dates and first homes." King Street as a thoroughfare predates the settlement of Hamilton, and was where the city's first general store opened more than 200 years ago in 1814.

Metrolinx spokesperson Matt Llewellyn said the agency's discussions with the city, and with community groups, about these properties did not result in any buildings or features that would "require" preservation. 

"No cultural heritage value or interest was identified for the properties slated for demolition," he said. 

It's easy to glaze over looking at a list of nearly two dozen addresses, but each structure bears a story. They've been vacant for more than a year, the windows boarded up with bright painted boards. The future of any transit project along the route is still unknown. Metrolinx had announced demolition of these 21 properties would start Thursday, which did not happen, but the agency could not provide a new start date for the demolition.

This building at 658 King Street E. in Hamilton is set to be demolished. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Some still have signs up, bearing phone numbers that once connected customers with food or groceries or services. Some are Edwardian, others Art Deco. They held a Filipino grocery store, a diner, an upholstery shop, a beloved five-pin bowling alley. And with the costs of building brick structures much higher than they were 100 years ago, once they're gone, they're gone. 

"You will never see a building like that reproduced," said local heritage advocate David Beland.

"I think a part of Hamilton is lost," said Renzo Passaretti, a realtor whose clients owned Atlantic Submarines sandwich shop next to Martin's Bowling, one of the buildings on the demo list. His clients expected to sell their property to Metrolinx before the project was abruptly cancelled last December. They closed after 40 years this summer.

Passaretti went to Cathedral High School and remembers King Street. 

"I grew up down there," he said. "People had business down there and lived in those buildings."

None of the buildings on the list for demolition this time are protected by any city heritage designation. Joint assessments of the properties done by Metrolinx and the city a few years ago acknowledged features, design and character adding potential value to the streetscape. 

This storefront with a sign for Robert's Quality Upholstering sits on a building to be demolished by Metrolinx. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Take 658-660 King Street, near the intersection with Wentworth Street, for an example. Now boarded up, the three-storey building bears the stamp "AVON" and invokes an Art Deco style. The Metrolinx heritage report acknowledged the building had "intact design features" and had potential for "significant design value." 

But those acknowledgements do not give the buildings any protections from demolition. 

Metrolinx had already spent $80 million buying 60 properties along King Street when the Ontario government cancelled the light-rail project last December. Now, the agency says the buildings are in bad shape and would cost too much to make them habitable. It says the demolition is necessary to avoid fires and other safety hazards. 

Metrolinx declined to provide estimates of what the properties slated for demolition are worth. 

Late last month, one member of the city's heritage committee raised concerns about the demolition. 

"Do any of those demolitions have to go through our city any more for demolition permits or are they permitted to run like the Wild West out there on those properties?" asked Tim Ritchie. 

Steve Robichaud, the city's director of planning, explained that as a provincial entity, Metrolinx does not have to comply with city requirements, but has been in contact with city officials to make sure the demolitions are "safe and orderly".

"Streetscape is heritage as well, cultural impact," Ritchie said. "Even if none of those properties are heritage properties, certainly along that line, there are heritage attributes along there that could be really impacted by this."

Martin’s Bowling is one of the buildings set to be demolished by Metrolinx. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Despite not being required to comply with city planning requirements, Metrolinx is working to obtain city permits for all demolitions and following dust, noise and pest control bylaws.

Among the now-shuttered businesses is a building that belonged to Robert Kapelar. Kapelar bought his building near King and Gage Avenue in 1970 for about $25,000. Kapelar was an upholsterer who learned his trade in Austria in the 1950s. He moved to Canada in 1960, and his wife came seven months later. 

"I was very pleased with the location that I had because I always had flowers in the backyard, parking for customers," he said. 

He found the relatively "young city" charming, despite how different it was from his childhood and young adulthood in Germany and Austria.

"There were no high-rises," he said. "It was pretty simple compared to Europe."

He opened his shop originally on Ottawa Street, but moved to King and Gage when that building came available. 

He upholstered there for 50 years under the "Robert's Quality Upholstering" sign with a scalloped curtain waving from the awning. He rented the apartment upstairs to tenants. Now 84 years old, Kapelar retired after selling to Metrolinx. 

That building, where Kapelar spent most of his 50-year-plus career, at 1139 King Street, is on the demolition list.

The heritage report that was done by Metrolinx and the city in 2017 when the project still included a light-rail train, said Kapelar's building is intact and a good example of "a row of early two storey multi-use buildings". The consultant said the building has potential for both significant design and contextual value, though not significant historical value for the building itself.

Many of the memories connected with this stretch of King involve five pins and a ball. 

"Who hasn't bowled at Martin's?" said Bianca Marijan, who opened her City Brokerage realty shop on King Street East six years ago.

(Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Marijan is now trying to get a business improvement district started for the businesses that are left. She says the commercial vacancy rate is a staggering 50 per cent, with boarded up windows on many blocks.

"The demolition will leave emptiness where businesses should be," she said. But she chooses to be optimistic about what may be next for the central corridors along Main and King.

"It's a ghost town walking down King Street now," said Emily Power, who lives nearby and has organized rallies with tenants who have been displaced by the expropriation. 

"It makes me very sad and mad to know that so many people lost their homes," she said.
"As well as businesses and community centres that have been displaced -- places that served the community -- seemingly for no reason at all. The train has been cancelled." 

Nann said she and neighbourhood advocates have successfully requested that two cornerstones as well as some items from Martin's Bowling be saved. They hope to see some temporary outdoor spaces like pop-up parks or community art as the demolition continues. 

"It would be a shame to see everything disappear with regrets later," Nann said in a statement to CBC News.

Llewellyn said Metrolinx will "make every effort to salvage" the identified components of the building. 

(Kelly Bennett/CBC)


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