Special Report

The Cost of Sprawl

It seems clear, intuitively, that sprawl-based development is much more expensive than a high density system. The hard numbers back up this intuition.

By David Steele
Published November 23, 2010

Editor's note: this article was originally published in Buffalo Rising, a Buffalo, New York community website dedicated to urban revitalization and a kindred spirit to RTH. It is republished here with permission.

A few weeks back, I attended a day-long seminar hosted by the Illinois chapter of The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).

New Urbanism is a movement which seeks to reverse the destructive, unsustainable, and expensive sprawl-based design and planning policy that has been popular for the last 60 years and seeks to replace it with a human scaled system based on historic urban form and design precedent.

The concept is to return a system of design which places people at the center rather than cars. Some interpret New Urbanism as a return to the use of historic looking buildings.

Actually, New urbanism is more complex than surface appearance and is not dependent on buildings having any particular style. New Urbanism is a way of making space and combining uses that allow for active walkable and sustainable urban environments.

The conference was well worth my time but I was left feeling a little flat through all but one presentation. All the programs were informative. All but that one covered public policy, legal techniques for changing laws, and revised zoning concepts. Discussion, of course, also focused on forms and design principles that can make for great New Urban places.

The presentations were very academic and fact-based. What they lacked was a discussion of how you can change the psychology of the people who have come to accept sprawl based development as the natural way things should be done. How do you get people to question the standard way of doing things which they now take for granted as the best way to do things?

The conference was basically a "preaching to the chorus" situation. The people giving the presentation were selling an idea to people who already accept and understand its benefits.

I asked how they plan to sell New Urbanism to a public that has no interest in what they are selling. The answer was basically that all they had to do was show people how great new urbanism is.

Hmm, Really? Good luck with that!

Engineers Calculate Sprawl Cost

The best presentation of the day was the last presentation. It was given by a pair of young civil engineers, Robert J. Bielaski and Jerremy D. Foss.

This was interesting in itself, in that civil engineers are one of the major players in and promoters of the American sprawl based built environment. The joke is that civil engineers are educated to move cars and water and eliminate the need for people.

That being said, I found it to be an extremely pleasant surprise that these engineers took such a great interest in new urbanism and that they were using their professional knowledge and tools of their profession to advance the cause of reversing the damage of sprawl.

Their presentation was the singular attempt of the day to address the issue of public buy-in to New Urbanism.

It focused on the cost of sprawl-based development versus the cost of dense urban-based development of residential streets. If there is anything that can get people's attention, it is the impact on their wallet by public policy.

Bielaski and Foss presented the initial results of their study of the cost of infrastructure. They tallied the basic infrastructure costs required for these very different concepts for building and compared them. They showed that sprawl is very expensive.

The basis of the study was a comparison of the costs of infrastructure for a typical Chicago city lot and alley with 25 feet of street frontage, versus the typical contemporary Chicago area suburban lot with 80 feet of street frontage.

They added the cost of construction roads, curbs, sewers, utilities, sidewalks and lighting to serve the area of each type of residential street design. They factored the additional frontage at corner lots and spread the cost to typical lots. They added the costs and divided the total by the number of residential units to get a cost per residential unit for the associated street frontage.

Basically they looked at what each residential unit should pay to replace the street. They wanted to determine if the cost was different for one development pattern over another and if so would the cost be significant enough for municipalities and home owners to alter their choices in how we build municipalities.

Their Findings

Based on typical basic construction and specifications standards used in suburban and urban areas, along with a factor of construction difficulty, Foss and Bielaski determined that a municipality can expect to spend about $489 per linear foot of lot frontage in suburban areas and about $879 per linear foot of lot frontage in an urban zone.

They calculated these costs on a per unit basis the costs are as follows:

These numbers show that the suburban cost is between 150 percent and 434 percent of the urban cost to build per residential unit than its urban counterpart!

It is clear that initial cost for the sprawl based system is substantially more than the high density system, even when using a higher unit cost for the urban specification.

The counter argument is the developer pays for the street and folds it into the cost of the house. But the developer does not pay for the replacement and maintenance of the street over time. This is paid for by the municipality out of tax receipts.

So Bielaski and Foss also calculated the amount a municipality must bank to keep that road in working order in perpetuity, based on typical life time expectancies.

They found that a municipality should be budgeting approximately these amounts based on the type of development they are supporting:

Infrastructure Lifecycle Costs
Building Type 2010 Dollars 2050 Dollars
Suburban Single Family $830/year $3,025/year
Urban Single Family $594/year $2,151/year
Urban Two Flat $198/year $717/year

This means a municipality must budget between 140% and 419% more money in the low-density, sprawl-style scenario for maintenance!

