After hard knocks from a shrinking steel industry, a massive residential shift to the suburbs and the more recent 2009 recession, downtown Hamilton seems finally poised to hit its postindustrial stride.
Four major new condo projects in the city centre are selling into a market hungry for urban living at a relatively reasonable price. Residential units in these developments (including 322 rental apartments) number 2,200. Projects in the planning or discussion stage, as well as some small buildings, will add almost 3,000 new living spaces, according to Glen Norton, manager of urban renewal for the city’s economic development department.
Two other condo developments – City Square on Robinson Street and the Stinson School Lofts – lie just outside the provincially designated urban growth centre. More than 300 new hotel rooms have been added downtown, businesses are returning and the education and health care sectors are investing in the once-derelict area. Coffee shops, restaurants, galleries, bars, boutiques and other amenities are sprouting up to serve the new urbanites, completing the picture of a promising renewal that has been a long time coming.
“The movement out to the suburbs has been reversed,” says Mr. Norton, himself a downtown Hamilton condo dweller. “It’s being driven by the millennials, who aren’t so keen on buying a car and like to be close to their social scene. And at the other end of the spectrum are the empty-nesters.
“All of Hamilton is benefiting from the high prices in Toronto,” he adds. “Across the city, about 25 per cent of sales of both new and used homes are going to people from Toronto.”
Condos in downtown Hamilton have just passed the $400-per-square-foot average. In Toronto, the average price for new condos is $557 per square foot, with prices tending to rise the closer one gets to the city’s core.
A second GO station under construction on James Street North – which the government has said will boost service between Hamilton and Toronto to full-day service, seven days a week – is expected to lure even more Torontonians, who may want to keep their Toronto-based jobs while taking advantage of Hamilton’s livability and lower costs.
The nexus of the renaissance is The Residences of Royal Connaught, a $500-million development at the corner of King Street East and John Street South, which includes a restoration of the storied hotel and three new towers. The grand Edwardian building gets its name from Queen Victoria’s son Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught, who laid the cornerstone in 1914. Once the place to rub shoulders with visiting dignitaries and movie stars, the Connaught has had many owners over the years, eventually falling into receivership and closing in 2004.
By the time developers Spallacci Group and Valery Homes came on board to save it, three-quarters of the lobby ceiling was lying on the floor and the building was in dire need of repair. Happily for those working to preserve downtown’s historic architecture, the long-time Hamiltonian companies – with the help of KNY Architects and interior designer Lisa Boyer – went to work restoring the building to its former glory.
For the Art Deco lobby, they sought the services of a vanishing breed of master craftsmen to rehabilitate the ornate plaster cornices, stately columns and Corinthian capitals. Flooring material added during less thoughtful renovations was removed to reveal the original white limestone floors and the addition of black granite creates a look that is at once classic and fresh. Three massive crystal chandeliers marry modern shapes with historic echoes. A baby grand piano and a cappuccino bar complete the seamless melding of old and new.
“We have so much to offer here in Hamilton in terms of arts and culture and dinning, and you can’t get any more core than the Connaught,” says Rudi Spallacci, proudly showing off the collaborative creation. “And there’s more than 100 years of history here, so that’s at big draw.”
The city is providing the adjacent Gore Park with a major facelift and the rough-looking block across the street is reportedly set to be renovated by new owners. More than 80 per cent of the 138 units in the Connaught’s Phase I have been sold. In the development as a whole, prices range from $245,000 to more than $1-million for the penthouse suites. The tallest of the towers will be 36 storeys.
Other developments now on the market include: 150 Main Residential Lofts at Main and Caroline streets, by Vrancor Group Inc.; The Residences at Acclamation at 185 James St. N., by Hamilton’s Roque family; and The Connolly, on James Street South, by Stanton Renaissance.
The Connolly will preserve the facade, stained glass and other features from the James Street Baptist Church, a Gothic Revival landmark built in 1882. The development, named after the church’s architect Joseph Connolly, will include 259 condominium units in a high-rise tower, as well as commercial space.
“It’s essential that we get this density downtown and preserve some of these heritage buildings and the way to do it is by integrating them into these larger projects,” says architect Drew Hauser of McCallum Sather Architects Inc., who is working on the project. “From a social perspective it integrates them back into that walkable, livable street. Downtown will actually have people who are living there after hours, so restaurants and other businesses can survive.”
Will all this development create the critical mass of urban renewal that will finally reverse downtown Hamilton’s long, painful decline?
The city’s Mr. Norton thinks so. “Barring another recession or a sharp spike in mortgage rates, we’re rolling and I don’t see this momentum stopping,” he says. “With the desire of young people to live downtown and more baby boomers retiring, I think it’s actually going to accelerate.”
Mr. Hauser thinks so, too.
“People are just starting to figure out how good Hamilton is geographically,” he says, noting the physical beauty of the water and the escarpment and the transportation options for businesses, as well as the city’s vibrant sports, visual arts, theatre and music scenes. “We all want to be part of rebuilding our city.”
Mr. Hauser is not merely making an abstract marketing pitch. He moved from Toronto to Hamilton several years ago when he and his wife wanted to have a third child without adding the price of another bedroom to their housing costs. After commuting back into the city for a couple of years, he eventually got a job in Hamilton. Despite a demanding career and being the father of three, he was quite pleased to find himself with more money and more time.
“I was golfing again and I said, ‘Wow, I’ve got my life back.’ ”