Great piece in today's Star:
Twice the house ... half the price
Kevin Bowers bought a house, left, in Hamilton, almost twice as big as his old Toronto home, with a driveway and garage to boot. The $270,000 price tag was half that of the former house.
Ex-Torontonians find lip-smacking real estate bargains are available in a truly urban setting
Jan 05, 2008 04:30 AM
Special to the Star
HAMILTON–When his new neighbour handed him espresso and biscotti over the fence, any doubts Kevin Bowers had about his move from Toronto evaporated.
"That never happened to me in Riverdale," says Bowers, a stage manager in theatre.
It's not that he disliked his old Toronto home, but he was getting quite a bit of work in Mississauga and Hamilton, and he couldn't help but notice that real estate in the latter city was an incredible bargain.
Looking around his spacious, three-storey brick home in central Hamilton, he concludes: "I got twice the house for half the price."
Bowers sold his 1,800-square-foot semi-detached Riverdale house for $537,000 and bought the 3,000-square-foot Hamilton property – with a bonus driveway and garage – for $270,000.
"The mortgage is paid, I've got money in my pocket; this opens things up for travel."
While he loved his Riverdale neighbourhood, Bowers says Hamilton is safer and friendlier. He's now urging Toronto friends to look beyond the industrial view from the QEW and discover the quality houses, good restaurants, natural beauty and "cheap parking" that the city has to offer.
While Hamilton is surrounded by familiar suburban sprawl, with hundreds of new houses sprouting up in nearby Waterdown, Binbrook and Ancaster, the lip-smacking real estate bargains are to be found in the lower city, as the area beneath the Niagara Escarpment, or "The Mountain," is known.
Near King and James Sts., the epicentre of the downtown, what might be Hamilton's most expensive condo is for sale at $549,900.
Occupying the 16th and 17th floor of the historic Pigott building, Hamilton's first skyscraper, the condo features a private elevator and 360-degree views of the escarpment and harbour.
The penthouse had a one-of-a kind magnetism that floored Helena Donaldson and George Seehaver.
"I looked at condos from Highway 10 to Hamilton," Donaldson says while gazing out over the city.
"Then a girlfriend said, `you have to see this one,' and I fell in love with the building."
The couple sold their large property in Milton to make the move to the downtown core.
"We've walked here more than any place else we've lived," Donaldson says as she points out landmarks high above King and James.
The Hamilton Market, Art Gallery of Hamilton, library, Hamilton Place and Copps Coliseum are all within three blocks. The one place they can't walk is outside to a balcony, so the couple reluctantly put their penthouse on the market after 2 1/2 years of downtown living.
A lack of condominium choices in the city core has sent them to Burlington where they purchased a condo with a balcony – the big outdoor space they wanted. If half a million can get you two floors at King and James, for half that you can buy a whole building four blocks away on James St. N.
That's where Gary Buttrum is hoping to fashion a future. He's renovating a solid three-storey building. The plan is for commercial space on the ground floor and two apartments above. Initially, his business partner will live in one to establish some immediate income.
"If we don't lose our shirts on this project, we'll carry on,'' says Buttrum.
He isn't cutting corners. Custom Pella windows at $1,000 each are replicas of the original ones, and a new, spacious deck catches the morning sun and looks out over the building next door, which Buttrum also just bought. "I grew up on a farm, but I've lived downtown for seven years," he says, "It just feels comfortable for me."
What's happening on James St. N. has kindled a new optimism for Hamilton's downtown.
Young people are buying and renovating buildings, art galleries have moved in, and a very successful art crawl on the second Friday of each month has introduced the street to a new group of people– people who might never have previously ventured into downtown Hamilton.
The art crawl just won an urban design award from the city of Hamilton – the first time an "idea" has been honoured.
On the second Friday of the month all 14 galleries on James North, co-ordinate their new exhibition openings, a selection of restaurants on the street offer special tapas and a dedicated art bus transports those who would rather ride than walk the four blocks of the art crawl district. The collaborative effort of the gallery owners is revitalizing an important and historic commercial/residential street in the city.
"James Street North, from downtown to the harbour, is just going to get better and better," real estate agent Dean Carrier says over a cup of coffee at the Ola Bakery. "Anywhere you can walk to the water is good. This is still a real bargain for Toronto people."