Pyramid Scheme

It is clear, intuitively, that sprawl based development is much more expensive than a high density system. It just takes much more stuff to support people in an environment that is more spread out. That extra stuff is not free!

These figures provide hard evidence to back up that intuition. This study covers only a small tip of the giant sprawl cost-bomb that we have created.

The study has not yet been expanded to include the added cost of lengthy feeder roads, highways, environmental damage, simple maintenance activities such as plowing, and wear-and-tear on municipal vehicles from longer miles traveled.

Many communities have built a pyramid scheme with sprawl costs. Continued growth paid the bills while relatively new infrastructure did not yet need any of that costly maintenance spending.

Since the economic bubble burst, the chickens have come home to roost for many communities and their budgets have collapsed.

In the meantime, slow/no growth places like metro Buffalo have continued to expand infrastructure with a declining population base and a long term stagnant economy.

The results of this shell game are clear, with abandonment of large parts of the city, deferred infrastructure maintenance throughout the area, and quickly declining inner ring suburbs.

Sprawl is not a natural process. It does not have to be accepted and it needs to be stopped. One way and maybe the only way to stop sprawl is to make the people who chose sprawl pay for sprawl.

If you are interested in contacting the authors of the sprawl cost study you can reach them at these email addresses:

Case Studies: Kenmore NY and Lancaster NY

The first Google satellite map image below shows a block in Kenmore, New York and the second shows the same size block in Lancaster, New York.

Compact, 1920s housing in Kenmore, New York
Compact, 1920s housing in Kenmore, New York

The Kenmore block shows a densely built 1920ish suburban neighborhood. The houses sell in the low $100,000s, topping out around $125,000. All the houses have driveways and detached garages. The lots are only about 30 feet wide.

From this block you can walk to schools, churches and several restaurants and stores. Within a ten minute walk is the very pleasant Delaware Avenue business district. Within a 25 minute walk is the Buffalo Zoo.

From this neighborhood you can drive to the University of Buffalo and its subway station in less than five minutes. I believe three regular bus lines also run nearby.

It is a very pleasant neighborhood composed of young families, singles and retirees. There are 39 houses shown in the picture. It should be noted that there are no convenient highways for commuting downtown but reaching the city center is less than a 30 minute drive.

New sprawl housing in Lancaster, New York
New sprawl housing in Lancaster, New York

The Lancaster block is composed of very recently built houses. They are similar in size (perhaps a bit larger) to the Kenmore houses with garages attached to the main house. They sell for prices in the low $200,000s, topping out around $250,000.

The lots are about 2.25 times wider than the Kenmore lots. Each has a driveway about three times wider than their Kenmore counterpart. The road is also about twice the width of the Kenmore road.

The neighborhood is primarily composed of families with children. You can walk to a few nearby small industrial operations but nothing else.

The sidewalks end before you get to the main road where you would walk either on the shoulder or in the weeds along the edge. There are no crosswalks and no safe way for a child to walk to school.

Assumptions About Taxes

The assumption is that the people in sprawl style developments in popular edge suburbs pay higher taxes than those in the places like Kenmore. In absolute terms this is true, but in more nuanced terms - not really.

If you strip out the portion of taxes dedicated to schools [in New York, schools are funded through property tax], you find that the Kenmore resident pays a roughly equal amount of taxes for infrastructure and government services even though the houses are about 50% less expensive and use substantially less infrastructure.

Here are the numbers:

Property Tax Rates Compared
Municipality Non-school Municipal/County Taxes
Kenmore ~$2,200/house/year
Lancaster ~$2,500/house/year

The Lancaster block pictured in the satellite image produces about $41,000 per year in municipal and county taxes. The Kenmore block produces about $82,000 in municipal and county tax revenue. This is almost 100% more tax revenue from the Kenmore block.

When you combine this with the fact that the Kenmore infrastructure is much less costly, you can clearly see who is getting the free ride here.

Of course this little view of things is an isolated vignette. Maybe it is an anomaly. I am willing to bet that this tax imbalance is the norm. My question is, "Why do the people of Kenmore and other densely built areas in WNY continue to put up with this?

This article was first published on Buffalo Rising in two parts: Part 1, Part 2.

David Steele is an award-winning architect currently practicing in Chicago, Illinois. He is a graduate of both Buffalo State College and The State University of New York at Buffalo. While these fine institutions provided him with the professional tools necessary to excel in the architectural field it was the city's rich history, manifested in its treasure trove of great buildings, that fed and informed an early interest in the built environment.

