Posted: Oct 31, 2007, 9:09 PM
Join Date: May 2005
A thriving core depends on people walking its streets and living in its buildings. Observers say many downtown buildings have the good bones to make them people-friendly. But change is still needed -- windows and doors must be opened to the street, living spaces must be created above stores. ISSUE: REVITALIZING THE CORE THROUGH ITS BUILDINGS. IDEA: USE CURRENT SPACE TO CREATE MORE CONDOS AND APARTMENTS. ; 'We have the potential of turning it into one of the most exciting spaces to be in North America. There is wonderful architecture.'
Stories by Doug Foley
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(Oct 31, 2007)
It may never regain its position as Hamilton's commercial heart, but the city's architectural community say there can be new life in the old town.
They see a world of potential in the city's heart, and say the first step to revitalizing it is attracting back the people who have shunned it.
They are not talking about shoppers. They say downtown's future depends on making it a more attractive place to live.
It may seem like a tough argument to make, what with recent news of violent crime and downtown's generally rundown look and feel, but major condominium developments such as the Pigott/Sun Life buildings, Chateau Royale and former Bell Canada office have started the ball rolling.
Architects say there is a wealth of other potential upscale living accommodations in the core.
There are parking lots crying out for residential and commercial development, and three- and four-storey spaces above the businesses in the core awaiting refurbishing as modern apartments and condos.
Hamilton and Burlington Society of Architects chairman Bill Curran says increasing downtown's residential component is critical for the health of the entire city.
"The character of the city is driven by the nature of the core," he said. "Having a core that is struggling affects the entire character of the city.
"Downtown living is critical. The more people we have living there, the better the core will be.
"You are going to have restaurants that are busier, more retail on the streets and more people on the streets, which makes them safer."
That sounds like the Hamilton of 40 years ago when King and James was the heart, home to the major banks and department stores, the big movie houses and best restaurants, City Hall and the major utilities offices, The Spectator and hundreds of smaller businesses serving just about every need.
While the city's suburban areas have since flourished, the core has deteriorated to a state that most longtime Hamiltonians do not recognize it as "my" downtown.
It has a reputation, rightly or wrongly, of being dirty and dangerous with a growing population of panhandlers and vagrants, and few of the amenities offered at suburban shopping malls.
Hamilton native David Premi returned to the city two years ago to open his own company after working as an architect in Toronto for almost 25 years and was shocked at the deterioration.
"But people don't see what it can be," he said. "They think it's a hell hole, but it has the potential to be one of the nicest urban places to be.
"Mixed use is how to create a healthy urban centre -- stores and offices and living space all mixed together. The ideal is that you can live, work, shop and play, all on foot.
"It's not a terribly attractive place to live now because you have to get in your car to go to the Meadowlands to buy something."
Architect John Mokrycke calls the area of King Street from James to Walnut one of the most potentially lucrative development sites in the city.
"We have the potential of turning it into one of the most exciting spaces to be in North America," he said. "There is wonderful architecture, and if it's redeveloped creating living spaces above the stores, it would make a huge difference in the core area.
"Architects who come here from out of town are overwhelmed by the potential because this community is so rich in older buildings."
One such architect is Michael Pettes, who works out of Oakville. He says the older architecture in downtown Hamilton reminds him of areas of New York City with its red-brick facades and various styles.
"It doesn't look so good now and it's sitting there doing nothing. It just needs to be upgraded."
Mokrycke said some downtown properties have been in the same hands for decades with no signs of the owners wanting to do anything with them.
The architects say those owners have to commit to converting them to living spaces, and the city has to help with speedier approvals for building permits.
They cited two areas in Toronto --King Street at Spadina Avenue and Parliament Street -- where the city relaxed regulations to spur development.
"They had fast turnarounds on approvals and permits, and those areas are just burgeoning and vibrant," said Premi.
"Hamilton has to make itself more welcoming for developers, who just see this as a hornet's nest.
