Paul Wilson: Full speed ahead for demolition on Gore Park

Two buildings from the 1870s will fall fast on the south edge of Gore Park. The idea of saving the facades has run out of time.
The two white buildings at centre, both from the 1870s, will soon no longer be part of the Gore Park backdrop. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Crews from Budget Demolition are about to roll into Gore Park. You can expect to see their hoarding go up before this month is done.

Two years ago, the same company knocked down a narrow century-plus building on King East, south side of the street, across from the fountain. They made the place disappear fast.

A map of Gore Park put together in 1997. The streetscape has changed little since then, but there have been big losses in the past. (Hamilton Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee)

So they’ve been asked back, this time to take care of the buildings right next door, No. 24 and No. 28. They too are old, from 1876 and 1874 respectively. When they went up, Canada still hadn’t celebrated its 10th birthday. Alexander Graham Bell had just made his first phone call. A train had just crossed the continent in a blistering 84 hours.

So, yes, those buildings are from another time. And the owners say that time has passed. They declare that the structures are beyond repair.

Last fall, David Blanchard and partners announced plans for a big development on that south side of Gore Park. They now own most of the block bounded by King, James, Main and Hughson and propose to fill it with a complex that would include retail, commercial and condos.

One sure thing

When pressed for a value of this project, they put it at $120 million. But they admitted that was a rough estimate indeed. There was much yet to be worked out.

Of one thing, they were sure. They said five old buildings had to go to make way for this big plan.

When these buildings went up, Canada was but a child. (Paul Wilson CBC)

Many objected to losing all that history, and five months ago Blanchard sat down with councillors Jason Farr and Brian McHattie.  A compromise was reached. Three structures would be saved – Numbers 18, 20 and 22. They’re the stone-fronted 1840s Kerr buildings. The front third is to be turned into condos. The rear will be demolished. 

But the other two buildings are a treat to gaze up at too. CBC Hamilton asked Blanchard last month if he’d be open to saving at least the facades there. He said yes – but the expense of doing that would have to come from the city, and he would need to hear fast.

Well, time’s up. "No one came forward to say anything about it," he said yesterday. "There were no monetary offers."

Different in Toronto

History is getting saved everywhere these days. In Toronto, on Yonge near Wellesley, the facades of five old storefronts are being saved. The city gave the developers no choice.

But the business case is dramatically different there. The developer is glad to save those storefronts, costly as that may be, because the payoff is the right to build a 50-storey condo tower behind them.

In Oakville, history gets plenty of protection. Downtown, they saved the facade of the Bank of Montreal. (Paul Wilson CBC)

In Oakville, they saved the Bank of Montreal facade on the main drag and built a funky two-storey house of fashion behind it. Again, it’s easier for developers to make money in that prosperous town.

History is really clicking in Oakville these days. Council knows people care about it. As a result, they’ve designated about 50 properties in the last five years under the Ontario Heritage Act.

By contrast, Hamilton has not designated any. Our hard-working heritage staff has its hands full with heritage permit applications – requests, for instance, to replace the windows or porch or chimney on a designated property.

Council not yet sold on history

As well, Hamilton council seems not yet convinced of the value of history and sometimes pushes aside designation requests. Sanford Avenue School, big and beautiful, is a recent example. To its credit, council does look ready to ensure Delta Secondary doesn’t fall too.

Back at Gore Park, the gap on the street when those two buildings tumble could be there for some time. Developer Blanchard hopes to have that big project underway in two to three years, "but if interest rates go up, it will have a negative impact on any construction."

The biggest loss on the Gore Park streetscape came 40 years ago – the demolition of the majestic Canada Life Assurance headquarters, later the Birks building. (London Public Library)

Then there’s the matter of the number of condo units coming on the market at one time, what with the Royal Connaught project down the street and the Vranich development at Main and Caroline.

"Condos are the most logical," Blanchard says, "but maybe there will be too many."

Despite everything, Gore Park from James to Catharine has lost little in recent times. The worst moment was exactly 40 years ago, when Hamilton let them tear down the old Canada Life Assurance building, which looked as though it belonged on Parliament Hill. In its place, on the southeast corner of King and James, we got a faceless tower.

However, that demolition did help spur the creation of the Ontario Heritage Act. Now Hamilton needs to make better use of the protection it can provide.

Paul Wilson is a member of the Hamilton Municipal Heritage Committee. |  @PaulWilsonCBC

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.