A look at the design, debate and diplomacy that’s going into creating McMaster’s cutting-edge Downtown Health Campus
BY MICHAEL GORDON
It’s hard to imagine a city of serious reputation standing tall on the world stage without at least one accompanying post-secondary institution shoring up the foundations. Think for very long of Boston, for example, and you begin to realize that its renown for being a thrumming hive of intellectual life and innovation – America’s Athens – owes to its remarkable education culture: more than 100 colleges and universities containing more than a quarter-million students are located in Greater Boston.
There, as in many university towns, the connection between professors and policymakers is intimate and electric; many cities gain vitality and innovative spark by having campuses, faculty and students enmeshed in the life downtown. That changes not only the energy of the city, but also its self-image and aspirations.
Hamilton has long struggled with this dynamic. When McMaster relocated from Toronto to Hamilton 81 years ago, it located where there was a generous gift land available, on what was then the city’s western margin. In the intervening decades, that footprint has changed by degrees, with adding density on the west-end campus as well as establishing bold eastern footholds in the McMaster Innovation Park and Burlington’s DeGroote School of Business. The university does have a continuing education campus in Hamilton’s core, but it operates at a whisper.
For a city that is slowly relinquishing its identity as a steeltown, talking more often and with greater conviction about innovation and wrestling with issues of downtown renewal, a downtown campus often emerges on wish lists. This summer, that wish moved closer than ever to reality. In July, McMaster’s plan for its downtown health campus made notable progress when Hamilton councillors approved a $20 million investment in the project, as well as consenting to relocate some city public health services and clinics at the site. When completed, the McMaster Health Campus promises to be a hub for students, teaching, patient care and research, seeing up to 54,000 patient visits every year and allowing some 15,000 Hamiltonians now without a doctor to have a family physician. It will bring 4,000 McMaster students downtown and serve as home to 450 McMaster employees, to say nothing of the jobs spinoff during design and construction phases. When Hamilton’s General Issues Committee assented to the campus plan, Hamilton Mayor Bob Bratina fairly beamed. “This is our finest hour,” the Mayor said. “We will take pride years from now that we’ve made this happen.” McMaster president Patrick Deane described the achievement as a “beachhead in downtown.”
The plan, of course, had been in the works for some time. In early 2004, under Mayor Larry DiIanni, there had been no small support for such a venture. At a dinner meeting between the officers of McMaster University and city councillors on January of that year, DiIanni expressed his enthusiasm for the development of a downtown campus, something seen as both beneficial for the downtown and in keeping with the university’s own growth scenarios released in the Refining Directions report. Nothing that ambitious moves terribly fast, perhaps more so in these parts, but both parties continued to tend to the embers of that moment. In the spring of 2008, McMaster University and the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board began exploratory work with the City of Hamilton towards construction of a Family Health and Education Centre – what was seen initially as a shared facility – at Bay and King, on the site of the school board’s downtown headquarters, establishing one of the largest centres for primary care in Canada, in a facility that would draw upwards of
75,000 patient visits a year. “The partnership would bring together two of the city’s leading institutions and their missions to provide the very best learning opportunities, community services and partnerships,” said then-president of McMaster, Peter George. The facility was to combine a large primary care and learning centre with complementary research groups and commercial activities. The university was cognizant of the impact that such a move would no doubt have.
“We’ve always had a clear vision for a Downtown Family Health Centre and the many benefits it will bring to patients, downtown revitalization and the overall city,” said John Kelton, dean and vice-president of the McMaster’s Faculty of Health Sciences. “Working together with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board significantly enhances that vision and the value that it brings to Hamilton. We look forward to our ongoing discussions with both the school board and the city to find ways to make the dream a reality.” It was characterized by Fred Eisenberger, the mayor of the day, as “a home-run for downtown Hamilton,” though such colour commentary was still a bit premature. Similar discussions under the Eisenberger administration fell flat for one reason or another.
