They say the only thing that stays the same is change. When it comes to North American cityscapes, that’s certainly true. These pictures were taken at Bay & Main today, as the former Public Board of Education was torn apart in front of gathering crowds. Across Bay St., cranes swing wildly, erecting new towers for hotels and condominiums in a frenzy of construction and demolition extending almost all the way to Hess. Looking westward from City Hall, one can see “progress” in all its glory, a microcosm of the conflicting forces which have defined our downtown for the past half a century.

Within all change lies both creation and destruction. Every act of creation takes a toll on the space and materials used, while every act of destruction contains within it a whole new world of possibilities. Production, construction and development are all destructive processes, consuming space, nature, built heritage and raw materials an an incredible rate. While this doesn’t necessarily make them “bad”, it does imply a cost. None of these shiny new glass towers come without a price and that can’t be calculated in dollars alone.

Both of these projects have been controversial, like so many others downtown. Moving public school board administration to the south mountain wasn’t a popular choice, and neither was the choice to tear down the existing structure in favour of a new (only slightly larger) one. The public health centre which will replace it comes at huge expense to taxpayers, and much of it only amounts to moving civic offices a few blocks west from their current home in The Wright House (King & Hughson), another keystone downtown building kept afloat by renting space to government offices. Across Bay St, these new towers have similarly been criticized for knocking down half of the old Revenue Canada Building, turning the old Hamilton Motor Products property into a parking lot for years, going ahead without permits and some very shady dealings between Vrancor and city officials.

When the rubble clears and the new towers begin to shine, I have little doubt that most of this will be forgotten. The sordid saga of the Lister Block is already fading from our memory, even as the building itself returns to life. Who still remembers the blocks of homes and shops demolished for Jackson Square, York Boulevard, endless surface parking lots or new public buildings? There’s no small amount of irony in the demise of 100 Main St. W, it was one of the first components of the decades-long “Civic Square” project which transformed (ie: destroyed) the core between the 50s and 80s. One has to wonder how long these new towers will stand until they, too, would be “cheaper to replace than repair”.

This cycle is utterly cannibalistic, and it shows in the way buildings are now being produced. Since frequent renovations if not demolitions are now the norm, there’s little point to building things to last. More than a century ago, major construction projects were meant to be permanent – I’ve visited enough thousand-year-old stone buildings to know this can work. Comparing major buildings downtown erected early in the last century (Lister Block, Pigott Building), mid-century (City Hall and the School Board) and late (Eaton’s Centre, Copps Colosseum etc), there’s a few obvious trends. Aside from getting uglier, they also get far more fragile. City Hall just required a major rebuild, and the school board is now in pieces. As for those built late, it’s hard to imagine they’ll last much longer or be any cheaper to deal with, and harder to imagine any local heritage activists putting much effort into them.

After all this time, it seems downtown is finally seeing some “revitalisation”. James North’s budding “arts community” is apparently getting rave reviews across the country. Isn’t it interesting, how after all this time, the renaissance has sprung from one of the few untouched and neglected streets of largely original buildings? No towers, cranes or bulldozers were required, as individuals bought and renovated buildings one-by-one, turning them into galleries, cafes and restaurants. Locke and Ottawa would also be obvious examples here. These transformations has had their own costs, but at the very least has been far more successful and less destructive than any of the big-budget attempts from the city or development firms. Sadly, rather than learning from this example, the response has been a rapid expansion of “redevelopment” projects around the rest of the core.

Yesterday, developer David Blanchard announced plans to create a new multi-tower development off the south side of Gore Park between James and Hughson. It will be “the largest downtown development since Jackson square was built in the sixties”, if they can manage to demolish the heritage buildings currently on site. This, along with proposals for the (recently razed) West Harbour and others are poised to redefine our downtown, but given the history of such efforts, I’m far from optimistic.

We need to be deeply wary of construction for the sake of construction. Hamilton can demolish and rebuild everything between Queen and Wellington for another five decades if it wishes, but it won’t bring the prosperity we seek. Real “progress” if it means anything at all, can’t be measured by counting cranes from the escarpment, it has to be experienced at street level. Building a legacy takes time, but appreciating one takes even longer. It takes years for buildings to be incorporated into the dense urban fabric that is a city, and it can take years to recover when one crumbles. Councils and corporations have tried and failed for five decades to fix downtown with bulldozers. It’s time to try something else.

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