On December 26, 2022, Hamilton’s former Eaton Centre, opened just 32 years ago, will close for good. Early in the new year, demolition will begin on the failed downtown mall, making way for a new residential development.
Hamilton Eaton Centre, fully opened in October 1990, was one of several downtown malls built in Ontario through a partnership between Eaton’s and commercial developer Cadillac Fairview, hoping to replicate the success of the Toronto Eaton Centre, which opened in phases between 1977 and 1979. It was the second major shopping centre to open in Downtown Hamilton; it followed the construction of the massive city-led Jackson Square development in the 1970s and 1980s in which entire city blocks were cleared to make way for urban renewal.
With support from the Ontario and municipal governments, the T. Eaton Company and Cadillac Fairview built new malls in Ottawa, Peterborough, Brantford, Kitchener, Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Sarnia, Hamilton, and expanded London’s existing Wellington Square. These private-public partnerships seemed to be beneficial; smaller cities worried about the decline of their downtowns would get an attractive new shopping centre after expropriating and demolishing existing buildings and/or providing municipal lands for the project. The municipality would finance new parking garages to support the new development. Meanwhile, Eaton’s would help finance the construction and provide a lead anchor for the new development. Cadillac Fairview, which specialized in retail and office development, would arrange the construction and the leasing for the mall stores. (There were a few downtown shopping centre projects in Ontario that did not have Eaton’s involvement, including malls in Chatham, Cornwall, Tillsonburg, and Waterloo.)
Unlike malls in Kitchener, Sarnia, Brantford, or Guelph, the Hamilton Eaton Centre was mostly built upon lands already acquired by Eaton’s itself, much like the larger and more successful Toronto Eaton Centre (the city of Hamilton assisted by closing Merrick Street between York Boulevard and James Street and transferring the right-of-way for the new development). The first phase of the project, built on the site of the Merrick Street parking garage and the old Hamilton Farmers Market, became the home of a new four-storey Eaton’s store to replace the dilapidated building on James Street. When the new store opened in April 1989, the old store was quickly demolished to make way for the mall itself, which opened just 18 months later.
At first, Hamilton’s Eaton Centre was able to attract prestigious tenants such as HMV and Eddie Bauer thanks to Cadillac Fairview’s expertise and new office development in Downtown Hamilton, including a new CIBC office complex. The new mall was also able to attract existing downtown businesses out of storefront retail and the older Jackson Square mall.
However, as I discussed previously on this website, the malls developed by Eaton’s and Cadillac Fairview did not do well in most markets. New, full-line Eaton’s stores were a poor fit for smaller, industrial cities like Peterborough, Brantford, and Sarnia. The malls themselves were more difficult to get to by car, and shoppers usually had to pay for parking. The established suburban malls were typically larger, and they offered ample free parking. By 1990, the old, large industries were in decline due to free trade and industrial automation, and in the 1990s, a new retail format — the big box “power centre” — emerged as serious competition during a major recession. And in 1994, Walmart entered the Canadian market.
With low traffic and many national retailers unwilling to renew their leases, Cadillac Fairview divested itself of most of its downtown malls. It sold its half-stake of Hamilton’s Eaton Centre to the T. Eaton Company in 1995 (Of its downtown malls, Cadillac Fairview would only hold onto the flagship Toronto Eaton Centre, and the Rideau Centre in Ottawa). According to a Hamilton Spectator article from that year, one of the mall’s three floors was already closed, just five years after its grand opening.1 Among the tenants that left the mall early was upscale men’s clothier Harry Rosen. By 1996, only 50 of the 120 stores outside the Eaton’s department store were still occupied, with another six stores closing early that year.2 A McMaster University business school lecturer predicted that one of the two downtown malls — Eaton Centre or Jackson Square — would close within 10 years. (He was only 15 years off the mark.)2
In February 1997 — after years of mismanagement and neglect by the fourth generation of the Eaton family — Eaton’s entered bankruptcy protection, allowing it to settle debts and restructure. Though stores in other downtown malls in Brantford, Sarnia, and Kitchener were among the first to go, the Downtown Hamilton store was left off the closure lists, as Eaton’s itself owned the property – losing the department store anchor would not help the mall in case of a property sale. In the meantime, Metrus Developments — which purchased the neighbouring Lister Block in 1989 — evicted its remaining tenants and boarded up the six-storey commercial building, hastening Downtown Hamilton’s visual and commercial decline.
In 1998, the Region of Hamilton-Wentworth (dissolved in 2001 after amalgamation) began leasing space on the formerly vacant third floor of Hamilton Eaton Centre, partly to help maintain the department store’s presence and support Eaton’s, which still owned the property. The City of Hamilton agreed to provide two hours of free parking at the attached York Boulevard garage and planned for the construction of a new store entrance to the Hamilton Farmers’ Market. This was just enough to keep the department store open until the company collapsed in 1999; the store closed for good in October of that year. The mall was rebranded Hamilton City Centre the year after, sold to a private real estate firm.
After Eaton’s closed, part of the massive retail space was renovated and turned into a fitness club. The City of Hamilton leased additional space in the old Eaton’s store, especially as it undertook renovations to its modernist 1960s-era city hall. New windows were punched into the brick facade to provide natural light to the new occupants. But the remaining national retailers like HMV, Fairweather, and Eddie Bauer left the mall, while a few small, independent retailers came in, attracted by cheap rents.
The new development will have 1,940 residential apartments, along with street-level retail and office spaces, constructed in three phases. Walkways will allow the public to cut through the property, with one of those roughly following the old Merrick Street alignment. Unfortunately, it is being developed and planned independently of the rest of the Jackson Square superblock bound by James, King, and Bay Streets, and York Boulevard, and which also contains the farmers market, the central library, and Copps Coliseum, the sports venue built for an NHL franchise that never arrived.
But with the influx of new residents, Jackson Square — which, despite is retail vacancies, holds its own due to the attached office, hotel, and civic functions, as well as the full-service Nations supermarket — will only benefit from the demise of its newer downtown competitor.
- “Eaton eyes the future after buying centre” Hamilton Spectator 13 July 1995: D12.
- John Burman. “A tough sell: Struggling Eaton Centre looks for new direction” Hamilton Spectator 13 Feb 1996: A1