James Street church redevelopment changes owners again

It was March 2019 when a buoyant Allen Le Nam publicly emerged as the winner of a bidding war to purchase and reignite a belly-up condo development at the site of the former James Street Baptist Church.

The Vietnam-born developer pledged to spend $100 million to flip the century-old building at James and Jackson streets into a plush, 31-storey highrise — dubbed the Connolly — that would incorporate the church’s stone façade as a nod to its historic past.

Construction, he told The Spectator at the time, would begin that spring and take around two and a half years.

It was a lofty commitment for a long-stalled project that had been mired in controversy after its previous owner was placed in receivership in 2017.

Now, as it turns out, too lofty.

For the third time in less than a decade, the Connolly has changed hands in ownership after Le Nam sold the development to a consortium of investors earlier this month.

In an interview with The Spectator, Le Nam said the sale stemmed from financial troubles his firm — Hue Developments, a subsidiary of the giant Vietnam-based Hoa Binh Corp. — incurred during the pandemic.

“Partnerships have been discussed for several months because our Vietnamese shareholders have not been able to mobilize funds since the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said, noting Hue Developments also backed out of four unfinished developments in Southeast Asia.

But key details of the sale — like who the consortium is or how much the development sold for — remain unclear.

Le Nam said confidentiality terms in the sale agreement bar him from discussing such information. He did concede, however, that his firm is “losing money” off their original investment and said that the development is in “good hands.”

“They’re going to start construction to stabilize the church from now until December,” he said of the mystery investor group. “They will keep the development plans.”

On Tuesday, the Milborne Group, a consulting firm with realtor partnerships across Canada, told The Spec it is leading the consortium’s new marketing and sales campaign.

“The direction of the group is to proceed (with) development, positioning this landmark, unique condominium in Hamilton’s marketplace,” Michael Budovitch, Milborne’s vice-president of special projects, said via email.

Budovitch said his firm doesn’t own the property and is only acting as a consultant for the investor group. He added members of that group will make themselves public once the project’s marketing campaign is underway.

The sale of the Connolly marks just the latest chapter in a long, turbulent saga.

Efforts to convert the James Street Baptist Church date back to 2013, when Toronto developer Louie Santaguida of Stanton Renaissance bought the historic-but-crumbling building to explore erecting a potentially “dramatic” redevelopment.

More than two-thirds of the structure — not including its iconic stone entrance and tower — was controversially razed in 2014 to make way for Santaguida’s planned $80-million, 30-storey condo.

But construction never started.

In 2017, the development was placed in receivership, leaving dozens of investors in limbo.

Le Nam said the Connolly sold no new units under his tutelage. Those who placed deposits for units offered during Santaguida’s reign have received their money back in full, he added.

Meanwhile, the timing of COVID relative to Le Nam’s takeover of the property meant construction plans were slow to materialize from the get-go. Besides general upkeep and debris clearing around the site, he said crews never even broke ground.

“The best solution for the development was a sale to a consortium who has over 50 years experience in the building industry.”

What’s next for the development is what Le Nam referred to as a clean slate. City-approved heritage and building permits will be transferred to the new owners, he said, and the project’s architects remain involved in the project.

“We’re excited about the new partnership,” said William Neal of McCallum Sather Architects. “This file has been ongoing for a while, and we’re just really looking forward to taking the next step.”

But the new owners will have to get a move on construction.

The city’s director of planning said the development’s building permit expires in early 2023.

“They can apply for an extension before their heritage permit expires,” said Steve Robichaud, noting the latter is still valid for 24 months. “I think everyone in the city would like to see this project move forward.”

Ward 2’s incumbent councillor, Jason Farr, a proponent of the project, echoed that sentiment. He told The Spectator in 2019 he was “very confident” Le Nam would see the development to the finish line, and said residents would be “impressed” with the final project.

“We always had a good relationship with (Hue Developments), but there was a lot people involved in the project and sometimes that makes things challenging,” he said Tuesday. “We hope there’s a positive step with the new owners.”

Meanwhile, heritage advocate Janice Brown “would love” to see the Connolly development finally move forward after the years of stagnation.

“If it doesn’t happen, there will be nothing left,” she said of the façade.

Brown, a member of the city’s heritage committee, said the rubble-strewn site is a bad look for LIUNA’s highrise residential development underway across James Street South.

The idled former church property sits languishing across from neighbour St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, a national historic site, she noted.

“Heritage needs to make noise. We cannot continue to let demolition (happen) by neglect and these big developers come in who really don’t care about the city.”

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