A Hamilton developer’s dream of building a medium density residential complex on a former auto wrecking yard in the West Harbour precinct has turned into a legal and bureaucratic nightmare. Marino Rakovak who heads up the consortium White Star Group says because of the actions of city planners and council the project has been stalled for 20 years and has drained the group’s finances. In a $5 Million statement of claim Rakovac blames a series of delays and false starts by city planning officials as well as two attempts to place a stadium in the region for White Star’s inability to get his project moving.
Marino Rakovac first became interested in the project in 1995 when the city issued an early West Harbour development plan. Two years later, after meeting with city officials and receiving encouragement for his plan, Rakovac purchased the old White Star Auto Wrecking yard at Bay and Murray Streets with the intention of cleaning up the property and building a residential complex. In 2000 an agreement was struck with the city. As part of the deal with the city White Star would pay back taxes owed by the previous owner. For its part the city would provide the developers with a grant to remediate the property under the city’s ERASE program, and allow the property to be re-zoned. But in the same year the city asked White Star to put the plans on a temporary hold because the city had decided to proceed with its own plan to re-zone a number of properties in the area, including the White Star property, and would pay all of the OMB costs involved. Marino agreed.
But nothing happened for three years and then in 2003 the city put all re-zoning on hold as Hamilton, in pursuit of a Commonwealth Games bid, had developed plans to build a stadium in the West Harbour. The games ultimately were awarded to New Delhi and the city resumed its planning for residential development, culminating with the Setting Sails master plan in 2004. White Star was back in business, or so Marino thought. . Up to this point the property had continued to be operated as an auto wrecking yard, but in 2005 the city asked White Star to cease the wrecking operation which created a further drain on finances. But three years passed with no apparent action on the city’s promise to re-zone the property. The White Star statement of claim says the city hesitated because they were afraid of offending CN Rail who had filed an objection to residential development that would conflict with its shunting operations in the area. White Star lawyer Tony Powell says the city “ran for cover” when CN filed its appeal. BY 2008 the city was one again floating plans for a stadium in the area—this time in pursuit of the Pan-Am Games. Once again the project was on hold.
Marino says that In 2010 as the city started acquiring land in the West Harbour for the stadium, they compensated various property owners not only for their expropriated land, but also for business losses. Staff did not offer compensation to Marino who took the matter to then Ward 2 Councillor Bob Bratina. Bratina authored a motion, seconded by the late Bernie Morelli and unanimously passed by council, to direct staff to consider compensating Marino for his losses due to the delays. Staff reportedly have said they did consider the matter and decided not to compensate White Star.
Following the 2010 election, the City and the Tiger Cats resolved the stadium issue with the plan that saw the stadium built on the former Ivor Wynne site. In 2011 a meeting was held between Marino, city staff, former Mayor DiIanni and councillor Terry Whitehead in an attempt to mediate a solution, but no agreement was reached. Finally in 2012 White Star, its funds depleted after 17 years of inaction and delays in his development application, filed the lawsuit. With the 2014 OMB confirmation of the Setting Sail plan, technically at least White Star was cleared to begin his project.
But the legal action has created a Catch 22. The city of Hamilton has a policy that blocks anyone engaged in legal action against the city to participate in any of the funding programs available to developers—the ERASE program that supports environmental remediation, nor the fund that supports downtown residential development. Staff have told White Star that it must drop his lawsuit in order to proceed, something Marino says he cannot do because he will be unable to proceed without some financial compensation from the city. Lawyer Powell says maybe it’s time to challenge the city policy. “I think the courts would take a very dim view of any policy that denies a citizen the right to access the judicial system– maybe it’s time to put it to the test.”
The city’s gag policy on legal actions flies in the face of its own recent actions in the aftermath of the stadium construction fiasco. Both the city and the Tiger-Cats have filed notices of action in which they name each other as defendants, as well as the province, contractor and Pan Am Games organizers. Although lawsuits have been filed, apparently amicable mediation talks between the parties continue—the lawsuits are described simply as “ a normal part of the legal process to prevent expiry of limitation periods,” which is what Marino contends is the purpose of his court motion.
“All I want is a reasonable mediated settlement,” says Marino, but the city legal department has forbidden anybody at the city, including Ward 2 councillor Farr to speak to us.” The Bay Observer contacted Councillor Farr earlier this year about the matter, who issued a cautiously worded reply, but nonetheless expressed the hope that a solution could be found. Says Tony Powell, “What Marino needs is the development charges abatement he was promised, participation in ERASE and fast tracking his site plan.” Marino has two other multi-residential projects underway that would put almost 600 new units in the downtown area but they too are stalled by the city’s legal policy. “They city says it’s ‘open for business’ that they support intensification, but all I see is indecision,” Marino said.

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