As a kid, David endlessly wandered the city streets soaking up architecture with each step. Although life's unpredictable paths have led him away from Buffalo, this city remains as a major influence on his life. Many of David's Buffalo Rising stories highlight the city's architecture and urbanism, shining a light on this often under appreciated and fragile asset.

He recently published a photo book on Buffalo architecture titled Buffalo: Architecture in the American Forgotten Land. It can be seen in its entirety online at www.buffbuildings.com. It is available for purchase online at www.blurb.com, search word "Buffalo".

61 Comments

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted November 23, 2010 at 09:16:15

Thank you for this amazing article! People never seem to understand when you explain to them that suburban build/design plan is unsustainably expensive. Hopefully these numbers will enlighten them.

Add to that the fact that suburban neighbourhoods are often designed in such a way that they are not transit friendly (winding crescents, and roundabouts, where bus routes are difficult to accomodate and plan), and are not pedestrian friendly (lack of sidewalks generally plus those same winding roads mean you have to walk sometimes twice as far to get to the nearest intersection as opposed to neighbourhoods built on the grid system).

It seems to me that if we're going to continue building suburbs we have to get away from these 70s and 80s style suburbs, and go back to designing our suburbs the way they did just after the war. Look at the north end of the mountain if you want to see what I mean - grid system, reasonable houses, driveways, small lots, not much different than the Kenmore example up above. It's the only way that suburban living comes close to being sustainable in the long run, in my humble opinion.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 23, 2010 at 09:47:08

those same winding roads mean you have to walk sometimes twice as far to get to the nearest intersection

Here is that principle in stark detail:

Ancaster Meadowlands

It seems to me that if we're going to continue building suburbs we have to get away from these 70s and 80s style suburbs, and go back to designing our suburbs the way they did just after the war.

I live in a suburb that was built during the First World War, and it's a model of compact, mixed, walkable design: tall, narrow houses with porches set close to the street (many don't have driveways, and almost none have garages); streets in a grid; with parks, schools, library, and a lively commercial district all within a comfortable walk on (mostly) pleasant streets.

By the way, for those who insist beyond all reason that no one wants to live in urban neighbourhoods, my little house has appreciated 300 percent since I bought it in 2001, even taking the recession into account.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted November 23, 2010 at 10:05:37

I totally agree with the thrust of the article and wish that neighbourhood taxes took into account those costs.

The one issue I have is with the math. 27,000 is only 50% more than 18,000, not 150%. Knocking 100% off of all the numbers still leaves an incredible difference but they can no longer be argued as being hyperbolic. :/

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 23, 2010 at 10:15:44

Good point, Brandon. I updated the wording to read, "between 150 percent and 434 percent of the urban cost", which is mathematically accurate.

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted November 23, 2010 at 11:37:37

Sounds like we need more area rating.

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By LoveIt (anonymous) | Posted November 23, 2010 at 11:58:59

Urban narrow and toll home = convenient, busy, dynamic, connected, living. And still you can have enough piece and quiet in your attic retreat and backyard/sunroom.
I just cannot think of any advantage of living in suburb, unless one need tennis court, huge pool, huge garden or ride horses.
No wonder suburbs try to bring urban closer to them.

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted November 23, 2010 at 12:13:24

I recently made the switch from a home built around 1935 to a home built around 1975 on Stoney Creek mountain. I loved my long narrow home however it could no longer support the storage space we required for my wife's volunteer activities. Camping gear, crafting materials and activity materials for 50 kids takes up a lot of space so we bought a home with a large garage. The $250 a month for a storage unit that was still not big enough was a tough amount to pay endlessly. Was it a good decision, only time will tell. There are things I miss about lower city living and certainly things I don't miss.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted November 23, 2010 at 12:15:58

Ryan, I'll take your point about suburbs built during the first world war being perfectly livable, and indeed enjoyable for many people.

However I think you'd be hard pressed to find a developer intersted in new builds like that, mainly becuase of the perception (probably accurate) that most homeowners want larger "executive" lots with big houses.

If we have to compromise with the developers we might look at perhaps the post WW2 homes, like my North Mountain example (between Upper Wellington and Upper Wentworth, between Fennell and Concession), which have small lots, and yet most manage to have a driveway/carport, and some manage a garage tucked in behind the house.

If only everyone was satisfied with "basic luxuries", we wouldn't need 4 bedroom houses with 4.5 bathrooms and 2 car garages for 3 people to live in (none of the 3 cars are actually parked in the garage of course, because it's full of junk.)

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted November 23, 2010 at 12:40:45

Solid article, of which I am in complete agreement. The key now is to make sure city council looks numbers like this, and doesn't fall into the short-term gain that sprawl provides.

