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Hamilton politicians’ inertia demolishes heritage buildings

 By Kevin Werner, News Staff

 Most residents and heritage activists blame Hamilton politicians as the main roadblocks to preserving about 7,000 of the city heritage properties.

During a citizens’ forum on heritage preservation held at city hall April 20, a number of people pointed the finger at city councillors who have refused to place heritage designation on a property since 2008, and have been reluctant to even discuss the idea of protectingHamilton’s at-risk heritage properties.

“It’s attitudinal,” said Graham Crawford, a downtown resident, pointing out there was only two councillors, Brian McHattie, and Stoney Creek councillor Maria Pearson in attendance.

Chris Cutler, another heritage activist, suggested residents form a political action committee to lobby councillors to protect at-risk buildings. He said councillors should face some consequences for ignoring heritage properties.
But at least one politician said he’s fed up with his colleagues’ inaction. Ward 1 councillor Brian McHattie, who helped to organize the three-hour forum, said he was prompted to directly call on Hamiltonians to help preserve the city’s heritage properties after his frustration at the lack of action by the city peaked with the demolition of Sanford elementary school.

 Over the years, said McHattie, as a decade-long member of the city’s Heritage Committee an advisory group to the planning committee, he has become increasingly frustrated at the lack of initiative from staff and councillors to protect heritage buildings. Buildings are perpetually under threat from demolition, and city officials and politicians remain passive in their responses, he said.

A few months ago McHattie said it was time to use his frustration, go directly to the people, and ask them if they want to do the necessary legwork to protect heritage buildings city officials are either unable or don’t want to do.

He sounded a clarion call to heritage activists, historical associations, and residents to save an estimated 7,000 city cultural properties that are under threat of destruction. About 1,000 of those buildings, predominately in the city’s downtown area, are now being looked at by city staff. But there are another 5,000 buildings located from Glanbrook, to Flamborough, Ancaster, to Stoney Creek that are in need of saving.

“It’s easy for politicians to throw up their hands,” at the 7,000 number, he said. “It has been a great frustration. They decide on the political cost of doing something or not doing something. The focus is to bring it down to 3,000, or even 4,000. The work needs to be done.”

About 80 people responded to McHattie’s request, offering up their historical societies, and community organizations to help protect heritage properties located within their own district.

Kathy Wakeman, a heritage committee member, and a member of the Stoney Creek Historical Society, said about half of the 50 of the Stoney Creek properties identified by the city don’t even exist. Yet there are other heritage buildings that should be placed in the city’s inventory.

“We have the opportunity to put correct information into the list,” she said.

Pat Saunders, a member of the Hamilton Mountain Heritage Society, said it’s imperative to preserve the buildings that are struggling to survive. She laments that such important heritage properties as Auchmar, and Century Manor are city owned, yet they are in dire need of repair.

McHattie’s idea is to put as many buildings as possible on a heritage register list to protect them from the wrecking ball, at least for 60 days. Other suggestions include identifying buildings on a website www.buildingstories.co, a University of Waterloo project that inventories recognizable or non-recognized historical places acrossCanada.

And despite the cloudy expectations from city politicians, there were some silver linings in the city’s checkered heritage past. Jeff Feswick, of Historia Building Restoration, who bought Treble Hall, pointed out the benefits of preserving the city’s past.

TheFederalBuildinghas been partially saved, thanks to owner Darko Vranic, he said, as the developer reconfigures it into a condominium complex. The John Sopinka Courthouse has been preserved, as has the Pigott Building, and Gowlings law office along Main Street. Even city hall has been preserved and restored, he said.

Feswick said people ran away from Treble Hall. But now, slowly it is being restored and attracting new businesses to the structure, and the city’s downtown.

“We don’t have to tear things down to make it better,” he said. “We’ve got to save our cultural landscape. It’s too important to take it lightly.”

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