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CITY FILE | The good, the bad and the ugly

As we're finding out, not all developments, nor developers, are created equal

By Sean Burak

  • Gary Buttrum and Kieran Dickson's development before
  • Gary Buttrum and Kieran Dickson's development after

Hamilton, lately, seems to be a developer's dream. The horizon is dotted with cranes, with buildings reaching for the sky in numbers we have not seen in decades. Closer to the ground, small scale developments are moving forward in every corner of our city.

Along with these projects-inprogress come the big dreams: proposals being sold via gleaming renderings and promises of a bright future.

But is all development good development? Any project bringing residential units or quality jobs to our core should net positive results. However, a recent multi-million dollar proposal has driven some citizens to question its merits.

On October 22, David Blanchard announced a plan to develop a large condominium complex on a block bounded by Main, James, King and Hughson Streets. While the plan is still in its infancy, the first order of business would be to demolish a row of buildings facing Gore Park which, Blanchard says, "...have had it. They've just had it. And there's no sense spending any more money on them. They really are done."

Some of these buildings predate Confederation, but they are not protected under the Ontario Heritage Act. In their place, Blanchard envisions a large anchor tenant in a modern building. He is not interested in maintaining a street wall of smaller businesses, whether in a new build or in a restored row of facades. "It has to be a large tenant because those small tenants can't afford the kind of rent that is going to have to be charged for a brand new building like that." Many residents and developers, however, are not convinced that this style of development would fit in with the Gore.

Local developer Shawn Maher is generally supportive of Blanchard's condos. "He's done a lot of redevelopment in the city that's been excellent. I think he gets it," Maher says. But he's not comfortable with the demolition of the buildings facing Gore Park. "I would like to see him build it, but I'd love to see him work in the facade of the old buildings, even as a facing."

Maher is currently working on a much smaller scale development in Corktown. He plans to replace a run-down convenience store with townhouses built in the style of early 20th century walk-ups. His plan for seven tall, skinny units with rear balconies overlooking a neighbouring park was inspired by a visit to New York City's Upper West Side. "I'd love to bring this design to Hamilton. We don't have anything this narrow in the city — these are 12'4" wide." Living just west of downtown, he understands that a good development respects the local heritage. "I love this city ," he says, and his passion shows in this project.

In the heart of the city, another team pours their love for Hamilton into a pair of buildings that were standing when their grandparents were born. Gary Buttrum and Kieran Dickson purchased the buildings on James North before the street became the heart of Hamilton's arts scene. The buildings had been neglected - but that was part of the appeal. "The attraction was the quality of construction, the derelict state (justifying wholesale renovation), the pedestrian-friendly quality of the street and the central location," says Dickson.

One building is complete, and Dickson calls the upper levels home. Buttrum was responsible for the construction, and the quality of his work is top notch. "With the interior design, I tried to maintain the materials and the craftsmanship of the building's age while not trying to reproduce a specific historical time frame," he says, adding "The energy efficiency and durability of the mechanical systems were important as well."

When asked about the Blanchard proposal, both agreed that the buildings facing Gore Park would be perfect candidates for their style of restoration. "It's such a bizarre situation," says Buttrum. "With subdivision construction they clamour for unbuilt land, where downtown the builders seem to be focused on removing existing buildings. We both feel very strongly that new construction should happen in the core, but the place for that is the parking lots. We need to replace lost buildings before we tear any more down."

Around the corner, another project is underway. Built in 1879, the grand space occupying the third floor at "6-12 John Street North" was called Treble Hall. Now the entire building goes by that name. Jeff Feswick bought this and the Pagoda building facing King East at the end of 2010. When he took them over, the adjoining buildings were a shell of their former selves, and from a development standpoint, they were just that: a shell.

The concept of demolition never even crossed Feswick's mind. "Every building needs to be maintained from the day it's built," he says. As the owner of Historia Building Restoration Inc., performing this maintenance, and undoing the effects of neglect are his passion. Rather than being turned off by their state of disrepair, he was inspired by the possibilities of working with a blank canvas. The long process of restoration began with protecting the buildings from the elements. Interior demolition proceeded a few months later. Within his first year of ownership, he had the facade patched and painted, and the windows replaced — all without the aid of outside investors or guaranteed tenants.

Jeff's enthusiasm is fuelled by his belief in the street. "This is an amazing block of John," he says. "This area has all of the ingredients but nobody was giving it the chance it deserves." He is working closely with Micky Stanoi on the storefronts. She has relocated from Toronto to open the Moulin Rouge Cafe and Boutique, which will occupy two of the original retail spaces and promises to be a beacon of glamour on what is currently a drab stretch of mostly vacant shops. As for the upper levels, their next incarnation is still up in the air. Feswick seems more excited about the process of restoration than by the final result. "I want to enjoy the project. I want to build something great and have fun with it too."

Perhaps these stories of Hamilton-loving developers will inspire David Blanchard. While redeveloping the building on Hunter Street across from the Hamilton GO Centre in 2007, he said we should "Take these good buildings, fix them up, keep the city ticking." Let's hope he follows his own advice on his development at Gore Park and in turn becomes an inspiration himself for future developers.