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By George (registered) | Posted November 23, 2010 at 13:32:27

I don't understand why municipalities don't set the tax rates so that any urban sprawl would have to pay for the expensive infrastructure costs. r If it costs so much more to service the spread out burb, then make them pay for it.

See how fast they buy the smaller, more compact and efficient lots.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted November 23, 2010 at 13:48:48

I don't understand why municipalities don't set the tax rates so that any urban sprawl would have to pay for the expensive infrastructure costs.

It's a dirty little thing called developer influence.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 23, 2010 at 14:26:26

Saying "that's what consumers want" is such a cop-out. "That's what consumers buy when that's all developers build" might be more accurate. The financial incentives to build sprawl are massive, because the land costs are so cheap, and the homes are cheap and mass-produced. Unless we stop helping this process along with massive subsidies, we'll only see more of it, and more costs in the long run.

Housing costs have risen substantially in the past few decades, but actual building costs haven't. While many homes are bigger, they aren't better built. "Non-structure" fees used to make up less than 10% of the price of a home before 1970, and now often makes up over 40%. We're all paying massive (and growing) fees for real estate bureaucracy and that's taking a very serious toll, both on us and on our built environment.

http://www.nber.org/digest/sep05/w11129....

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By mike_sak (registered) | Posted November 23, 2010 at 14:28:45

In response to eliminating effects of sprawl, it seems that what the city is trying to implement with LRT is a fallback to the 1920s streetcar suburb models. It's kind of funny/sad, that we are basically trying to return to a technology that most N. American cities threw away in place for the automobile.

It's probably because those old networks WORKED, and provided people with a great sense of place.

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By Livey (anonymous) | Posted November 23, 2010 at 15:14:41

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted November 23, 2010 at 15:43:55

@lively

Umm...that's great and all but how does aviation fuel equate to the city of Hamilton having to pay much higher infrastructure costs and have drastically reduced tax base due to sprawl?

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted November 23, 2010 at 16:40:55

Lively, this isn't about the sustainability of aviation kerosene (which I don't think you can put in your car, in any event).

Besides, they didn't say what the cost of the new fuel is. Just because it's "sustainable" doesn't mean it's cheaper...

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 23, 2010 at 18:19:16

Generally speaking, biofuels are net energy sinks meaning it takes more energy to produce them than they actually contain. In any case, as other commenters have pointed out, aviation fuel is off-topic in a discussion about the infrastructure costs of residential sprawl.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted November 23, 2010 at 21:30:57

Unless you want to fly from the 'burbs to downtown.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 23, 2010 at 21:40:02

The biggest problem is that people buy large lot suburban because thats what they want. Sprawl isn't going away by legislation. People are willing to pay more to get more, thats why suburbia exists in the first place.

To quote from the article:

"I asked how they plan to sell New Urbanism to a public that has no interest in what they are selling. The answer was basically that all they had to do was show people how great new urbanism is.

Hmm, Really? Good luck with that!"

Comment edited by turbo on 2010-11-23 20:43:21

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By bobinnes (registered) - website | Posted November 23, 2010 at 22:07:29

Great article. Good question - why do downtowners put up with the situation?

One has to wonder why there is so little tax differential - taxes up only 15% on lots double the price??? Would this be similar to our area rating? I always hear mountain folk complaining about taxes so perhaps someone can clarify.

Of course, it would also help if Hamilton charged the full development cost instead of the bargain they are now charging (heard it was about $8,000 too low during the election).

Perhaps the simplest fix would be a frontage tax. Mountaineers, burbanites, would that be fair?

Comment edited by bobinnes on 2010-11-23 21:15:40

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By bigguy1231 (registered) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 02:04:24

bobinnes

Why don't we base it on the square footage of the lot. Frontage doesn't always tell the true story. Many areas of the lower city have very large deep lots with narrower frontage.

Have any of you actually looked at the ads for the new houses that are being built. The frontages are only 30 - 35 feet and the depths range in the area of 80 feet. They are tiny in comparison to some of the older areas of the city.

A friend of mine bought a new house back in the spring in one of these so called sprawl developements. His neighbours houses are only 6 feet away from his and the backyard would barely fit a shed.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 24, 2010 at 03:13:20

Ultimately, while people (like Turbo) love to claim that people are choosing to live in the suburbs, very little choice is involved. Suburbs exist by definition as areas of heavily enforced zoning restrictions and severe separation of uses. Some are ranch-style homes on quarter-acre lots, others are townhomes. But neither one changes the basic flaw: a lack of diversity.

Wanna see a real free market? Let people run businesses, grow food, expand their structures. Let the suburbs urbanize.

