One James North

It hides in plain sight, an airy specimen of ’70s architecture at the corner of King and James.

It’s walls of windows look down at life on the street. But no one looks up.

The address is not famous, but could be – One James Street North.

It’s a three-storey rectangle of glass. Many don’t know it’s there because it sits at the lonely “Plus-15” level, 15 feet above the sidewalk, on the rooftop of Jackson Square, that vast plain the planners of a generation or two ago said would buzz with life.

People do linger there for smoke breaks, for lunch on a summer day, for the odd concert. But most of the time the plaza is deserted.

And so is One James Street North. The enterprise for which it was built walked away a long time ago.

That would be the Bank of Montreal. It opened in Jackson Square at 10 AM on Monday, August 14, 1972, two days ahead of the mall itself.

It had a prime location just inside the doors at King and James. At street level, where the LCBO and Pam’s Coffee are today, the bank ran its retail operation. And up the escalator, in the glass jewel on the plaza level, the bank had the finest offices in town. Soaring ceilings and windows that reached the sky.

The structure was purpose-built for the B of M and for a quarter-century it was the firm’s Hamilton headquarters.

But 15 years ago the bank announced it was pulling out. The manager of the day said, “These premises are not suitable for the direction the bank is heading.” And that direction was “relationship” banking.

The B of M was to become the sole tenant of a two storey box being erecting at Main and Bay.

Mayor Bob Morrow was not happy. “I wanted them to stay where they are. We’re trying to get business on King Street,” he said back in 1997.

“It’s good they’re putting up a new building. But it’s the wrong location. I told them what I thought of it.”

So the bank moved into its new suburban-style branch, complete with drive-thru. And One James Street North has been waiting for a new tenant ever since.

“I love bringing people to this space,” says Jocelyne Mainville. She is the Hamilton leasing manager for Yale Properties, the development company that’s controlled Jackson Square from the beginning. It’s run by the Mashaal family of Montreal.

Mainville herself arrived from Montreal half-a-dozen years ago and likes this city. “This could be a smaller version of downtown Montreal,” she says, “but the psyche is nowhere near what it should be. People here feel downtown should function like the suburbs.”

In other cities, she says, people know that downtown is different and they like that. You will see all kinds. It’s not Pleasant Valley.

Mainville knows her trade. She gets creative on price and facilities and has managed to lure operations like Liaison College, Suzuki School of Music, and College Boreal into underutilized space. She’s knocked down the vacancy rate at the 475,000-square-foot Standard Life building at King and Bay from 40 per cent to 12 per cent.

But One James Street North has been a tougher nut to crack.

She’s taken many prospects through. One big charity was looking to consolidate operations. But in the end it decided it would be a little too scary to be right at King and James.

“That perception is there,” Mainville says, “but there’s nothing to support it.”

She has 47,000 square feet to offer at One James. Law firms have looked at the space. Professional colleges too. Heck, it could be a great space for the public school board, which seems determined to flee to the Mountain.

Yale properties actually offered to buy the Board of Education building, now declared surplus, and move the board into office space over Jackson Square. That got nowhere.

Rent at One James is about $23 per square foot. By comparison, McMaster wants the City’s health department to pay about $33 in its new building. And at the newly restored Lister Block, the city will be paying rent of about $40 a square foot.

There’s a big view of the reborn Lister from One James Street North and Mainville is thankful for that.

She has lots of vacant office space – here and next door at Stelco Tower – that could have housed the City workers moving into the Lister. But the fact that the storied building shines again does make life easier.

“The Lister is phenomenal for me,” she says. “It’s not boarded-up windows anymore. Anything that’s good for downtown is good for us.”

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