Grand plans for empty downtown factory
The owners of the Cannon Knitting Mills have unveiled a new vision for the vacant factory in the wake of a decision by the public school board to move its headquarters out of the lower city.
They call it the Mills Innovation Exchange and they believe that the combination of wide open space, brick and beam construction and proximity to edgy Hamilton neighbourhoods will encourage technology companies, researchers and creative types to take up residence.
The 110,000-square-foot building at the corner of Cannon and Mary streets was jointly bought by the city and Toronto developer Forum Equity Partners in January 2011.
It’s the first project in a joint venture called Hamilton Realty Capital Corporation which aims to develop key catalyst properties in the city.
The partners had been working on a commercial and retail redevelopment of the property before the chance surfaced to make it the home of the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board, which had sold its Main Street site to McMaster University. Demolition has begun on the building and the headquarters is moving to the Mountain.
Now Forum and city representatives are moving forward to line up potential tenants. They envision a mix of users, from post-secondary programs to private businesses, along with neighbourhood-oriented retail such as a coffee shop.
“There’s been lots of discussion,” says Glen Norton, the city’s head of downtown renewal. “Everyone sees value in the building.”
But the renovation, which will entail a remediation of some contaminated soil under the building, will be expensive — likely in the range of $10 million. Rents won’t be cheap and some say the Beasley neighbourhood, will be a tough sell.
Norton acknowledges there are challenges but he says there is demand for unique work space and a burgeoning innovation sector that has outgrown space at McMaster Innovation Park in the city’s west end.
He says the success of Kitchener’s Tannery project — a former vacant warehouse now teeming with tech companies, including Google — shows there is demand for converted industrial space. He is planning a bus trip to take prospective tenants there.
Ramsey Ali, senior vice-president and general counsel of Forum Equity, says there have been plenty of recent positive developments in and around Hamilton’s core. He says the proximity to James Street North, GO service and the adjacent Beasley park will all be attractive to tenants.
“We’re really bullish about Hamilton. We think we can get public education tenants to integrate with private sector tenants.”
Norton is also shopping the project around to the province, hoping to access some pots of money dedicated to neighbourhood redevelopment, innovation and repurposing brownfields.
“What we have is a chance to do something really unique. This is a residential area, a needy community and this could really feed the community.”
While preliminary floor plans have been released, the space is ready to be designed in any way needed, says Norton. David Premi Architects is leading the design.
Some parts of the site, which is actually five buildings knitted together, date back to the 1850s.
Norton stresses this is a for-profit development. The city has lent HRCC $2 million from the Future Fund and the developer has matched that with its own equity.
The Cannon Knitting Mills was in danger of being demolished after the previous owner cut off gas and power and threatened to take it down if a buyer couldn’t be found. Norton felt the property had potential and convinced city officials and Forum to take a chance.
Forum, entirely owned by its president Richard Abboud, has developed or has equity in a wide range of properties, including residential and retail developments, courthouses, jails, Ontario highway service centres, office buildings and arts centres.
While Ali is reluctant to talk about timelines, Norton says he’s hopeful the partners can line up tenants for about half the building and start construction in the spring.