Demo permit application for more-than-century-old Hamilton church withdrawn
Councillors back pursuit of heritage status for vacant St. Giles amid push by heritage advocates
Teviah Moro, Hamilton Spectator Wednesday, April 7, 2021
The owners of St. Giles United Church have backed off a plan to demolish it to build mixed-income housing on the site after Hamilton councillors opted to pursue heritage protection for the neo-Gothic temple.
Coun. Judi Partridge complained city politicians were “blindsided” by a demolition permit application Tuesday morning as they considered a push by heritage advocates to save the vacant more-than-century-old church.
“So we must go down the road and designate it, and put that challenge out there for truly adaptive reuse,” Partridge told the planning committee upon introducing her motion.
Coun. Jason Farr, who seconded the pitch, said he felt “rushed” by the demolition permit application and had hoped for additional talks on St. Giles’s future. “It’s a hurry-up situation all of a sudden.”
But not long after addressing the committee, representatives of New Vision United Church, which owns the St. Giles property, and its church-affiliated development partner, United Property Resource Corporation (UPRC), announced they’d halted the demolition plan.
Instead, they’d work with Coun. Nrinder Nann, who represents St. Giles’s host neighbourhood in Ward 3, to “address questions that arose” during the meeting, Tim Blair, CEO of UPRC, wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon.
“As a first step, we have taken the initiative to withdraw the demolition permit (application), effective immediately.”
Blair said the UPRC and New Vision “remain committed to a transparent process and further consultation with the community as we continue to explore the options to build mixed-income and affordable rental housing on the site.”
In 2014, shrinking St. Giles and Centenary United Church congregations merged to become New Vision, which is on Main Street West by the MacNab Street HSR terminal.
Four years later, the city’s heritage committee and staff recommended designation for St. Giles, but council decided against it after hearing New Vision leaders speak about the congregation’s financial pressures.
That same year, a demolition permit was issued to raze the church but it expired due to inactivity amid a stalled project.
Heritage advocates, former members of the congregation and the city’s heritage committee have rallied to save the church at the corner of Holton Avenue South, and encouraged its adaptive reuse as a community hub that could include housing.
“To me, it is the jewel and the crown of this neighbourhood,” Marie Sharp, a former congregant, told the planning committee Tuesday.
Shannon Kyles, president of the Hamilton branch of the Architectural Conservancy Ontario, said St. Giles is among the “top five per cent” of buildings she has seen. “This is really a building worth saving, so we have to think outside the box.”
In his address, Blair told councillors the proposed development could have 90 units, of which 30 would have affordable rents. “Our commitment is to provide affordable housing into perpetuity.”
He also said UPRC is working with a heritage architectural firm to determine if it’s financially feasible to maintain some of the church’s structure.
But the St. Giles plan and viability of New Vision, which also serves as a concert hall, “are linked financially,” he said. Without the developed site’s rental revenue, both could wind up “vacant indefinitely.”
Rev. Ian Sloan said the “twin objectives” are to maintain New Vision’s heritage status and provide affordable units amid a housing crisis at the St. Giles site.
Later in the meeting, councillors learned of the fresh demolition permit application through staff.
In a 7-1 vote, they backed Partridge’s motion to pursue heritage designation to protect St. Giles, not yet knowing the application would later be withdrawn.
The motion still needs final approval at council next week. In the meantime, councillors said they hoped to learn more about the St. Giles plan and possible alternatives.
Coun. John-Paul Danko suggested New Vision could sell the St. Giles property and look for another for its housing development. “There has to be more appropriate locations in the city than a heritage church of this magnitude.”
Coun. Maureen Wilson called the church an “absolutely gorgeous” building but pointed to Hamilton’s ongoing affordability crunch.
“What is needed is affordable housing, which is never going to be brought in a market-based solution. It’s going to be brought in a value-based solution.”
Nann, who has already held talks on St. Giles, said she welcomed more time to gather additional information on the file.
Though she’s not a planning committee member, Nann said she backed the demolition to allow New Vision to realize its plan for residential development.
“I will never apologize at the end of the day for supporting the building of affordable housing.”
Teviah Moro is a Hamilton-based reporter at The Spectator. Reach him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org