Paul Wilson: Wreckers at the ready on the Gore – can we try the Toronto way?

A row of storefronts from the 1800s is under threat on Gore Park. Meanwhile, Toronto is finding ways to save its heritage stock.
The Dineen building has been part of the streetscape on Yonge in Toronto since 1897. It's in the final stages of a full restoration. (Reg Beaudry/ urbanicity)

Before this week is out, five storefronts on Gore Park will be empty. Two shut the door some time ago, and a restaurant, a convenience store and a payday-loan shop will close Friday.

They’re leaving because they have to. The development company that owns these 1800s buildings has other plans.

The original scheme was to knock down all five to make way for a big retail/ condo project. Now the developers say they might be able to save three of the buildings.

Developer David Blanchard says his buildings on Gore Park are in bad shape and he wants to knock down the white ones on the left. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

As for the other two, the goal is still to tear them down. David Blanchard makes that very clear. He expects that to happen within six months.

He and his partners are involved with the finest heritage properties in Hamilton. There’s the Bank of Montreal, the Landed Banking and Loan, and the SunLife/Pigott complex, all at Main and James.

But their passion for historic architecture does not extend to those buildings on Gore Park, none of which is protected by designation under the Ontario Heritage Act. (Hamilton council has shown great reluctance to designate a property against the owner’s wishes.)

Babysitting buildings

Even though redevelopment plans are still vague, the developers want the old structures down this year. "The buildings are shot," Blanchard says. "We’ve been babysitting them for 12 or 13 years."

They’ve been persuaded to look at saving the front third of three of the buildings in that historic row, with the idea of retail at ground level and condo lofts above.

But Blanchard says that even if some downtown renewal money does materialize, he’s not yet convinced that option makes sense. "If we have to sell the units for $800,000, it won’t work."

Clayton Smith, right, turned the Dineen building on Yonge Street in Toronto from a flophouse into a showpiece. Philip Hoad, left, did all the exterior work. And Jeff Feswick admires what they achieved. (Reg Beaudry/ urbanicity)

His outfit wants to demolish the other two buildings. Is there any way he’d be open to saving the facades to keep that stretch of the historic Gore Park facade intact?

"We would certainly consider it if it didn’t ruin our larger plans," Blanchard says. And he says the city would have to underwrite the expense of that facade restoration.

So what would it cost to save Hamilton’s history on the Gore? Blanchard can’t say, "but I’m sure there are people in Toronto who know all about this."

A Toronto tour

Funny he should mention that, because we’re just back from a little tour of Toronto. Yonge Street specifically, where a couple of developers clearly know that heritage sells.

Jeff Feswick is on the journey. He’s president of Historia Building Restoration, and a guy who put his money where his mouth is. He bought the long-derelict but still beautiful 1879 Treble Hall on John South and is bringing it back to life.

On board too, photographer Reg Beaudry, creator and art director of urbanicity magazine. His feelings on heritage can be summed up by his reaction to the recent demolition of Sanford Avenue School. "When it went down, it took a chunk of my soul."

There will be no bad seats in the restaurant atop the Dineen building. (Reg Beaudry/ urbanicity)

First stop is at 140 Yonge, a couple of blocks south of Queen. In 1897, the Dineen Hat and Fur Company built a handsome four-storey headquarters here. In recent decades, the building had taken a long slide. The floors above the street were mostly a flop house, mattress space going for $100 a month.

Into this picture rode Clayton Smith, president of the Commercial Realty Group. He has half-a-dozen historic properties in the core now. Company tag: Heritage Buildings – Modern Space.

He bought the Dineen building in 2011 for $7 million, then spent another $4 million to make it sparkle.

Picked the right people

He knew there would be surprises, but got the right people. He chose Philip Hoad, head of Empire Restoration, to do all exterior work. Until a couple of years ago, Hoad was the city of Hamilton’s manager of heritage facilities. On this job, he had to replace about 2,000 vintage bricks, 110 windows and a lot of copper.

Smith works with his trades directly, no general contractor. He’s on site with them early each morning. "It’s important to keep momentum," he says. "And they give me advice. I’m learning all the time."

Ryan Love of E.R.A. architects, right, tells Jeff Feswick and CBC Hamilton about Toronto's biggest facade retention project. (Reg Beaudry/ urbanicity)

Toronto designated the Dineen building in 2009. Normally that means nothing on the exterior can change. But because Smith had conserved the building, the city was prepared to let him add another floor. It’s all glass, and there will be no bad seats in the high-end rooftop restaurant that opens there this summer.

Smith has been to Hamilton. "It’s a beautiful city and some of the buildings are great... I drive through and I drool. But I have to know the financials. I have to know it’s going to work."

So he’s sticking to downtown Toronto. Word of mouth from tenants in his other heritage properties made it possible to fill the Dineen before the restoration was complete.

He showcases heritage right through the building. Exposed bricks, beams, photos, massive old safes, even a history loop on the big-screen monitor in a lower-level lounge. There may be shinier places to work in downtown Toronto, but the character quotient here can’t be touched.

Biggest facade project

Up the street on Yonge north of Wellesley is the FIVE Condos project. A 50-storey tower will be soon start soaring. But at ground level, they’re saving history.

On a side street called St. Joseph, mammoth girders of steel prop up the front wall – Gothic Arch entrance and all – of the century-old Rawlinson Cartage building. "This is definitely the largest facade retention project in the city to date," says Ryan Love of E.R.A. Architects.

Part of the FIVE Condos project involves saving the facades of these Yonge Street storefronts, from the corner south to the building painted white. (Reg Beaudry/ urbanicity)

Work like that costs $1 million or more, but it wasn’t optional. "The protection of facades was always non-negotiable from a city standpoint," Love says.

Around the corner on Yonge, as part of the same project, five vintage storefronts are being saved. The city designated them, then worked out a deal with the developers that will see the facades saved.

Behind that historic front, between the original walls that separate the buildings, new condo lofts are being built. New concrete floors, insulation, drywall, air conditioning. They’re going for $300,000 to $600,000.

"From a sales standpoint, it’s a large benefit to have these authentic structures," Love says.

As for Jeff Feswick of Treble Hall, the projects on Yonge – and the people doing them – filled him with hope. "They’re angels. I love it," he says. "Everything they said, I understand it, I buy it.. and I think pride has an awful lot to do with the end result."

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.