Will the Ward 2 candidates commit to supporting urban redevelopment and liveable streets?
By John Neary
Published October 14, 2010
The advantage of incumbency in city council elections paradoxically raises the stakes in the rare circumstance that the incumbent councillor does not run for re-election - such as in Ward 2, where Bob Bratina's decision to run for mayor has led to a 20-person scramble for one of the two open seats on council. Given the youth of many of the candidates, whomever we elect on October 25 could very well be our city councillor for decades.
The economic and public health problems affecting older neighbourhoods such as Beasley can at times seem intractable. I certainly don't pretend to have a easy solution to them, and I'm suspicious of anyone who does. But there are nevertheless some issues in Beasley that might be ameliorated through simple, cheap, politically palatable means.
So here is my personal list of Beasley-related questions for the Ward 2 candidates.
This 110,000 square foot knitting mill was remarkably in business until 2009. It has been on the market since then, listed for $799,000. The city of Hamilton is doing at least two things to discourage the redevelopment of CKM as a residential building.
First, it administers a transportation system that continues to send pulses of high-speed truck and car traffic down Cannon Street, which tends to discourage people from wanting to live there.
Second, the city requires on-site parking spaces in all new residential developments, which is rather difficult to implement in the case of a solid brick 110,000 square foot building that fills its entire lot.
There are a number of ways in which our new councillor could work to promote the residential redevelopment of CKM. First, he or she could work to rescind the absurd requirement for parking spaces - or at least to pro-actively waive it in this instance. Second, he or she could arrange for the city to provide dedicated parking spots along the eastern side of Mary Street, incorporating the adjacent sidewalk if necessary.
Yes, you heard that right. I'm suggesting that the city offer up the sidewalk for parking spots. That sidewalk is useless anyway: it's interrupted by a curb cut for the old loading bay for the knitting mill, and nobody much likes walking in the shadow of an abandoned building. Let's not make the perfect the enemy of the good.
The block bounded by Wilson, Mary, Rebecca, and Catharine streets contains five elements: an empty Rent-A-Bay shop in the southeast corner, parking lots in the northeast and northwest corners, a large fenced area covered with gravel (and weeds, and garbage), and the Downtown Mosque on Wilson Street.
The fenced area, a former bus storage facility, is currently owned by the province. For several years, the mosque has been trying to acquire that land in order to build a complex that would include a larger mosque, a school, and some housing units.
This project, if completed, would represent the first large-scale privately-financed residential development in our neighbourhood in many years. Even if the design was a bit suburban for a downtown property, it would have been a great step forward for Beasley.
Earlier this year, it came to light that the police were also interested in purchasing that land to build a storage facility. In mid-July, the Spectator reported that city council had agreed to purchase the land on behalf of the police.
The Spectator paraphrased current Ward 2 Councillor (and mayoral hopeful) Bob Bratina as saying that "there was no way for the city to purchase the land for the mosque" because "had they declined interest the land would have gone to an open bid, where ... a land developer could have outbid the mosque."
It seems quite doubtful that a land developer really would have outbid the mosque, given that land "developers" in Beasley seem more interested in tearing down buildings than in putting them up.
In any case, a police storage facility (read: one-story prefab shack surrounded by surface parking) will do nothing to revitalize our neighbourhood. By contrast, the mosque development would bring hundreds of new residents and students to Beasley.
The land in question is just across Mary and Wilson Streets from Beasley Park (and Dr. Davey school), so the educational use is a sensible one.
To add insult to injury, the Spectator subsequently reported that the police don't just want to purchase the land behind the mosque. They also want to purchase the parking lot currently being used by the mosque.
How much of this treatment will the Downtown Mosque suffer before deciding to leave downtown Hamilton?
Our new councillor should take an unambiguous public stand in favor of the Downtown Mosque's plan to redevelop that block, and should make it a priority to find another property for the police instead.
In any case, downtown is not the right place for a storage facility. Or is this issue really about surface parking?
I don't intend to enumerate the problems with our transportation network. That has been done before. This election offers a rare opportunity to propose solutions and to hold our newly elected councillor to account.
So, here's my list of measures that would make our neighbourhood streets friendly for residents and pedestrians:
First, install traffic lights at critical walking/cycling intersections between major and minor streets:
Ferguson Avenue is supposed to be a bicycle route connecting the escarpment to the waterfront, but its intersections with Main St. and Barton St. are not signaled. Oops.
Mary Street runs along the west end of Beasley Park, and is an important walking route to Dr. Davey School for children who live west of the school and either north of Cannon or south of Wilson. The last four intersections are on natural pedestrian corridors to Landsdale and Central neighbourhoods.
Second, install a four-way stop sign at Robert St. and John St. This intersection connects the Parliament Towers on the west side of John Street with McLaren Park on the east side. It is also on the natural walking route between Beasley Park and James North.
John Street has relatively little traffic north of Cannon. Pedestrians should be able to cross at Robert without waiting for a break in traffic or for a light to turn green.
Third, widen the sidewalks on Wilson Street. Doing so would involve removing one lane of traffic. Too bad. The sidewalks are barely a metre wide, which is inappropriate on a major street with high-speed truck traffic.
Fourth, convert our minor streets (King William, Rebecca, Hughson, Catharine, Mary) to two-way traffic. There are sections of these streets (e.g. Catharine north of Wilson, Mary north of Cannon) where street parking on both sides leaves only one lane for traffic, and one-way traffic flow may make sense.
But two-way flow should be the rule wherever there are two open lanes or more. None of these streets carries a large amount of traffic, and none of them crosses the boundary of our neighbourhood in both directions. (King William and Rebecca end at James, Hughson and Catharine at the CN tracks, and Mary at King.)
They should not be engineered for fast traffic flow.
Fifth, convert our major streets (Wellington, Cannon) to two-way traffic, and desynchronize their traffic lights. Unlike the other proposals listed above, this one would have a significant impact on citywide traffic patterns, and other ward councillors might balk. It would take some horse-trading to pull this one off.
But I would like our next councillor to go on the public record stating that two-way conversion and desynchronization is one of his or her political goals, and to engage in the necessary deal-making to see that it happens.
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