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By MALEX (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 09:53:24

My wife and I lived in a New Urbanism subdivision out in Markham called Cornell...and it never lived up to the sales hype...sure the streetscape looked gorgeous with all the garages tucked behind the houses, but the shops and services we were meant to walk to all went belly up because nobody would get out of their cars and actually walk! The corner bistro with the lovely patio eventually became a doctors office, the DVD shop became a learning center, and many of the other store fronts remain empty to this day...

So yeah, in theory, new urbanism is great, but without everybody buying into it, it's just that, a theory and the subdivision is no different from all the others...

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By STEEL (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 10:49:36

MALEX,

I don't know your New Urbanist development but the problem might be found in the description of the place as a "subdivisioin" which in its essence is anti urban. We have forgotten the way to grow cities organically in exchange for controlled planned development. Subdivision suggests strict boundaries with those included versus those excluded. It also suggests a set amount of retail was planned without taking into account what is needed to support the retail.

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By half the story (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 11:09:45

This "report" was presented to the "New Urbanism" conference. So it is no surprise that its research supports the goals behind new urbanism.

This does not make the report wrong, just incomplete.

The point is raisethehammer should also post studies from the "New Suburbia" Conferences (or whatever they call themselves) to get properly balanced view of both sides of this difficult urban planning issue.

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By MALEX (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 11:11:26

This article fromt the Post should bring you up to date on Cornell...and pretty much hits the nail on the head...great read:

http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/toronto/archive/2009/03/13/in-markham-the-dream-of-an-urban-village-that-never-was.aspx

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By MALEX (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 11:13:17

The best quote in that article is "Cornell is so far nothing more than a “cuter form of sprawl.”


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By highwater (registered) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 11:53:19

The point is raisethehammer should also post studies from the "New Suburbia" Conferences (or whatever they call themselves) to get properly balanced view of both sides of this difficult urban planning issue.

There's this great website I always go to whenever I want to learn about the other side of an issue. It's called 'google'.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted November 24, 2010 at 12:00:55

In sprawl-related news, Google is adding bike-routes to it's mapping system in Ottawa, Gatineau, Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Kelowna and Waterloo.

Gad dammit.

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By STEEL (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 12:04:38

From the story -

To reach the community from downtown Toronto during off-peak hours, a Cornell-bound traveler is saddled with the burden of a journey that includes a GO bus from Unionville station, a switch to a Viva Bus, and then a transfer to a York Regional Transit bus that heads down Bur Oak Avenue."

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By canslo@mountaincable.net (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 12:13:00

RE:Ryan Macgreal's article in the Spec.10/24/10.Light Rail Delivers.
To see a similar picture of Main Street here, as the one from Dublin, it would take a hundred years to achieve, if ever. What all these proponents fail to take into account is the fact that here in Hamilton we are squeezed between the Escarpment and the Bay. Also the City does not start at Eastgate Square and it does not end at McMaster. So why was it chosen only such a short span? So the L.R.T. main objective is not to move people from point A to point B, then if it is not for transportation is it just for exhibition? Somehow it just does not make sense. All these comparisons with other cities does not apply here, because of our limitations for expansion either north or south. Also, we prefer to live in a house, with backyard, where we can have a garden not in an apartment with only the 4 walls to look at. So to spend all those billions on a pipe dream would be insane.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted November 24, 2010 at 12:18:46

LRT is meant for use in very high density areas. It is massively expensive - we're talking about half a billion dollars on this. You really want the city to spend more?

The point is A to B transit. Isn't Eastgate to McMaster pretty darned long?

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 12:26:59

Lets think about this for a minute canslo. Hamilton can't easily expand because of the bay and the escarpment ... therefore we shouldn't try to intensify because you want a house with a backyard and a garden so that means everyone in the city has to live the same way as you? By the way I live downtown. In a house with a backyard. And a garden. My tomatoes were really nice this year.

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By STEEL (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 12:27:39

As opposed to highways which are also massively expensive and are designed to create sprawl which then necessitates the creation of more highways.

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By Andrea (registered) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 14:07:53

This may not be the most appropriate topic to make my comment, but this morning I just had the most passionate, voice-raising discussion with a co-worker about the lower portion of the City. He lives in an Ancaster suburb and thinks that all the people that live below the escarpment ("downtown, east end, north end, whatever you call it") are 'too poor to maintain their homes'. He thinks that the poverty stricken are casuing the decay of the older part of the City. He also generalized that the entire lower portion of the City is simply decaying and should be bulldozed. My argument against this vast generalization of his was to point out the high number of rental properties and absentee landlords in both the lower city and compared it to the area surrounding Mohawk College. It's easy in both cases to determine which homes house the owner, or which are kept as rental properties.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 24, 2010 at 16:28:48

The problem with subdivisions like Cornell in Markham is that they're applying the aesthetics of new urbanism without actually applying any of the deeper criticism. If you don't want a suburban community, don't build it on the outer fringe of the GTA by a highway.

