Better Planning and Building Make All the Difference
From the Nest, Issue 5
by Wayne MacPhail
Strathcona dwellers should justifiably be outraged that Hamilton-based developer Vrancor pulled a now-familiar bait and switch on them about its development at King Street West and Queen Street North (354 King Street West).
It originally touted a 10-storey hotel and a six storey residence. Then, four months later, swapped that out for an application for a 12-storey hotel and a whopping 25-storey residence, without so much as a flyer in the mailbox to neighbours.
I say “now-familiar” because Vrancor pulled the same manoeuver on Corktown residents last year when it applied for a “minor variation” that would convert its Main Street East and Walnut Street South development from a “mixed-use and residential development” into a hotel tower, without informing residents (or Councillor Jason Farr). It has since been flipped back to being a residence. Stay tuned.
And, Strathcona residents should be dismayed at the uninspired ugliness of the 10-storey (soon to be 12-storey) highway hotel that is now rising on the site.
But, that’s not what this piece is about. Because, apart from all that, throughout the entire construction process, Vrancor has proven itself to be a terrible neighbour. Its actions and neglect have shown us its disregard for the environment, public safety, and the City’s by-laws.
Let’s start with the environment. When construction started over a year ago, Vrancor should have installed silt control fencing around the site, a mud mat at the site exit, and silt sacks in nearby drains. The developer is supposed to contain soil run-off from the site. We know this because the Burlington-based engineering firm MTE informed Vrancor of these requirements in a December 16, 2019 report. But, Vrancor didn’t do any of that.
As a result, Market Street was frequently a slurry of mud and sediment and soil from the site flowed unimpeded into nearby drains. Ironically, but not surprisingly, the drains clogged and Vrancor workers had to dredge them.
Worse, the City did nothing to compel Vrancor to install the required environmental safeguards. But, in May of last year, Strathcona residents discovered the December 6, 2019 report and informed the City that Vrancor has been negligent.
As a direct result of our complaint, MTE undertook another study of the property. We began to see silt sacks appearing in drains. But, we were forced to file a Freedom of Information request to actually get a copy of the June 2 MTE study that we sparked. It confirmed our suspicions. The environmental mediations should have been in place, they were not, the City did nothing, and Vrancor only acted when we complained.
But that wasn’t the only environmental assault on the site. Vrancor owns a parking lot across Market Street from its construction site. In May of last year, residents noticed a large oily black stain surrounding a parking lot drain. It had been smeared over the lot by car and truck traffic in the lot. It was only, again when citizens complained to the City and the Ministry of the Environment, that sponges were placed in the drain to absorb the pollution from the oil spill.
The site has been rife with hazards to the public. Last summer the gates of the site were left open on weekends while bare rebar jutted upward from poured concrete inside. The narrow sidewalk Vrancor left for pedestrians heading downtown on Market was crushed, cracked, and made difficult to navigate when the fencing was broken and pushed into the walkway by heavy equipment. More recently, dust curtains applied to the outside of fencing on Queen Street tore away from the fence’s bottom and whipped and billowed forcefully. They could have easily tossed a pedestrian into traffic. Cement was poured over a King Street sidewalk into the site with no protection for passersby.
Worse still, for the past two months, Vrancor has used its Market Street parking lot as a dangerous dump for rubble, gravel, and heavy equipment. Children have clambered over the rubble and played in the front shovel of live equipment. What should be a parking lot (according to City By-law 70-170) is now an extension of the job site. I’ve asked the City three times what sanctions will be placed on Vrancor in order to stop its unsafe behaviour.
I’ve received no answer at the time of this writing. Vrancor has exercised similar sloppiness at its Walnut Street South and Jackson Street East development, leaving heavy equipment and building materials exposed for any curious kid to climb on.
Over two nights in April, dump trunks and frontend loaders worked late into the night on the darkened parking lot with no flag persons in attendance.
So, yes, citizens should be concerned when developers unilaterally attempt to foist unimaginative and ugly, and overly tall designs on a neighbourhood. We should not stand for being bait and switched.
But we also should demand more of those developers and the City than practices that flout by-laws, harm the environment, and endanger citizens. The City needs to plan better. Developers need to build better. Hamilton deserves better. Compliance with by-laws, environmental protection, and the safety of citizens should be table stakes — they’re clearly not when the table is tilted in the developers’ direction.
Wayne MacPhail is a resident of the Strathcona neighbourhood in Ward 1 and the founder of Strathcona Shadow Dwellers, a citizen group that has been monitoring the Vrancor Group development at 354 King Street West