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Designate Westdale Theatre as heritage - with or without the owners: Johnson

Coun. Aidan Johnson has started the process to get Westdale Theatre designated as a heritage property so it can't be demolished or drastically altered. The owners haven't agreed.

Ward 1 councillor hasn't heard back from the owners, so he went ahead and started the process

Projectionist Jim Mair works at the Westdale Theatre in 2012. Aidan Johnson, Ward 1 councillor, has started the process to get a heritage designation on the theatre. The owners haven't agreed. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

He's been trying to get in touch with the owners for months. Now, Aidan Johnson says he's going ahead with the process of designating Westdale Theatre as a heritage property.

The Ward 1 councillor is a long-time fan of the 1930s theatre, which he calls a "secular sacred space" in Hamilton. He wants it to be a designated heritage property so it can't be torn down or significantly altered.

Johnson has tried twice this year to contact the Sorokolit family, who own the theatre. But they haven't called back, he said. So two months ago, he went ahead on his own.

The Westdale Theatre is the last single-screen house in Hamilton. (Hamilton Public Library)

"I would have preferred to have the blessing of the owners," he said. "I don't know how they feel about the designation process."

But the theatre is too important to leave its future to chance, he said. For years, there have been persistent rumours about potential sales or closure. Johnson doesn't want any surprises.

"I grew up in Westdale village, and every day, I walked past the Westdale cinema," he said. "One of the reasons I wanted to be an adult was to go to the Westdale cinema. I regard it as a secular sacred space."

The city has the legal authority to start the designation process, he said. And "the wheels are turning."

The process works like this:

Someone files a request to designate, which in this case, Johnson has done. Staff reach out to the property owners about the request, said Chelsey Tyers, a city cultural heritage planner.

The Westdale Theatre has been an anchor for the neighbourhood for nearly eight decades. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

City inspects from the outside if necessary

Then the city does a preliminary evaluation of the property see if it meets the heritage criteria. If the owners don't participate or call back, the city inspects the property from the outside, Tyers said.

If city staff think it merits a designation, the city planning committee and then council will vote to add it to the work plan for heritage designation. That work plan currently spans to 2025, Tyers said, but councillors can ask that it take higher priority.

With the work plan, the city takes a more in-depth look at the building to identify its cultural heritage attributes – again, from the outside if the owner doesn't cooperate. Then councillors vote to ask it be designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.

The single-screen 498-seat Westdale Theatre, which opened in 1935, is at the hub of the trendy Westdale neighbourhood.

Its future has been a slowly percolating conversation topic at city hall. In 2012, then-councillor Brian McHattie approached the Sorokolits to see how the city could help the theatre.

'It's a struggle'

McHattie suggested a cost-shared assessment of the condition of the old building, and a possible crowd-funding campaign to help bring it up to snuff. The money could come from the Ward 1 area rating fund.

When Johnson became the new Ward 1 councillor last October, he picked up the file from McHattie.

The Sorokolits also owns the Mount Pleasant and Regency theatres in Toronto. CBC Hamilton is attempting to contact Dan Sorkolit. Last November, he said that he can't rule out the theatre eventually closing.

"It's a struggle," he said.

The cinema needs to be digitized, which costs about $45,000, Sorokolit said. That would expand the number of potential movie offerings. 

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca | @SamCraggsCBC

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