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'Demolition by neglect': Gore buildings rotting away

A strip of historic buildings lining Gore Park has endured two frigid winters exposed to the elements without heat – and now it’s just a matter of time before they rot away, says the city’s former head of heritage planning.

'The whole character and heart of the city has been ripped out and we're still ripping it out'

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      A strip of historic buildings lining Gore Park has endured two frigid winters exposed to the elements without heat, and now it's just a matter of time before they rot away, says the city's former head of heritage planning.

      This lengthy saga between the city and Wilson Blanchard is turning into just what some feared – demolition by neglect, says Philip Hoad, the city's former manager of Heritage Facilities and Capital Planning.

      "Leaving a building vacant and unheated is going to exponentially increase its deterioration," Hoad told CBC Hamilton. "The constant freeze-thaw cycle just blows apart the building materials."

      Now we build cheap so we can rape and pillage as much out of this stuff as we can – and then we die.- Philip Hoad, former city manager of Heritage Facilities and Capital planning

      "These century buildings are what gives a city its heart and soul. Well, the whole character and heart of the city has been ripped out and we're still ripping it out."

      Hughson Business Space Corporation owns 18-28 King Street East, and bought the historic 19th century properties in 2000. The developer tried to demolish the buildings back in 2013, but a sudden city heritage designation halted the process.

      Since then, it has been a back and forth between the city and developer David Blanchard over what to do with the buildings, and if pieces of them can be saved.

      They've sat vacant since then, and time has not been kind. The old-growth wood and hand-built stone with its original mason signatures have faced two of Hamilton's harshest winters on record.

      Pieces of the building's facades were removed and put in storage with the intention of saving them. Now moisture has started creeping into the buildings. There are broken, uncovered windows in some buildings, and pieces of the ceiling have collapsed and sent chunks of wood and plaster cascading to the floor in another.

      Water running through buildings destroying them

      That moisture and the freeze-thaw cycle will continue to eat away at the buildings, Hoad says, damaging the masonry and the wood while the interior finishes go moldy. Blanchard has said water has been running through the buildings for years, and now they're so moldy that it's unsafe to send his staff into them.

      The city says the buildings are monitored every three months as part of the vacant buildings that municipal law enforcement officers check in on. Those officers, however, were not aware until Friday that one of the ceilings had collapsed.

      The city also wouldn't divulge what is in the officer's reports from examining the Gore buildings. On Monday, city spokesperson Ann Lamanes issued an update saying bylaw officers visited the buildings last Friday and inspected the roofs from an adjacent building to the west. Staffers say the roofs, at least, are in "excellent" condition.

      "We have had ongoing talks with David Blanchard about obtaining access to look at the structural stability of the building," Lamanes said in an email. Blanchard did not respond to requests for comment.

      Lamanes declined to comment further, citing the ongoing dispute between the city and Blanchard that is before Conservation Review Board.

      The matter is before the board because of Blanchard's exception to the city's vote to designate the strip as heritage properties.

      Prehearings to start just before next winter

      The Conservation Review Board is tasked to conduct hearings on the matter and make a recommendation to council on whether the designation should proceed.

      The next prehearing conference is set for Dec. 3, 2015, by phone – just before the buildings will sit through yet another winter. There's no word on when the actual hearings would start.

      The city has pre-approved $1.1 million in grants if the developer would accept the heritage designation, but Blanchard has said it would take double that to preserve them and he isn't interested unless someone else comes up with the additional cash.

      "The buildings are collapsing as we speak," Blanchard said in a previous interview, while reminding that the city itself approved the initial demolition permits. "They want to keep the facades, fine. Someone will have to pay for that."

      Hoad says the city has a responsibility to plan better than this. The old Gore buildings were made in a way that just isn't possible today, he says, from craftsmanship to materials.

      "Now we build cheap so we can rape and pillage as much out of this stuff as we can – and then we die."

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