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The mystery of Century Manor

Nobody knows.

That’s the short answer to what’s happening with the Century Manor lands at 100 West 5th St., and the long answer only serves to raise more questions that inevitably lead back to the short answer.

The 30-acre parcel of land across from Mohawk College’s Fennel Avenue campus was once home to the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane, which opened in 1884 but has largely been abandoned since it hosted a museum briefly in the 1990s.

Currently the property is home to nine structures, only three of which remain in use. 

That leaves the other half-dozen structures abandoned and left to decay, including Century Manor, a heritage building and the last remaining piece of the old psychiatric hospital.

The land has seen several different proposals to revitalize it, most recently in 2018 when Mohawk College agreed to purchase the property from the City of Hamilton with the money going to fund affordable housing in the downtown core.

This plan was scrapped by the Ontario government shortly after Doug Ford was elected in 2018, and two years after that, the province implemented a ministerial zoning order (MZO) designating the area for a new long-term care facility, as well as high-rise housing up to 18 storeys tall.

Both uses go against Hamilton’s master plan for the area, and the move caused backlash against government overreach.

“[The government of Ontario] doesn’t own [the land], it’s not theirs. They own it in trust for the people of the province of Ontario,” Sandy Shaw, NDP MPP for Hamilton West, Dundas, and Ancaster said. “How they think they can sell it off to their friends or keep people off that land without public input is really disappointing to me.” 

Since then the property has been sitting in limbo. Both Shaw and Hamilton Counc. Paul Danko have requested the MZO to be lifted. Both requests have been rejected.

Even with their plan to purchase the lot being thrown out, Mohawk College still sees potential for expansion in the area.

“We’ve made it clear [to the government] that the college still has an interest in somehow being involved in that space,” Bill Steinburg, a spokesperson for Mohawk College said. “We would be open to any partnerships that would allow us to expand educational offerings and student life.”

The property is currently in the care of CBRE, the world’s largest private commercial real estate firm. Management of the land had been outsourced to the company by the Ministry of Infrastructure.

The land, which extends to the edge of the escarpment, has largely fallen into disrepair and neglect. On top of the six abandoned structures that have become a popular ‘urban exploration’ site, the land is littered with stray bricks, shards of glass, and empty barrels that once held food for St. Joseph’s Hospital next door.

Two baseball fields have been completely overgrown, to the point you might have missed them if you didn’t look closely. Signs that say ‘No Dumping’ are rusting away, surrounded by rubble from the broken building they were meant to help keep clean.

Even the roads and buildings are beginning to give way to nature. Grass and weeds poke through the air ducks and cause cracks in the pavement. There are signs the area is slowly being reclaimed by nature and even by the community around it.

“I got approached by a by-law officer at the park I used to bring [my dog] to about taking her off the leash,” Edwards Davis, a local resident said. Davis said he was attracted by the prospect of less oversight and a large field to play with his 10-month-old Australian Sheppard, Pepper.

People from the community have begun using the overgrown terrain as a dog park and hiking trails, in theory risking trespassing fines according to signs posted on many of the buildings.

The community has largely been left in the dark about the property, unsure of the history of the land. Davis said he hadn’t been aware of the saga that has been unfolding over the previous years, even mistaking the area for the abandoned and largely demolished Hamilton Sanatorium a few kilometres down Scenic Drive from Century Manor.

Even when grassroots community movements pop up, they have been ignored by the government when it comes to this property. 

Groups like Century Manor Preservation, Save Century Manor, and Architectural Conservancy Ontario (ACO) began advocating for more community involvement, and for the government to take steps to preserve the heritage building that they were concerned was rapidly deteriorating.

Those groups have largely been silent since 2021 due to a lack of communication on the future of the lands.

“I am afraid I know nothing at all about Century Manor, and the only person I can think of who might know is Sandy Shaw,” Shannon Kyles, the president of the Hamilton branch of ACO said.

Shaw had repeatedly asked the Ford government what they had planned to do with the lands but had gotten no response.

“We are all concerned,” Kyles said.

In March 2023, the land was officially put up for sale by the government, and a private bidding process began.

That process has since concluded, but due to the private nature of the sale of what is supposed to be publicly-owned land, the government was unable to provide much detail on the future of the land.

“Due to commercially sensitive information, details on the process cannot be provided as the open market period for this site is closed and the offer assessment process is currently in progress,” Sofia Sousa-Diaz, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Infrastructure said. 

Sousa-Diaz also added that the city of Hamilton had submitted a MZO request for the land but there has been no decision. 

It is unclear if the request was to lift the MZO, or to rezone the land.

As it stands now, neither the public, the local government, nor the people who make their living working in the remaining open buildings know what is going to happen to the land.

All they know is that their time may be limited.

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