Paul Wilson: History and condos collide in downtown Hamilton

A developer wants to knock down a row of 1800s buildings on Gore Park to make room for a condo tower and maybe a full-sized supermarket. He knows the demolition won't be an easy sell.
These five storefronts facing Gore Park will all be empty by spring. The developers who own this stretch of the block want to knock the buildings down for a condo tower and supermarket. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Back when the millennium was brand-new, Hamilton developer David Blanchard conducted a little tour of his company’s latest acquisition.

The property was a row of old buildings on the south side of King Street, across from the fountain in Gore Park. And the guests on Blanchard’s walkabout were new mayor Bob Wade, director of downtown renewal Ron Marini, and Neil Everson, who is director of economic development.

"I showed them the buildings so that they knew we didn’t wreck them," Blanchard says. The decay, he told his guests, had set in long ago.

A dozen years later, those buildings are still there. And now Blanchard is ramping up efforts to bring big changes to that block.

His property consists of five storefronts. (A sixth was torn down last year.) The clothing store is vacant. The tax preparation office is leaving in a few months. And now two restaurants and a variety store have been told their leases are up in the spring.

Room for a second supermarket

Blanchard would like to then knock those buildings down and put up something new. He’s talking about a condo tower, parking and even a two-level 60,000-square foot grocery store – even though downtown Hamilton is to finally get a full-sized supermarket in Jackson square next spring, part of a new chain based in the GTA.

"There’s always room for more," Blanchard says. "We’re working with national chains... there is some interest."

The Bank of Nova Scotia opened on King East in 1954, with a picture window from Belgium. The developers want to include the building in a new development. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Blanchard doesn’t own the Bank of Nova Scotia building next door to his properties. But he is in discussions with the bank about providing alternate leased space in the core. In return, he would buy the King East flagship from the bank and make its grand hall a focal point of the new project.

It is a beautiful space, with a ceiling several storeys high. When it opened in 1954, the bank declared:

"Gore Park may now reflect itself in the greatest front window in the world. Here are a boldness and a deliberate majesty which entirely suit a city growing so rapidly in stature every year."

There were no sheets of plate glass anywhere on the continent big enough for this project. So the nine panes had to be shipped from Belgium.

Just the architect upstairs

The upper floors of Blanchard’s buildings on King are sealed off, except for the offices of architect David Premi, who designed the award-winning rebirth of the Hamilton library and Farmers’ Market.

And he has been working on some King Street ideas for Blanchard – who is conducting a tour today of the properties and showing concept drawings.

David Blanchard and associates played a big role in saving this streetscape on James South, both the Bank of Montreal building and the SunLife/Pigott complex beyond it. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

But knocking down Nos. 18, 20, 22, 24 and 28 King East is going to run into considerable resistance and Blanchard knows it. These structures from the 1800s aren’t designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, but all are on the city’s Inventory of Buildings of Architectural and/or Historical Interest.

Oldest are the Kerr buildings, Nos. 18 and 20, erected in the 1840s. Archibald and Thomas Kerr were dry goods merchants. A Gore Park brochure issued by the city’s planning department says the Kerr buildings "are the best examples of pre-Confederation stone architecture on the Gore...

"The Kerr Company contributed substantially to Hamilton’s early role as a commercial centre. The finely crafted original stone masonry on the upper storeys is still largely intact."

They've saved a lot of history

Blanchard and associates are probably responsible for saving more history in downtown Hamilton than anyone else. At Main and James, for instance, they rescued the 1928 Pigott/Sunlife complex, the1908 Landed Banking building, the 1929 Bank of Montreal temple.

The Landed Banking building at Main and James is another one saved by the Blanchard group. It's a copy of New York City's Knickerbocker Bank, since demolished. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

At minimum, Hamilton will expect them to save some of the history around the corner on King East.

Protecting that historic Gore Park streetscape – the architecture that makes us different from places like Mississauga – could be achieved by at least saving the facades.

Blanchard’s not saying no to that. But he’s not saying yes either.

He would want help – from the city, the province, somebody – with the extra costs of saving those facades. It would be millions, he says, "and I don’t think there’s an appetite for that today." 

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.