The design features prized by New Urbanists have to grow, they can't just be put up. Building homes closer together, and tacking on styrofoam and stucco impersonations of heritage architecture isn't fooling anyone. We're talking about a deep and thoughtful criticism of how cities work, and how they can work better - and redrawing a few lines on the plans isn't going to be enough.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 16:45:40

Regarding Turbo's comment about people wanting what they want, I have no problem with people paying for what they want, provided they actually pay for it.

If you were told that your taxes would be four times as high in the suburbs than in a denser neighbourhood, would you still want to live there?

If it costs more to get the services out there and there's a genuine choice involved, then it should cost more to live there.

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By randomguy (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 18:08:13

Maybe a bit of a segue, but as an apartment dweller what is really annoying isn't the tax differences between suburban sprawl houses and their denser inner city counterparts, but the tax differences between apartments and single family houses in Hamilton. Why does my residence have such a ridiculously higher rate than a house?

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 21:52:48

Ryan, I'm confused about whether or not you think twisty roads are a good or bad idea. When you talk about measures to decrease traffic speed, you mention twisty roads as a good idea. Then, in this thread when you talk about urban planning, you say that twisty roads are a bad idea.

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By adam2 (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 22:29:39

The problem is cars. If you build any straight stretch of road then every few minutes someone in a car will drive down it at 80km/h. Until we figure out how to limit the speed of cars without sacrificing the overall structure of roads and developments, the car will always dictate the development model.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 22:35:07

syncronized traffic signals that rewards driving at 40-45kph a 40 kph speed limit and enforcement will do more than anything else known to traffic planners

Comment edited by allantaylor97 on 2010-11-24 21:36:14

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 22:35:38

Here is the primary issue with Urban development in Hamilton. It's not happening mainly due to image. Downtown and the North End have a bad image, and much of it is justifiable. There is higher crime rates, much higher mortality rates (as Code Red pointed out) and there is far more abandoned development there then anything else. The private sector isn't about to invest in an area with that kind of image and without wooing the private sector, you can't get Urban development that downtown needs.

The solution, well the first is to simply disallow suburban development. Suburban development leads directly to higher infrastructure costs and lower net taxation, despite property values being higher. Any short term benefit is drowned out by long term infrastructure issues. The next is to improve the image and costs associated with these problem areas. Large scale abandoned buildings with heritage elements MUST be expropriated, preserved and renewed by the city ASAP before they are beyond the point of repair and converted to low-mid cost condos if they don't have commercial development. The Lister block, Augusta St Firehall, Royal Connaught and the Tivoli are some examples.

Small scale buildings need the same thing, only demolition is a more feasible option in many cases. Expropriate or condemn decrepit or poorly maintained blocks and open them for redevelopment. Expropriation ensures more then adequate compensation is given for the cost of such properties if the residents are suffering from financial losses, especially if the city includes impartial third party arbitrators and assessors in the housing business in the expropriation process, possible one appointed by each the Federal and Provincial governments to ensure impartiality to the city's numbers. Expropriation is a municipal tool Hamilton has been far too squeamish to utilize in my opinion and frankly every penny of surplus money the city has should be devoted towards it instead of paying for further infrastructure expansions from new development.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 22:37:44

Adam, the first half of your post abolishes any credibility that the second half may have had.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 22:44:57

Allan,

I think you're right about the synching of traffic lights. I've mentioned it here as well. The last several days that I've driven along Main St., I've made a point of following the flow of traffic and making note of my (and the flow of traffic) speed. Where it is one way, the average speed was around 45-50 and never went above 55. When the traffic went to two way, with non synched lights, the average was closer to 55 and went to a max of 60. I also walked along Main in the one way section. The busiest times was when traffic was starting from a stop. Minimizing the amount of starting and stopping, there fore makes for a more pleasant walking experience from a noise level perspective and also decreases pollution, so is also healthier.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 24, 2010 at 22:48:10

Ryan, I'm confused about whether or not you think twisty roads are a good or bad idea.

When traffic engineers took over street design, they started designing big, wide, straight streets for 'safety'. When they discovered that motorists responded to streets that were designed like highways by speeding, the engineers introduced the bends, squiggles, crescents and other sprawl street designs to try and counteract the psychological signal to speed in residential areas. The result is a network of suburban spaghetti platters connected by arterial bottlenecks that is unnavigable to anyone but a motorist.

