On 77 James Street North lies the entrance to a peculiar building.
Vintage lettering reading “City Centre” greet those who pass by from the top of a glass canopy supported by teal blue columns. Brick walls pose an ominous presence to anyone looking at it from the outside and the obsessively symmetrical architecture follows a strict pastel colour palette on the inside.
The building is known as the Hamilton City Centre, but I did not know that as I ran through its doors for the first time last September in an attempt to seek refuge from a sudden thunderstorm. As I passed white pillars, peach-coloured patio umbrellas and blue-stained glass, it felt more like walking through a Wes Anderson film than a shopping mall.
Tired faces resided behind vendors in the food court and many of the shops were either closed or boarded up. Yellow tape and caution signs signalled ongoing renovations on the lower level, but for how long? I couldn’t tell.
I left the building feeling a mix of astonishment and confusion.
Months later, I still think about the building that’s often forgotten. The three-story building spans several blocks along the busiest street in Hamilton, yet not many people know much about it.
A more deliberate look into the City Centre unveils stories of exciting beginnings, difficult times burdened by bankruptcies and new possibilities for a building shy of 30 years old.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Canada’s largest department store at the time, Eaton’s, had joint ventures with development companies in an ambitious effort that would ensure new shopping centres would contain or were within close proximity to an Eaton’s store.
During the same time, the provincial government launched a multi-million dollar Ontario Downtown Renewal Program in partnership with Eaton’s Retail Company to revive downtown retail areas, like Hamilton’s downtown core. In 1990, the Hamilton Eaton Centre, which we know today as the City Centre, officially opened.
At face value, the ODRP seemed to be the perfect opportunity for small cities. There were optimistic market projections and low vacancies across the province. While some malls benefited from funding, there was little to no consumer analysis done for the program.
Not to mention that boutiques and small businesses along the streets suffered from the development projects and many of the shopping centres themselves were inaccessible due to lack of free parking.
Soon enough, shopping centres became unstable all over the province as consumers continued to take their business to the suburbs and the economy entered the worst of the recession.
As the Hamilton Eaton Centre neared its 10-year anniversary, leasing contracts came to an end and most were not renewed. The Eaton Company was annexed by the Bay and they filed for bankruptcy in 1997, while most of their stores were liquidated by 1999.
The Hamilton Eaton Centre was sold for five per cent of its construction cost in 2000.
It’s important to note that other Eaton Centres around the province didn’t fail as badly as Hamilton’s. Whether it’s due to fierce competition from Limeridge Mall, the Bay’s refusal to take over the vacant space or the increased gang activity in the area, the City Centre’s demise is still a mystery waiting to be unravelled.
To this day, the City Centre has not fully recovered. It’s mostly used for offices and some discount retailing, but it’s undeniable that the space holds great potential.
The lower level is now home to Thunder Alley, a 40,000 square feet entertainment complex that currently has a few bowling lanes open. The $3.5 million project was originally proposed in 2014, but has been on a standstill until a new developer decided to take over last year.
Even though the project is still in the midst of figuring out licensing, the City Centre will hopefully soon see 20 bowling lanes, an arcade, restaurant, bar and stage for live music.
In many ways the City Centre is a metaphor for Hamilton’s struggle to revitalize downtown. Despite the bankruptcies, recession, a few notable crimes and rumours of shady developers, the City Centre is still standing.
And so is Hamilton. The city is changing at a remarkable rate every day.
What the future holds for the City Centre is unknown, yet I can’t help but feel that it’s on the brink of something exciting. Just like the future of Hamilton, I’m looking forward to embracing it.