An interview with developer Louie Santaguida

When the congregation of James Street Baptist Church came to the difficult conclusion that they were no longer able to pay for the cost of maintaining their aging church building on James Street South, they put it up for sale. Toronto’s Louie Santaguida decided to convert the property into a large condo development. We sat down with Louie to learn more.

MG: Why this property? Considering that you’re from Toronto, why Hamilton?
LS: So, for me, James Street Baptist came to light through our architects that are working with us on this in Toronto, which happen to be local Hamilton architects by chance—totally coincidental. But, then again, I don’t believe in coincidence in life, so that happened for a reason. Joanne and Drew and their team know my love for heritage and the minute they heard that James Street Baptist could be demolished in its entirety by local developers is when they called and said, “Louie, you have to come down here immediately and take a look at this project.” Of course, he snapped a photograph, and said, “This is what you need to buy”. I said it looks really interesting, and so I drove down, got my site tour, and lo and behold we purchased this. The intent was to build something a little different than what we’re currently building. We didn’t realize the structural integrity of the building was what it really is today…and it’s changing day by day because of the fluctuation of time, temperatures, moisture, and what not, and we also went through an extremely bad winter that had a dramatic effect on the church. So we’re actually moving in such a way that we feel comfortable in terms of the re-design. What we’re going to put out is a palatable product for the local market, and as it’s going to be very different for Hamilton. That’ s really exciting for us, to bring in the era of the legacy landmark issue, along with a new development, and new modern-ness to this development.

MG: There’s bit a lot of talk about Hamilton being in a condo boom. Developers are currently in the process of bringing over 1000 new condo units to the city within the next 3-4 years. Do you think Hamilton is ready for that? Do you see this as an underserved market? Is Toronto coming this way?
LS: I see Hamilton as finally coming alive and coming of age, if I can use that boldly and loosely at the same time. I think Hamilton is finally ready for a change in its downtown core. I think if you’re looking for Hamilton to absorb high-rise condominiums on the mountain or the Barton and Tiffany area, you’re missing the block in terms of where it will be. But the downtown core is coming of age. What I mean by that is that the generations that have left want to come back and it’s for a multitude of reasons. Some of them have to do with affordability, no question. Some of them have to do with family issues, some of them have to do with investment issues. They’ve made money and they believe in Hamilton. They’re homegrown in Hamilton, let’s be honest.

MG: What are some of the plans you have for this project?
LS: Well, it’s more than a condo project. It’s more of a mixed-use development. And, in that we mean not only will it be a residential community, it will have a common area for the community at large, to bring the community that is not in the condo into the condo, which is so badly needed. We want the community to connect with our other uses, which are restaurant, office, maybe a grocer…we’ll see what’s happening in terms of where we’re going. So, bringing in the practical uses of what the community really needs.

MG: Do you know how tall you’re going to build?
LS: It could be one of the tallest buildings in Hamilton is all I can say at this point.

MG: How do you go about that? You have a very tight locked space and you have heritage preservation to respect.
LS: You ask a very complicated, but very easy to answer question. It’s complicated from the structural and design perspective. How do we create a lot of parking? And the answer is it’s difficult and we can’t do it, and we choose not to do it. So, we’re not having that. We’re not looking for a consumer or a renter or the investor that wants to have multiple cars. We’re looking for the end user that actually wants not to drive a vehicle, or if they are, they are using a car share. And why? It’s taking into account green issues that we’re truly passionate about. So, not only are we trying to bring that to this building, but I think it’s incumbent on us, that that is the consumer that we really want and quite frankly, Hamiltonians are ready for that kind of thought process. We don’t need multiple vehicles to live in the downtown core. We want walkability. We want to make sure we can bike where we need to bike, we want transit. Quite frankly, when you look at the economics around owning a vehicle and multiple vehicles you realize it’s far cheaper not to own one and invest in multiple real estate products, and you’ll go farther with that type of asset which is an appreciating asset, as opposed to a vehicle which is a depreciating asset.

MG: Is this your first time working with a heritage building? This is a sensitive property and a very sensitive issue in Hamilton – is this your first rodeo?
LS: In a lot of ways I wish this was my first rodeo. Unfortunately, it’s not my first rodeo, so having been whacked in the derriere a couple of times, you realize how sensitive these issues are and you become accustomed to what really is adaptable and what isn’t adaptable, and what’s functional and not functional, what’s practical, and not practical and what people really want. I realize that people get emotional about fixations, and buildings that they’ve seen for the past 30-40 years, but then when they realize these buildings are not sustainable, as commented recently, with the preservation of the church currently. [It’s been said recently that,] “We didn’t realize the church was crumbling”. We’re salvaging stained glass as we speak and the building is crumbling, there’s not mechanical means! [We have] People, 70 feet in the air, pushing over 3-foot thick walls with their fingers; they’re realizing this is a failing building. We can’t replace this building in terms of that, but what we can do is do a really good job in terms of bringing it back to the local community, and that ‘s our intention.

MG: Talk about the heritage aspects of this property. As with every property, it raises eyebrows, it raises questions. What can you tell us about the measures you’re taking to protect the heritage elements of this project?
LS: Heritage on this particular building, obviously, is extremely visible. It’s a hot pressure point for the community and we realize that, and it is for us, that’s the reason we purchased this building. We’re taking every measure to preserve and conserve the church. If you look outside, you’ll realize, based on what was accepted by the heritage committee, we’re preserving even more. So, the intent here, is how we can preserve and adapt as much of the church that was designed and built by Joseph Conley back in the late 1800’s. That’s pinnacle to me personally, but we want to make sure it resonates with the community moving forward. So, we’re going beyond what was mandated and conditionalized by the Heritage Committee and the City of Hamilton. And how we do that, is going to fall out over the next several months. But, whatever we can’t adapt, the idea that I have in mind is that whatever we can’t, we want to give back to the community somehow. So, we want that displayed wherever can within the community…hopefully within walking distance of the development. But, that needs to be seen by where we can place these artifacts, numbered artifacts is what I would call them, in the community. But, we will put back as much as we can and we have some really interesting and cool things that are going to happen within this building.

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