Paul Wilson: Join the war, tear down no more

There have been big losses on the heritage front in Hamilton. One city councillor says it's time to take up arms, and at a forum next month he'll be looking for sturdy recruits.
At the University of Waterloo they've put together an online tool called Building Stories that just might help volunteers in Hamilton build an up-to-date inventory of heritage properties. (Heritage Resource Centre)

The People’s Heritage Army wants you.

In the war room this week, General Brian McHattie plotted strategy. A final declaration will be issued soon, but the first gathering of the troops looks set for the morning of Saturday, April 20 at City Hall.

"This is a call to arms," says McHattie, councillor for Ward 1 and member of the city’s Heritage Committee.

At the January meeting of that group, he said the battle to protect this town’s built heritage is being lost. "Our recommendations are routinely ignored, tabled, jettisoned."

Sanford Avenue School was one hard loss. Last summer the Heritage Committee sent a motion to council to look at options for saving the handsome three-storey, 40-classroom structure, which opened to great acclaim in 1932.

But council just bounced that motion back, and the wreckers are at work on Sanford right now.

More bad news on the Gore

Fresh from losing that fight, the Heritage Committee then learned the city’s building department was saying yes to surprise demolition requests for a string of historic storefronts on Gore Park.

So McHattie got angry. And this week he brought together a dozen people who care about the buildings that tell Hamilton’s story, the structures that make this city unique.

The idea now is to turn that dozen into a mob. A ruly mob, mind you, motivated to do a little field work that just might keep the wreckers away.

"I can’t help but think there are a lot of citizens who care about this," McHattie says, "but they have no idea how to get involved."

There’s a list out there. It’s old, it’s long, it’s out of date. If you click right here, you can see it for yourself.

It’s called the Inventory of Buildings of Architectural and/or Historical Interest and it was put together decades ago. There are some 7,000 addresses on that list, all over Greater Hamilton.

This list doesn't save buildings

Being on that list means that somebody, sometime, thought the building was important. But the list offers no protection whatsoever.

Sanford Avenue school was on that list. So are the buildings that face the Gore.

There’s another list, and unfortunately it’s much, much shorter – about 250 entries. They’re properties designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, such as the Hamilton GO Centre, the Auchmar mansion, the Pigott – Hamilton’s first skyscraper. They’re protected from demolition.

Extensive research is required to put a property on that list. And the city has less staff than ever to do that kind of work. The Royal Connaught is nearly there – but in the last four years, not one Hamilton property has been designated.

There is one step between zero protection on the inventory list and full protection on the designation list. That’s when a property is "registered," which keeps the wreckers at bay for 60 days.

If council has the will – and that’s a big if – the property could then be designated. But the city is not allowed to register a property after a demolition request has already been received. It’s too late.

And that is why McHattie wants to form an army.

He hopes people will come to the Citizens’ Forum on Cultural Heritage Protection next month and sign on for a little legwork.

Not rocket science

The mission – sift through that long list of inventoried properties. The goal – see which ones would be candidates for getting registered status, giving that 60-day protection.

"I don’t think it’s rocket science," McHattie says.

For one thing, there’s already a great model in place, thanks to the Heritage Resource Centre at the University of Waterloo.

They have put together a nifty online tool, complete with smart-phone app, called Building Stories. It lets people enter facts, photos, stories on properties.

Importantly, its data-entry form meets the criteria of the Ontario Heritage Act. Two staffers from Hamilton’s Culture department are heading to Waterloo next week to find out just how it might work here.

Those who come to the forum in April will learn more about Building Stories. And they will hear case studies from developers in other cities who’ve found ways to repurpose history.

Also on the agenda is figuring out an "education and advocacy strategy" to persuade politicians that it makes sense to protect more of their city’s past.

"We have to start somewhere," McHattie says, "because right now we’re nowhere."

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

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.