baby king

The wrecking ball is set to return to downtown once again, so soon after it’s last appearance blocks away at Main and Bay, this time to menace the buildings just south of Gore Park (18-28 King St. E.), between Hughson and James. Wilson Blanchard Property Management, the current owner, has filed a surprise demolition permit that doesn’t look likely to be stopped unless city councillors return early from their Christmas vacations. In their place, Blanchard plans to replace the block (which he owns) with a large condominium/parking/retail complex.

The buildings in questions date back to around 1840 (18-22 King St. E.) and the 1870s (24, 28). Despite this, they lack a “heritage” designation. There was another building in the row, at 30 King St. E., but it was demolished last May, leaving Gore’s infamous “missing tooth”. Rumour has it that current ground-floor retail tenants have until the spring when their leases end. The upper floors are currently “sealed off”, other than the offices of architect David Premi who’s been working with Blanchard on redevelopment plans.

Years ago, when I first started spending a lot of time downtown, these buildings were one of the first places I came to know. Whether in the lofts upstairs, (former) Infusions cafe and Mahal or the old Downstairs club, I’ve got a lot of good memories. It’s been years now, though, since I’ve been in any of them. Most of the old tenants are now long gone, and though some left many years ago, I haven’t forgotten the reasoning they gave at the time: “Blanchard”.

Speaking to some old tenants once again, I got a clearer picture. Virtually as soon as Blanchard got a hold of their building, they were told point blank that they could expect no more repairs. Some got evicted, others held on as long as possible, but “by the end, chunks of the ceiling were coming down”. This is what “Demolition by Neglect” looks like, and it seems pretty damn obvious that it was the plan all along.

The wave of destruction now picking up steam across downtown is something we should all be deeply suspicious of. It signals a shifting of gears in the revitalization process, from buildings and streets to blocks and districts. This is a process Hamilton knows well, it explains why so little of our original buildings are intact (or occupied, if they are) and why the rest were replaced by malls, towers and an endless sea of parking lots.

One has to wonder, with another new supermarket already on its way into Jackson Square, a serious oversupply of office space and myriad other hotel and condominium plans in process around downtown, where they expect customers to come from for this new block? Any ultimate profitability for this project and others like it relies on a wholesale transformation of downtown into a high-end retail and residential hub. What does that mean for those of us already who live, work and spend time there?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m pretty critical of the commercialization of public/community spaces, the destruction of built heritage and gentrification, all of which are obvious goals here. I won’t spend too much time dwelling on the subject, though, as I’m not sure how likely they are to come about. It’s just as likely that the property will spend the next decade as a(nother) parking lot. Hamilton has tried this before, and though Jackson Square is the usual example given, this project sounds a lot more like a certain other block-sized development downtown: Effort Square.

You’ve heard of Effort Square, right? The massive, multi-tower office/apartment/hotel/parking/retail complex between Main and King at Catherine? Featuring two floors of (mostly unused) indoor mall space, a nightclub and several floors of above-ground parking? Put up decades ago by Effort Trust, it’s a big, grey, boring monument to the ambitions of planners past. If it now seems almost invisible, that’s not because it’s empty, just devoid of emotion or imagination.

Behind every big, decaying boondoggle in our core lies some bureaucrat with the solemn belief that “if we build it, they will come”. With this faith, planning starts to drift away from the realities of the land, building and community in question toward pipe dreams about what our downtown “could” and “should” be.

The visions these planners, both public and private, seek to implement tend to reflect the values of their institutions. The big glass towers convey power and status, even though a wider, shorter building would give just as much floorspace. Their grandiose features, though often quite costly, are cheap and short-lived so that they may be replaced with regular shifts in upper-class fashions and never lead to pesky heritage designations (ie glass or styrofoam/stucco exteriors). Their target markets are almost always “high-end”, since they make for the easiest, largest returns on investment, no matter how unrealistic given the area’s demographics. In short order, the buildings look dated and tacky, but that doesn’t matter since it only leaves the door open for even more redevelopments down the road.

If there’s one reason we’re finally seeing the bulldozers roll in and work begin on so many properties which had been quietly held for years, it’s the stunning success of James North. Burgeoning art districts are one of the signs investors look for when searching for cities “on the cusp” of renewal and transformation, and it seems we’re now one of “those” cities. It’s important, though, to look at how and why James succeeded when so many prior attempts failed. Unlike blockbusting redevelopment attempts, artists and small-time property owners simply bought existing buildings and repaired them with their own money and/or skills. I’m not going to pretend this was a totally “grassroots” endeavour, but it was relatively decentralized and happened with a tiny fraction of the budget anyone imagined was needed to bring people back downtown. Say what you want about the art scene, but nobody can argue this was a project orchestrated by LIUNA, Vrancor, Blanchard or the city – if anything their neglect made it all possible. If only they could do the same for King and Main…

The question, now, is how much we can grow before we hit the inevitable wall. Nationally speaking, we’re a lot closer to the end of a real-estate bubble than the beginning, especially in condo-saturated markets like Toronto and Vancouver. Locally, we’ve got a half-century legacy of failures to contend with, and frighteningly few which aged well. How long until the blatant disregard for current tenants and residents starts taking a serious toll on the area’s new-found cultural vibrancy? How long until we’ve squandered too many resources on generic and poorly-constructed towers to build anything of real value?

How long until none of downtown’s original buildings are left?