After years of endless battles with city staff and his political colleagues to preserve Hamilton’s heritage buildings, Councillor Brian McHattie says it’s time citizens take up the cause.
The Ward 1 politician is proposing to hold what he’s calling a citizens’ forum on the city’s cultural heritage properties to provide residents tools and opportunities to protect at-risk buildings. McHattie insisted he didn’t want any help from the city, believing staff or councillors would try to sabotage his idea. Instead, he would partner with the Hamilton chapter of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario.
“I’ve been banging my head against the wall doing this,” said McHattie, who was first elected in 2003. “We need to have this forum and build some momentum.”
He said the city’s planning staff and committee “has no interest in cultural heritage,” and he is tired of making recommendations to council through the municipal heritage committee to preserve buildings, only to see them ignored, rejected and jettisoned.
“Planning is economic development,” he said. “You will not change (heritage preservation) with them. Staff is not going to do it. If we expect council to help us, we’re dreaming in Technicolor. It’s up to us. We need to seize the day.”
The forum, he said, would help raise awareness within theHamiltoncommunity about heritage buildings. It could develop a citizens’ agenda, which could include an ethics document for heritage preservation, and urge residents to examine the estimated 7,000- plus buildings that are on the city’s heritage list to determine if they should be saved. City heritage staff is unable to review the number of buildings because of the lack of resources, he said.
The forum would also include a workshop to establish protocols for preserving buildings, and have a keynote speaker.
“We need to get beyond the current situation where we are always fighting a rear guard action,” said McHattie. “This is to give people a sense of heritage preservation, which is pretty poor.”
His citizens’ forum idea was prompted by recent proposals by the Hamilton-Wentworth public school board’s decision to demolish Sanford elementary school and a developer’s proposal to pull down properties along King Street near GorePark. The developer backed down on the King Street properties because of a public outcry. But there are other incidents where heritage buildings are knocked down despite heritage activists’ pleas, he said.
McHattie said heritage activists are always fighting city hall over the easy access developers have to submit demolishing permits to eliminate heritage buildings. A few years ago, he did win one skirmish when council approved his bylaw to prevent the so-called “demolition by neglect” of a heritage building by landlords.
“We seem to be fighting an uphill battle,” he said. “Does anybody care? I’m not sure Hamiltonians care (about heritage preservation).”
McHattie’s idea struck a chord with other members of the heritage committee, who all have experienced city staff or councillors rejecting their pleas to save and preserve various heritage properties.
“A forum is a great idea,” said Paul Wilson.
But Ancaster councillor Lloyd Ferguson, a member of the heritage committee, lamented the fraying relationship between the city and heritage members. He tried to dampen fears that council will put up obstacles if heritage activists want to hold a workshop. He would even back a motion by the heritage committee to say it supports holding such an event. The motion, which McHattie didn’t support because council would get involved, will be sent to the planning committee for discussion. The heritage committee is an advisory committee to council.
“Be careful you don’t get labeled as being adversarial,” said Ferguson. He pointed out council did approve spending $29 million to renovate the Lister Block, and politicians agreed to preserve the cultural and heritage aspects of the renovated city hall. Some councillors even fought to preserve the King Street properties.
“We are not all bad guys,” said Ferguson.