$100m plan for downtown
Steve Arnold Tue Apr 05 2011
Work on a $100 million project that would change the skyline of downtown Hamilton is expected to start as early as June.
The project, conceived by developer Darko Vranich, will bring 628 condo units, two extended stay hotels and 20,000 square feet of retail space to the core.
“Darko is putting his money where his mouth is for this project,” said downtown councillor Jason Farr. “This spring is what they are shooting for to get shovels in the ground.”
For the last decade Vranich has been quietly assembling land downtown and his Vrancor group now owns a large piece of the block bounded by Bay, Hess, King and Main streets. His plan calls for four buildings along George Street, starting with a 134-room extended stay hotel at the west end, adjacent to Hess Street.
The sites slated for development include the former Hamilton Motor Products dealership property at Main and Bay.
Start dates for the other towers, which could run as high as 20 storeys, haven’t been set yet.
“Everyone is excited about this project,” Farr said. “It is massive good news for the downtown.”
Vranich has been talking about some kind of development for the area since 2004 when he bought the former federal building at Caroline and Main streets, but as recently as last year he had said the work would be stalled indefinitely if the West Harbour stadium location didn’t go ahead. That stadium site was seen as a key piece of core momentum.
Now, a spokesman for his company said a new “development friendly” attitude at city hall has made it the right time to move ahead.
In an e-mail exchange, Vrancor chief financial officer Tyler McDiarmid said as long as the football stadium stays within the city, the project is viable, especially with the city’s new attitude toward development.
“With the co-operation that we’ve received from City staff, the Mayor’s office and city council, who have demonstrated themselves to be forward thinking and development friendly, we feel it is the right time to move forward with this project,” he wrote.
The $100 million project has been conceived as a way of reviving a piece of the core and linking the restaurant-bar hub on Hess Village to the rest of downtown. The first building to be raised will house about 3,000 square feet of retail space designed to “compliment and enhance the feel of Hess Village,” McDiarmid said.
While many developers have scorned the core of Hamilton, Vranich takes a different view.
“The downtown core is the heart of the city. We feel there is no other location that would support a development of this size,” McDiarmid wrote. “In addition the city offers many incentives for downtown development that will help offset the $22 million cost of this hotel.”
Steve Robichaud, manager of development planning at City Hall, said so far only “consultation” documents have been filed with the city. Those papers start the process of circulating the plan for comment from various city departments on issues such as landscaping and urban design.
“These are the general, standard conditions we raise,” Robichaud said. “There’s nothing extraordinary here.”
Robichaud added it’s possible Vranich could make his June start date if his company and consultants are “aggressive” about meeting the city’s conditions.
In his e-mails, McDiarmid said consultation applications have been filed for all phases of the project and Vrancor is “working diligently with city staff” to answer the comments that are already coming in. A formal site plan could be submitted as early as this week.
In 2004 Vranich built a Staybridge hotel downtown in the former Canada Post garage on Market Street at Caroline, immediately behind the new Federal building. His later sold his share in the building and it was converted to a seniors’ residence.
Just as the decision to convert the former hotel into seniors’ apartments was a response to a perceived market need, McDiarmid said starting the new project with a hotel is Vrancor’s response to a new market demand for more hotel rooms in the core.
“The former Staybridge … established that there is a strong market for that brand in Hamilton, which is in need of extended stay accommodations,” McDiarmid wrote. “Accordingly we feel it has the greatest economic potential and thus is the most logical place to start.”
That view coincides with what city tourism officials have long been saying – Hamilton’s efforts to attract visitors and conventions are being hampered by a lack of hotel rooms in the core.
The first phase of the project is expected to be completed by June 2012. Completion of the other buildings will depend on “design and planning considerations yet to be finalized” with city staff.
Chief among those issues is the fate of the former federal building at Caroline and Main, including the eight pieces of art work on its front created by Hamilton artist Elizabeth Holbrooke. Vranich currently has a consultant working out how to detach those reliefs from the building, after which he plans to give them to the city for display.
He’s also talking to Ottawa about its contention the 2004 sales agreement for the building prohibits it being torn down – Vranich has a demolition permit from Hamilton to do just that to make way for a 229 unit condo-retail project.
Financing for the project is also still to be worked out.