Then, as now, the laudable goal has proven to be something of a moving target: First introduced in July as a breathtaking $105-million, 217,000-squarefoot facility with just 84,000 square feet to be occupied by a city public health component, the iteration presented in the reworked proposal presented a different picture. In light of unyielding budget pressures on both the university and municipal fronts, the stakeholders and stick handlers opted to bring forward a more modest and pragmatic vision, a building estimated at $80 million and 152,000 square feet total. The more palatable pitch hooked council, who voted to commit more than $47 million over 30 years to the project, one that is hoped to raise a number of boats on adjacent blocks, attracting like-minded businesses and professionals, and economic uplift as a result.
Whatever the future holds, the site itself is certainly freighted with historic significance – not simply because of the aesthetic merits of Joe Singer’s elegant modernist building (which, to the chagrin of local architecture buffs, is slated to be razed in advance of construction) but because of the Board of Education building’s role as an integral element of the famous Civic Square plans of the late 60s. While some foundational civic structures of that blueprint – City Hall and the Art Gallery of Hamilton chief among them – have undergone restorative work and in some cases adopted a fresh face, none have been replaced outright. Singer’s 1967 building, with its proud, lithe arches and signature library in the round, would be the first, as the Board of Ed decamps to what critics suspect will be a soulless and painstakingly anonymous build on the mountain (the new $31.6-million headquarters, a 2.5-storey building of 113,500 square feet, will sprout on the grounds of the former Crestwood school site near Lime Ridge Mall once Crestwood is demolished next summer). Those same voices are scarcely more generous when it comes to their estimation of McMaster’s architectural track record. If you’ve been following the story for long enough, you get vision and the value that it brings to Hamilton. We look forward to our ongoing discussions with both the school board and the city to find ways to make the dream a reality.” It was characterized by Fred Eisenberger, the mayor of the day, as “a home-run for downtown Hamilton,” though such colour commentary was still a bit premature. Similar discussions under the Eisenberger administration fell flat for one reason or another. the sense that the decision-makers in this case are more focused on the larger abstract. None of this was made any easier by the practical constraints laid out by McMaster. The university reportedly has a funding-related commitment to the province requiring them to occupy a training facility for new family medicine residents no later than July 2013. Empathetic solutions to this kind of reuse challenge are in short supply in Hamilton, and where they exist, speed is not a defining characteristic; the languishing Lister Block, for example, which took the better part of a generation and a massive transfusion of city funds to reclaim from its slow, painful dissolve. Though hardly conclusive, 2007 estimates from the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board that it would cost $55 million to renovate and expand the downtown education centre – roughly 250 people work in the building today, while the HWDSB says it needs space for more than 600 – certainly gave pause to those working to locate a new McMaster campus downtown.
In defense of the contentious and politically charged decisions, many of those involved have fallen back on the remarkable profile and reputation enhancement that came along with the innovative teaching environment that characterized McMaster University Medical Centre’s early days and went on to be adopted to varying degrees in clinical settings around the world. The commanding professional reputation of Hamilton Health Sciences, one of the best-regarded health care systems in the country if not the continent, certainly offers good reason to be optimistic about the upshot of this deal. As well, HHS’ footprint as the city’s largest employer is not to be sneezed at; any hiving of health care professionals en masse in the city’s core will likely create some sunny synergies, especially if the practice inside the building envelope proves to be sufficiently electrifying. Nor is there any disputing that an increased availability of top-notch primary medical care to downtown and lower-city residents will be received as a soothing balm by a population accustomed to their habitual splinters from the short end of the proverbial stick. In the chicken-and-egg sweepstakes of downtown renewal, this holds the potential of being one shiny henhouse.
In the short term, the practical matters of transition are front-and-centre for the residents of 100 Main West. When McMaster University will acquire the building, the HWDSB may rent 50,000 square feet of space from the city for two years as part of a sale agreement with Mac. Those details are, predictably, under wraps, so it’s hard to say who will ultimately bear the cost of putting them up – the university, the city, or a measure of both. And it’s not just those plans that are a bit vague. Officials working on the future of the Crestwood site are also trafficking in fuzzy pictures – the stated aim was to finalize sketch plans by mid-November. And so the city nervously holds its breath, waiting, hoping and wishing for the best to come out of all those glittering architectural renderings.