Michael Sage was looking for a bargain when he moved to Hamilton. The portrait artist was finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet in Toronto. He now pays $400 for a spacious apartment above Morgenstern's department store on James N.
"When I told Morty (store owner Morty Morgenstern) I was an artist, he knocked 50 bucks off the price," Sage says.
Artists are desirable tenants on the street, which still shows its rough edges.
There are dubious bars, crack addicts, and halfway houses on James North. There was also a recent nightclub murder.
But the ongoing rebirth has gained remarkable momentum so much so that Sage sees a scenario that could mirror the evolution of Queen St. W. in Toronto.
"Just the other day, who do I see walking down the street – Harry Stinson."
Indeed, Stinson, the Toronto developer, has been casing Hamilton for several months, recently bought a house here and is speaking out publicly about the potential for residential development downtown
Stinson's interest in Hamilton doesn't surprise architect John Mokrycke, a long-time champion of the city's core.
"There's a whisper around here – people aren't yelling it out – but there's a whisper that Hamilton is a great deal."
Long before the "whispering" started, Mokrycke, took a chance on the downtown core, renovating a three-storey building on James Street North, which now contains an art supply store, antique bookstore and three apartments.
"I just rented an apartment to an industrial designer and fashion designer from Toronto, their comment was `this city has bones.'"
The fresh buzz about Hamilton is a gift for Mokrycke who spent years trying to save heritage buildings and improve the quality of the built environment, "I tell everybody if you want to be a part of the new energy you better move fast."
Farther up James Street, architect Rick Lintack sits at a desk covered in designs and blueprints, and talks about the city with quiet optimism.
He, like so many others, will not say that Hamilton is undergoing a renaissance, or that people are moving here in droves from Toronto, but will admit that things are "pretty good, the perception is improving."
"I think the fact that Chateau Royale (a large condo project) did get finished, and that the Core Lofts (a condo conversion of a Bell Canada building) sold out so quickly proves something. People see the success."
While he finds the heritage aspects at city hall a little heavy-handed, and stifling for developers, "there's been so much bad design, some guidelines are good."
"The Core Lofts, I think that was one of the fastest-selling condo projects in the province," Bill Janssen speculates from his temporary office in the former Eaton Centre on James Street North.
Janssen, who oversees long-range projects for the City of Hamilton, is a displaced person along with all other city employees and councillors, as Hamilton City Hall undergoes a retrofit.
"People are drawn to the established neighbourhoods in Hamilton, and living downtown offers a different kind of experience," says Janssen.
But not all of the experience is positive.
There are many boarded-up buildings including the massive Lister Block where complicated squabbles between developers, the city and the province have kept the historic building frozen in decay for years.
With a thwack, Joanne Greene sets down Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class on a table at Williams Coffee Pub on Discovery Drive.
With an inspiring view of sailboats and freighters and the expanse of Hamilton Harbour, Greene looks back on 25 years of selling real estate in Hamilton. "I've never been bored."
She's excited by the artist-led transformation of James St. N., a nod to Florida's theories on artists' effects on economic development.
And she's happy to report another positive trend – the return of young families to Westdale, the area bordering McMaster University to the west of Main and King Streets, and just a few kilometres from the centre of downtown.
"That area is changing and stabilizing since Mac added the large new residence," Greene says.
The just-completed student residence has reduced the demand for rental properties, so homes that were once packed with students are reverting back to single-family ownership and strengthening the village-like atmosphere of Westdale.
Greene flips through a stack of MLS listings-solid houses in the downtown core, ranging in price from $140,00 to just over $200,000.
"It's less of a well-kept secret that there are real deals here, but when people come here they are blown away by the quality of life."
Still Hamilton needs more condos, more lofts and a stronger push to redevelop brownfields, according to Greene.
Within the next three years the city will oversee a renovation and facelift of the 170-year-old Hamilton market, McMaster University is moving forward on the off-campus Innovation Park, a research and development centre located on a brownfield site, midway between the university and downtown, and the city's long-term goal is to add more housing along the harbourfront.
It's the kind of quiet storm that happens in Hamilton. A little bit quirky, tough and tenacious, and lacking in pretension.
"When I moved here, I thought I'd be going back to Toronto every week," Bowers says over a cup of latte. "But this has everything I need.''