I prefer streets designed with psychological signals to slow down: narrow lanes, curbside parking, overhanging trees, bike lanes, bump-outs at intersections, and so on. (In reality I'd love to see something like Hans Monderman's Shared Space design, but that's so far beyond the status quo in Hamilton that I won't even bother advocating it.) On a larger scale, I like a grid network with short blocks because it provides maximum anywhere-to-anywhere transportation options via multiple modes.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 22:50:42

Hammer,

I think you raise some good points and provide some reasonable suggestions which are likely to be unpopular.
One thing that I think needs to be considered when expropriating properties is that it doesn't become an incentive for owners of older buildings to purposely let their buildings deteriorate to the point of disrepair. I remember hearing about a problem in Toronto where people let their buildings crumble so that they can get the city to buy it from them for more than it's worth. That results in a city's architectural heritage being left to crumble rather than encouraging the maintenance and upkeep of the buildings. If done right though, and in a way that it can't be advantageous to let a building crumble, then I think you raise a good idea.

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 22:51:44

A few years back a stretch of Burloak had a curve installed to reduce the amount of speeding and street racing. I don`t know if the engineering worked but I did notice the traffic was a lot less hectic.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 22:53:51

Ryan, you said "On a larger scale, I like a grid network with short blocks". You realize that short blocks = more roads (ie less space for houses) right?

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 22:59:58

Hammer,

Do you think a zero interest loan program for homeowners in wards 2 and 3 to make improvements to their properties would have the effect of changing the image of the area? I've can't get the idea out of my head of ditching using any Future Fund money for a stadium and using it for loans and/or grants for pre-approved home renovations in those two wards. I mean, which would really change Hamilton image and self-esteem more.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted November 24, 2010 at 23:17:17

I don't see homeowners as the problem so much as landlords in general. (edit: not that all landlords are bad ones, or that all homeowners are great. i'm just pointing to an area like West Avenue North I walked up today where you have lovely properties being maintained by their elderly owners [whom I saw cleaning, fixing windows, and chatting with neighbours], and then stretches of poorly maintained places with "Ferr Rent" signs)

If only homeowners can make upgrades, that will likely just mean more landlords can upgrade and illegally rent out their properties as a 4-unit place, and charge more per unit.

How about 5% downpayment grants to families who pay $900/month to rent houses, to buy their own house with a $550/month mortgage payment? Work it into a mortgage-plus-improvements scenario in total for the necessary upgrades?

I'm guessing that would probably be a lot more helpful, especially for people who have been renting the same place for a long time and can't scrape together a down payment, or aren't able to qualify even though they have a long rental history.

There's a lot of houses that rent for that price (plus utilities!) -- if people could actually own their place, have funds and incentive for improvments, help on actually doing it - I'm sure that would do a lot more good, especially for families who have an interest in their neighbourhoods improving for their childrens' sakes.

Comment edited by Meredith on 2010-11-24 22:22:16

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 23:33:43

Grants, yes, loans...not so much. The issue with a loan is the second the individual has his hands on the money, there isn't anything to stop him from wasting the money and defaulting on the loan. For a high income individual, you can chase him for the money and get it back. However, if you are on a lower income (which many owners are, although I will concede not all are) then if you default on that loan, or use it for other uses it serves little purpose.

Ideally, property tax crediting for improvements made by licensed work is what I would like to see. To qualify, you merely submit a duplicate of the work permit, submit a copy of the contractors bill/building materials and submit before and after pictures. The only issue is when you or the contractor doesn't do work to the work permit's specifications, which at that point red flagging the contractor's capacity to qualify for new work permits is hampered until specific locations are done to code.

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted November 24, 2010 at 23:34:43

Not saying home owners are a problem Meredith. I lived in Ward 3 and many of my neighbors were scrapping by and could not save any money to improve their houses. A loan or dollar for dollar grant might spur some investment and improvements.

I think the down-payment idea you bring up is worth considering. You are right when you say many who could afford a monthly mortgage payment can't afford to save the down-payment and are stuck in the renter's trap. I lost a good offer on my old house because CMHC turned down the young couple who wanted it, even though they had bank approval.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted November 24, 2010 at 23:52:05

There is a difference between winding streets that are good for pedestrians and winding streets that are bad for them. Good winding streets have gentle curves, chicanes and bump outs which send signals to motorists that they are driving in a human scaled environment and not on a highway. Winding streets that are bad for pedestrians are the ones in many suburbs that twist and turn with dead ends and cul de sacs which force pedestrians to walk many metres (or kilometres) out of their way if they want to reach any destination.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted November 25, 2010 at 00:35:03

Sure, and I didn't' mean to discredit your idea, mrjanitor. My point is more that I don't think it's owners that are causing as many issues as landlords, just in terms of overall percentages.