"They don't know if or when they will get permits, and that has to change. It's the No. 1 biggest problem. It's too risky to spend money here."
The architects point to signs of improvement downtown with the resurgence of activity on James Street North and east on King Street where small entrepreneurs are opening businesses and creating apartments.
And they point to the Art Gallery of Hamilton, which remade itself as a more people-friendly place with an $18-million overhaul.
The gallery had long been criticized for its daunting brick facade and apparent lack of connection to downtown. The reconstruction opened the building to the outside with more windows and an impressive entrance on King Street West.
It's an example that the architects say the former Eaton's Centre should follow on James Street North and one Jackson Square has picked up on with more store windows onto King West and the addition of a restaurant patio.
Jackson Square and Eaton's were supposed to be the new downtown, but many blame them for helping suck the life out the core with their less-than- people-friendly design. The edifices added unfriendly brick walls to the streetscape.
Curran said Toronto's Eaton Centre addressed that same criticism by opening businesses' doors and windows to Yonge Street.
"That has brought life back to Yonge Street," he said. "You can change those things."
Premi said architecture alone won't save downtown Hamilton but it can be integral to the revitalization.
"There are a lot of good architects, and we are ready to participate but we can't lead the charge. Someone has to get the ball rolling, and when it does it will be out of control."
What the city has to offer:
* James Street North resurgence
* Smaller-scale renovations in the King and Walnut area
* Art Gallery of Hamilton renovations
* City Hall plans to make its forecourt a people place
* Nostalgia -- people want a downtown
* Wealth of good architecture and building types
* Lots of free parking if you scout around
* Noise and fumes from bus traffic
* Reputation as being unsafe
* Condition of Gore Park
* Still too many one-way streets
* Hamilton City Centre's facade
* Perception of City Hall as unfriendly to developers
* Older downtown buildings lack elevators and bigger floor space tenants demand today
* Too many parking lots
* A depressed area that is home to vagrants and panhandlers
AGH president-CEO Louise Dompierre: 'Sense of openness and easy access'
Case study: ART GALLERY OF HAMILTON Open the front door to the street and the people will come.
The Art Gallery of Hamilton hoped its $18-million reconstruction would help draw up to 150,000 visitors a year.
It did, and then some.
AGH president and chief executive officer Louise Dompierre reports that 160,000 people entered the gallery in 2006, and credits the restoration work.
"Generally speaking, people love the renovations and feel more comfortable in the gallery," she said. "We wanted the building to reflect the new direction of the gallery with a sense of openness and easy access. With more people coming, it signals that we met our goal."
Now the key is extending that feeling to the rest of downtown.
Since it opened in 1976, the AGH had been criticized as being somewhat unwelcoming, a criticism shared with its neighbours, the provincial office tower and Hamilton Convention Centre, and Jackson Square across the street.
Their brick walls and lack of windows contributed to downtown developing an atmosphere of being closed in and dark.
Hamilton architects say the AGH reconstruction -- by Hamilton-born architect Bruce Kuwabara of Toronto firm Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg -- shows changes can be made to existing buildings to transform that atmosphere and improve the core.
While the AGH was at the high end of renovations at $18 million, that resulted in an almost completely rebuilt and refurbished building.
"It was a really introverted building," said architect David Premi. "It completely turned its back to the city.
"The renovations were relatively expensive but they made it work with a couple of simple moves.
"They brought it onto King Street; they made it transparent; they made it welcoming at a pedestrian scale and, with the sculpture pavilion, they have brought a view of the building out to Main Street."
Kuwabara said at the time that his dream was that the reborn AGH would be the catalyst for further downtown revitalization.
So far, Jackson Square has taken steps to open itself to King Street West, and City Hall is looking into making its forecourt more of a people place.
"It takes time for an impact to be felt," said Dompierre of the AGH starting a kind of domino effect. "But when I think from the time I came here (December 1998) to the actual start of renovations and their completion, that was a long period of time.
"But things did happen."