Massive renewal project under way downtown
A much anticipated multimillion-dollar development project in Hamilton’s core is under way.
The first of four new buildings that will bring as many as 600 condo units, two hotels and 20,000 square feet of retail space to the core has been rising on George Street near Caroline since the summer, bringing a swell of hope for the core with each new floor.
The brain child of developer Darko Vranich, the $125-million project has been on the drawing boards for the past decade as he slowly assembled a huge chunk of the city’s core.
“You can’t help but notice there are construction cranes on the skyline downtown now,” said Jason Farr, the city councillor for the core. “Darko has a sincere desire to get going faster than anyone realized. He didn’t want to wait any longer, he wanted to get going.”
Over the past decade, Vranich has acquired most of the land roughly bounded by King, Main, Bay and Hess streets with tiny George Street running through the centre. The plan calls for two extended-stay hotels — the 129-room Staybridge under construction at the northwest corner of George and Caroline streets and a 182-room Homewood Suites inn at the southwest corner of George and Bay streets.
The plan also includes three condo towers in two buildings reaching as high as 20 storeys.
The buildings are to be completed in five phases over the next six or seven years. The entire project is seen as a way of linking the restaurant-bar hub of Hess Village to the rest of downtown.
Two of those condo towers will rise on the site of the former federal government office building at the north-east corner of Main and Caroline streets. Vranich bought the structure in 2004 and started demolishing it in August.
The plan to demolish that building sparked a brief controversy over the fate of eight friezes surrounding the main entrance of the structure. They were created by noted local artist Elizabeth Holbrook and the chance they would be destroyed ignited protests from the local arts community. Vranich eventually agreed to have the art work detached from the building and donated to the city. Later he unveiled a plan to preserve the seven-storey west portion of the building, including the main entrance, as the base for an additional three storeys of condos. An attached east tower will be up to 15-storeys tall.
Tyler McDiarmid, chief financial officer of Vrancor Group, said the decision to preserve the part of the building with the art work was seen as the best way to ensure their preservation.
“There was talk about donating the friezes to the city, but detaching them from the building always carries the risk of destruction,” he explained.
Mayor Bob Bratina also praised the start of the Vranich project, noting the revival of land in that area will be a helpful boost to the city’s coffers as well as a clear sign of life returning to the heart of the city.
He noted that the site where the Staybridge is now rising generated only $18,000 a year in city taxes as a parking lot. As a hotel, however, the tax payments are expected to rise to more than $280,000 when it opens in June. It will be the second time that nameplate has appeared in the core. In 2004, Vranich built a Staybridge hotel in a former Canada Post garage on Market Street at Caroline. He later sold his share in the building and it was converted to a seniors’ residence. In that case, the city’s $40,000 tax bill for the empty garage rose to $340,000 for the hotel.
The city’s benefit will be delayed slightly because property tax incentives it has provided allow tax increases due to redevelopment to be phased in over five years.
Bratina said projects like Vranich’s and the condo towers rising at the site of the former Thistle Curling Club between Charlton Avenue and Robinson Street, are “undeniable evidence that things have changed for Hamilton.”
Such projects, he added, provide an immediate return for the city, where visions such as the Airport Employment Growth District require decades to develop and up to $1 billion to provide water and sewer pipes and other services.
“It sounds exaggerated, but significant tax growth is being achieved in the core,” he said. “That’s how important projects like this are to Hamilton.”
New hotels in the core are also important to the city to develop tourism as an economic development tool. The most recent annual report of Tourism Hamilton concluded the city needs up to 700 more hotel rooms if it hopes to draw major conventions in the future. Currently the city has an inventory of about 1,350 hotel rooms and should have 2,000 to have a chance of drawing the mid-level convention business it has been seeking. The Vranich hotels, combined, will bring 311 rooms to the core.
In addition to new buildings, Vranich has also been pouring money into refurbishing the core’s Sheraton hotel. The building has just undergone a $12-million renovation and Vranich plans more work as he pushes the property to a 4.5-star rating.
Vranich rarely does interviews, but said through a spokesperson he hopes the Sheraton project will be a major contribution to the core.
“The Sheraton’s main role in downtown renewal is to help attract more tourism, conventions and business travellers to our community,” he said. “We are pleased to contribute to the rebirth of this great city.”