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By Take Times (anonymous) | Posted November 25, 2010 at 07:40:10

Too many people wanting things to happen in a blink of an eye. Things take time people as far as houses being fixed up. Its slowly happening. I just moved into ward 2 from spending my whole life on the east mountain. I love living here and wouldn't move back up the mountian unless the wife made a big argument for it which she won't. Shes not even from here and she loves living down here too. anyway almost every weekend from the balcony we hear people working on there homes throught the neighbourhood. But all this stuff takes time.

To the guy who said that his friend live in Ancaster and things everyone in the lower city is poor. let him know a couple of things. first off that me and my wife make plenty of $$$ and aren't living below poverty and aren't relying on any other income then what we work hard for. Also that atleast one couple from Ancaster is moving down to the the Loft developemts on Murry St should it be developed as planned.

Also who the person at the top who posted about the Meadowlands (as much as i hate that place) 1.5km shouldn't be considered far, if it is then your lazy.

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By Andrea (registered) | Posted November 25, 2010 at 10:05:07

@ Meredith. Thanks for expanding on my earlier point and articulating it so much better than me. I can only speak to my neighbourhood (and I live in Ward 3)but I find that the houses in the most disrepair are definitely rentals. Mr. Janitor mentioned that many of his neighbours were not able to afford their home improvements, but I am also speaking to general lack of maintenance. A new roof/windows is a big expense regardless of where you live in the city; but is the lawn cut? Is the garbage put out regularly? Are the garbage and recycle bins put away or left on the front porch? Is the snow shovelled? Has the porch ever seen a coat of paint? Is the fence in good repair? From what I have observed the questions I posed are more than likely taken care of by a homeowner and less likely to be addressed by landlords with tenants moving in and out every 8-9 months. Living in the central city is a lifestyle choice. A home that is 50- 100 years old is never going to look like a house built 0-20 years ago in suburbia - but those houses are going to age as well, so is the solution to continue to abandon and give up on older neighbourhoods and perpetually build out? (rhetorical question).

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted November 25, 2010 at 10:24:03

Good observations Andrea, a great deal of the issue I saw in Ward 3 was not related to only renovation issues but also property standards and maintenance.

So if we encourage home ownership in the lower city wards through a Future Fund loan program I agree that we would see an improvement in general property standards. I also think many properties stagnate in the lower wards due to simple things like older windows, sagging roof porches, knob & tube wiring (I spent $10,000 replacing this), and the new insurance bugaboo aluminum wiring. An incentive program to improve on these and other maladies common to older homes would help improve the optics of the city as well as the attitude towards the lower wards.

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By HamiltonFan (registered) | Posted November 25, 2010 at 10:35:39

Personally I would move to certain parts of the lower city no problem however I am only a 22 minute walk to work where I live on the old east mountain so I find this very convenient. But when I retire I will definitely look into the lower city.

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By LoveIt (anonymous) | Posted November 25, 2010 at 14:56:04

Absolutely agree, it takes time. And the owners do their work here in Ward 2. It seems like Main and King st are behind, but that's probably how it works. First comes customer base, then businesses evaluate it and make their business decisions/adjustments how much of their services/products can be absorbed and can they be profitable. But downtown is downtown and will adjust. You can build cheap condos from heritage buildings, but see who will live there in a few years. Gladstone hotel in Toronto on Queen st story a living proof of this. Cheap rental turns into boutique hotel with big screen tv's. I wondered for a few years, why that part of Parkdale was in poor condition a few years ago. And here it goes - massive new development, new boutiques, cafe's. This once blooming area was artificially made rough with cheap development. But the perfect location made it adjusted back.
Now I wonder how long industrial development will last on the waterfront here ...

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By Centrist (registered) | Posted November 25, 2010 at 21:17:32

my god, Hamilton is so boring.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 26, 2010 at 01:09:48

When it comes to twisty, windy, suburban streets, the problem is that they aren't designed to slow traffic. The standard for suburban streets is being able to cruise comfortably at 50km/h. They're designed to cut through traffic and minimize users. What you end up with when streets are designed this way is clusters (ie Stonechurch to Rymal and Upper Wellington to Wentworth) with nothing but a few local cars travelling at high speed, and overused arteries (Upper Wentworth or Stonechurch) around them.

Suburban streets give the illusion of safety with low traffic flows, especially at off-peak hours (which are easy to see, since they're so homogeneous). But don't actually do much that's been shown to seriously reduce speeds, and because they necessitate much longer walks and/or drives, they don't actually make things safer at all.

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