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Lately, there’s been a lot of controversy over the boom in condominium development downtown. Concerns about height, neighbourhood character and shady land deals have dogged the Tivoli Condos, planned for James North. Others have raised concerns about affordable housing and the risk of repeating past generations of “disastrous” downtown redevelopment policies.

While these might be valid concerns, I prefer to look on the lighter side. The real estate boom Hamilton is witnessing right now represents one of the fastest-growing markets in Canada. The “renewal” people talked about for so many years is finally happening, and it’s transforming the city before our eyes. Streets which used to be clogged with sad and hungry faces are now populated by cheerful and trendy young professionals. The old and dirty shops and restaurants of “little Portugal” are being replaced with the same upscale delights you might find on Queen West in Toronto. Our city has finally become hip.

Looking out at the many cranes which now hover over our downtown, I can’t help but ponder where this new renaissance is heading. Might we, too, be able to erect a sea of glass towers like Toronto and Vancouver? Line King, Main and Barton with upscale clothing shops and trendy ‘gastro-pubs’? What could we make of the waterfront, once all that “Setting Sail” nonsense is shredded and the last steel mills close up shop?

The massive influx of capital we’re seeing will spread far beyond the shadows cast by these towers. It will buoy house prices, increase tax revenues, create jobs and provide an opportunity to finally fix up some of the lower city’s vast tracks of slum housing. This rising tide really will lift all boats, so what if a few people get evicted? Recent history has shown that real estate speculation is the safest, most stable investment we can make, and our town’s history has shown that we never really can go wrong with cranes and bulldozers. Our city simply cannot affort to miss this opportunity.

Condos are our future. Glass is the new steel. However rapid or scary these changes might be, we might as well embrace them, because you can’t fight progress, right?

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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?

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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