United Church takes over St. Giles housing project but plans to demolish 107-year-old church

The property development arm of the United Church of Canada has taken on the affordable housing project planned for the site of Hamilton’s St. Giles Church.

Some community members would like to see adaptive reuse of the 1913 building

City councillors have given the tentative go ahead for New Vision United Church to demolish St. Giles United Church. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The property development arm of the United Church of Canada has taken on the affordable housing project planned for the site of Hamilton's St. Giles Church — but the plan to tear the building down and start from scratch remains the same, say church officials.

The building, built in 1913 at Main and Holton streets, is owned by New Vision United Church, a congregation created by the merger of St. Giles and downtown's Centenary United Church. The merged congregation is worshipping out of Centenary and has decided to build affordable housing on the St. Giles site. It had been looking for a development partner since 2014, says Rev. Ian Sloan. 

Sloan says the congregation recently came to an agreement with the United Property Resource Corporation (UPRC) to develop the site, which New Vision will continue to own. With United Church congregations shrinking across the country, the UPRC is a new entity created to help churches use their surplus assets in ways that further their mission, he said. This will be one of the organization's first development projects.

They have hired architects KPMB — a prominent Toronto firm co-founded by Hamilton's Bruce Kuwabara — to design a development that will take up much of the site, with 2.5 to 3-storey buildings along Holton Street and a taller section along Main Street, as permitted by the zoning. 

"We want to see an enhancement and strengthening of the residential fabric of the neighbourhood," he told CBC Hamilton on Friday. "Densification."

At a February community meeting, hosted online by Ward 3 Coun. Nrinder Nann, KPMB principal David Constable said the firm planned to "embark on designing the site in March." As such, the details of what it will look like have not been decided, but he said they are aiming for somewhere around 90 to 100 units. Constable said the design will feature plots for urban gardens, a walkable streetscape, green roofs and energy-efficient construction. 

He said a formal community consultation on the design will likely occur sometime this spring.

"The timing is not precise," he said, adding they have a "goal of by next year starting work."

Heritage versus affordable housing

In the February meeting, many local residents voiced their opposition to the plan to demolish the Gothic Revival-style church, which is one of only two churches designed by local firm Stewart & Witton. However, Sloan confirms that's not in the cards. He says that while preserving built heritage is important, maximizing high-quality affordable housing is more aligned with the congregation's goals for their property.

"For us, purpose-built housing is more aligned with our religious beliefs."

In 2018, at Sloan's request, Hamilton City Council's planning committee rejected a heritage designation that would have saved the church. At the time, cultural heritage planner Chelsey Tyers said it met eight of the nine criteria to designate it as a heritage building.

Sloan said then that the building needed about $1 million in repairs and cost $90,000 per year to maintain. It has not been maintained since 2016. 

Clock is ticking

Still, a group of Ward 3 residents are trying to convince New Vision to change its mind and commit to an adaptive reuse of the existing building. Heritage advocate Sarah Sheehan points to creative re-uses of churches around the world — including the nearby St. Peter's Community Centre and Waterdown's St. Thomas Lofts.

She says research she conducted on the cost to demolish the church came up with a figure of $2 million. She also points to the environmental concerns associated with tearing down a building and erecting something new, and the fact that churches have traditionally been community hubs and it would be nice to see St. Giles maintain some shared space.

"Wouldn't it be exciting to have KPMB-designed housing in the rear, on Holton, and KPMB-renovated community space in St. Giles?" she said. "Plus keeping the church also retains the mature trees (slated for removal) and green space."

Time is ticking, however. Sloan told CBC Hamilton the church will be torn down once the city issues a demolition permit, and that a cultural and heritage impact assessment are currently being undertaken to that end.

"(The United Church has) all these properties. We can't save them all."



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