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It’s Not Quite Dead Yet

More ideas to save the still-intact Black Building

by Paul Dechene

Good news! The Black Building at 1755 Hamilton St. still hasn't been bulldozed and turned into a parking lot. Apparently, the building's owners, Westland Ventures, haven't even cleared out of their ground floor offices yet and aren't expected to move until March 1.

And that means there's still time to save the 46 units of affordable housing in that building.

And there's also still time to harp on about the ways that city politicians and staff could have saved the building. If they'd really wanted too.

In our last issue, I offered four suggestions (you can still read them on our website - the article's titled Learned Helplessness", and it's archived in the Feb. 9, 2012 PD). Since none of them appear to been used, I'm guessing they were rejected.

But that's okay! I have more! More suggestions! Such as....

LEVERAGE THE DOWNTOWN NEIGHBOURHOOD PLAN

The DNP was passed in 2009 but staff still haven't brought it forward as a bylaw. So, basically, it's a poor, toothless kitten of a plan. And what can you accomplish with that?

Well, a lot, actually. Consider Hill Tower III and Capital Pointe. The final plans for both were dramatically different from the original versions. This is because city staff used the guiding vision and incentives system of the Downtown Neighbourhood Plan to negotiate for public amenities and improved design elements.

And as it turns out, there's an awful lot in the DNP that could have been used in the Hamilton building situation. Pages of discussion on the need for affordable housing and heritage preservation and on how we should discourage empty lots. Most importantly, there's action item N2, which calls for the immediate designation of the downtown as a Direct Control District. And in a DCD, you can't undertake any development or demolition without council approval.

So, if city administration had finished the Downtown Plan bylaw ages ago as they were supposed to, and if they'd designated the downtown a DCD as the plan directs, then the demolition of the Hamilton building would never have been allowed.

But that didn't happen. Because city staff seem to be dawdling with the DNP. Wonder why?

No matter. Why couldn't the Black Building demolition application have been put through a more vigorous process involving council scrutiny anyway? Sure, there was no Downtown Plan bylaw insisting on it. But there was no bylaw forcing the Hill Tower and Capital Pointe developers to adhere to the DNP's design framework either. But they did. Because city staff, back in the day1, had brass ones2. And they insisted.

If only we had some kind of unit within city hall these days that could "bring the brass." A crack team of urban planners who could have brought all their wiles to bear and found a way to use the Downtown Plan vision for good...

WHAT ABOUT THE CITY CENTRE BRANCH?

Oh wait. We do. Or, at least, we're supposed to.

It's called the City Centre Branch. And setting it up was the very first action item in the Downtown Neighbourhood Plan!

According to the plan, the city centre branch (CCB) has a mandate to lead the revitalization of the downtown. Specifically, it's supposed to be acting as a key point of contact and overseeing all initiatives related to the downtown from planning through to implementation.

In fact, where downtown development is concerned, the CCB was "created to work across departments, from engineering, finance, recreation, transit, parks, and planning, to coordinate the implementation of the Downtown Neighbourhood Plan and advocate for its vision."

That's straight from the DNP.

So I phoned up city hall to talk to the manager of the city centre branch to find out what they did to try to halt the Black Building demolition.

Instead, I was directed to Diana Hawryluk, the director of planning and sustainability, who informed me that the CCB doesn't even have a manager and hasn't had one for as long as she's been working for the city. (She started here in November 2011. But sources now tell me that the CCB has been manager-free since early in the summer.)

When asked if the CCB had been working to save the Black Building, she seemed confused by the question.

"It's a [demolition] permit. It goes through [the building division]. And building consults the different departments," she said, adding later, "City centre branch would be consulted but it's not their role to move a demolition permit through the process."

Hang on. Not their role? How does that figure with being a "key point of contact"?

Seems to me that something is horribly broken here if the CCB is without a manager and being treated like just another consulting department by the director of planning and sustainability. Have none of the people left downtown even read the DNP?

When an application to demolish 46 units of affordable housing in the heart of the city gets dropped off, the CCB should be the ones who are making sure that bylaw enforcement, building, heritage and the city solicitor are all working towards the goals of the Downtown Neighbourhood Plan.

Goals that are directly at odds with this demolition permit.

But that didn't happen. What gives?

Creating another vacant lot downtown - let alone bulldozing 46 units of housing in the middle of a housing crisis - should be anathema to this city administration. They should be moving heaven and earth to stop this. But by all accounts, staff just went through the motions and followed all the old development processes of five or 10 years ago, from back before they supposedly started working "creatively" and "strategically."

Don't know if you've noticed but when this mayor and council are rattling off a list of their accomplishments, the Downtown Neighbourhood Plan figures pretty highly in there. But if the demolition of the Black Building can be considered a test case, they have little to be proud of. Because the way things are looking right now, their downtown plan is worse than just toothless.

It's stillborn.

1 - That would be about two years ago. But a lot of city staffers have been fired or have retired since then.

2 - I'm referring, of course, to ovaries. Big, brass ovaries.