After setbacks, Harry Stinson sets his sights 97 storeys lower
Posted: September 14, 2009, 2:59 PM
by Rob Roberts
By Peter Kuitenbrouwer, National Post
Harry Stinson has taken over the teachers' lounge at the Stinson School and hung up renderings of his projects that succeeded or failed: One King West (succeeded, but he lost control) Sapphire Tower on Toronto's Temperance Street (failed), High Park Lofts (succeeded) Hamilton Grand Hotel (failed).
But the development to which Mr. Stinson, 56, compares his latest venture is the one not on the wall: the Candy Factory Lofts, a four-storey factory conversion in the 1990s that arguably launched Toronto's West Queen West as a destination. Today Mr. Stinson, a developer with 50-, 80-and 100-storey ambitions, has come back to earth.
"Perhaps the 100-storey tower was a little flamboyant, but here, people say, 'If you get it together, I'll take one,' '' says Mr. Stinson of his latest project.
Mr. Stinson moved from Toronto to Hamilton in January 2008, after the creditors pushed him out of his job running One King West, a condo hotel anchored in a restored bank. He still owes creditors $17-million to $18-million, which he is working to repay, he says, and is fighting his former partner David Mirvish, the impressario, who is suing Mr. Stinson.
Mr. Stinson's first foray into Hamilton real estate -- a plan to reopen the shuttered Connaught Hotel in the city's decrepit downtown, adding a 100-storey tower --collapsed in the past year when he could not arrange financing.
His latest fixer-upper is his first-ever project with his name on it -- quite by chance. Ebenezer Stinson, a grain and flour merchant in the 1830s, had a Hamilton street named after him. In 1894 on Stinson Street, workers erected the Stinson School, a proud three-storey edifice in the Richardsonian Romanesque style. With its red Credit Valley sandstone, peaked slate roofs and an entrance archway leading to grand wood doors, it looks like a smaller version of Toronto's Old City Hall, and won historical designation in 1989.
At March Break 2009, the Hamilton/Wentworth School Board moved students to a new school nearby; Mr. Stinson, raising $1-million from "friends and family," bought the pile in June. Mr. Stinson's crew has since ripped down the drop ceilings in the entranceway to reveal the full 4.5-metre heights.
Mr. Stinson, dressed in shiny new Brooks running shoes and a black T-shirt from One King West, stopped some workers as we entered the school to speak about spots where the plaster has fallen, revealing the lath on the ceiling.
"Just patch them with pieces of plywood," he says. "We'll just paint it out, because we're running out of time."
A sign on the front lawn here promises, "Lofts from $199,900. Soon to be Hamilton's best address." This Thursday, Mr. Stinson's team plans an open house to show off, and hopefully sell, the 70 suites of this building, including a row of townhouses alongside the school. He has hired some workers from nearby rooming houses, and notes that battered five-bedroom homes here sell for under $200,000, but insists that people will pay over $400,000 for two-bedroom units with walkout gardens.
Mr. Stinson runs hot and cold on Hamilton; the other day he was disgusted to learn that the owners of the Connaught, the hotel he tried to revive, are seeking $18-million from governments to retool the place as affordable housing.
"Everything here depends on government grants," he says. "It's like Newfoundland in Ontario." This slur does a disservice to Newfoundland and perhaps even to Steeltown. With the possibility of an NHL franchise in the air, and crews busy on a dramatic, invasive restoration of the city's modernist jewel of a City Hall, Hamilton has some wind in its sails.
"It is a very family-friendly city," says Drew Hauser, a principal at Stanford Downey architects, who moved his family to Hamilton from Toronto three years ago (and is thrilled that, with Mr. Stinson working here, he has a job near his home). "My wife is a therapist, in two months she was fully booked out. You're a short trip to the vineyard; instead of going to the LCBO you can go to a wine-tasting."
As we are chatting Fred Voytek, a property manager with Effort Trust -- the biggest landlord in Hamilton -- walks in.
"I'm just a curious potential customer," he says. "We have a big house in Burlington. The kids have gone and left." He grew up in Hamilton, and is considering a return. He is encouraged by this project. "Hamilton has suffered from a lack of leadership for so long," he says. "There's no vision."
Hamilton, though on hard times, is a sleeper, full of spectacular architecture. Like many in Hamilton, Mr. Voytek is thrilled that someone sees the potential of his home town. Mr. Stinson is eager to oblige.
"I got nothing to lose," Mr. Stinson says. "So what the hell. I'll give it a shot."