Near the heart of Hamilton sit four Victorian commercial buildings, forming an even streetwall on the south side of Gore Park. Two of these storefronts were designed in the 1840s by William Thomas, the storied architect responsible for Toronto's St. Lawrence Hall; the others were constructed some thirty years later.
Now, the company that owns these structures has proposed tearing them down, touching off a battle over redevelopment in a city whose downtown is in the midst of a renaissance.
Some locals insist the buildings must stay, and say the incident shows up the city's slipshod approach to heritage preservation. The owner, for his part, argues the structures are too far gone to save.
David Blanchard says the buildings – particularly the upper levels – were already shot when his company bought them more than a decade ago.
"They were filled with pigeon droppings and all kinds of lovely things that made it almost a brownfield above the ground floor," he says. "It's just come to a point where the buildings are in such poor condition that they need to either be removed, or some huge amount of money spent if someone wants to hold up the facades."
Such claims are commonplace among demolition-eager developers, but they carry some weight coming from Mr. Blanchard. His firm has preserved several buildings around downtown, including the Pigott, an art deco skyscraper now converted into condominiums, and a historic bank that houses a law firm.
His company has asked for a demolition permit on the Gore Park site. Because the buildings are not listed on the municipal heritage registry, there is nothing city council can do to stop him tearing them down. The province has the power to intervene, but likely will not. A spokesperson for Minister Michael Chan, whose portfolio includes heritage, said the buildings are purely a local matter.
However, Mr. Blanchard says he won't touch the structures until his tenants' leases are up in May. In the meantime, he's meeting with Jason Farr, the city councillor for the area, who hopes to find an arrangement that will preserve the buildings while allowing new construction behind them.
"These buildings are individuals. They have character and they define us," Mr. Farr says. "I also campaigned on instensification. If we can marry the two and set a good example, particularly because this is a high-profile scenario, then hopefully we can encourage others."
Mr. Blanchard sounds a somewhat less optimistic note.
"There are all kinds of people running around, they're doing their thing, trying to tell us what to do," he says. "We'll talk to them. I don't know what good it's going to do and I don't know who's going to pay for it, but we'll talk to them."
In the fall, he floated ideas for a new complex on the site – a grocery store, parking garage and residential tower – but he insists this is all preliminary. And that, his critics say, is part of the problem: he is moving to get rid of the buildings without a plan for what will replace them.
It's easy to see why some Hamiltonians are wary of block-altering developments. Over the decades, swaths of the core have been torn down to make way for inward-facing malls and a fortress-like convention centre that do little to liven up the streets. Other buildings were razed to make way for parking lots, leaving vast, empty spaces in the cityscape.
Ryan McGreal, editor of urban affairs blog Raise the Hammer, says Mr. Blanchard is making the same mistake.
"Hamilton is still stuck in that mindset: 'if we want renewal, we have to demolish all the stuff that's there now and put something new and shiny in its place.' We've been doing that since the 1960s and it hasn't worked yet," he says.
Where revitalization has worked, by contrast, entrepreneurs bought up historic buildings and renovated them, opening art galleries, specialty stores and cafes. This bootstrapping process has steadily transformed James Street North, Locke Street South and Ottawa Street into bustling, bohemian enclaves.
But getting such projects off the ground is difficult, Mr. McGreal argues, as owners must cut through red tape at city hall. Property tax rules, meanwhile, provide a discount to landlords whose buildings are empty.
"It's one big perverse incentive," he says. "We reward people for doing harmful things, and we punish and deter people from doing positive things."
The heritage registry is also incomplete. As with the King Street East strip, many of Hamilton's oldest buildings aren't listed, leaving them unprotected from the wrecking ball. Councillor Brian McHattie, who sits on the heritage committee, says the city isn't committed enough to do the administrative work to designate historic properties.
He points, for instance, to the Lister Block, a large 19th-century office and shopping complex. In 2006, city council voted to tear it down. Only after the province intervened was the building restored.
Whatever the outcome at Gore Park, Mr. McHattie says the incident has been a wake-up call. He plans to start organizing groups of regular citizens to evaluate historic properties and speed up the process of adding them to the registry.
"We need to step up if we care about cultural heritage," he says. "It's simply not going to happen otherwise."