Downtown Bureau

Downtown Hamilton Investment Plan

It City Council can scrape up $100 million to expand the urban boundary, it can afford to invest in the core.

By Jason Leach
Published July 01, 2005

I'd like to introduce a series of key proposals for the revitalization of downtown Hamilton and surrounding areas that will undoubtedly become a catalyst for further development in our city.

I came up with this idea after hearing Mayor Larry Di Ianni speak about his confidence in Hamilton's ability to come up with $100 million over the next two years for the proposed aerotropolis. We have just spent $500 million on the Linc/Red Hill Expressway projects as well. Despite the perception that Hamilton has no money and no ability to get any money, these two mega-projects paint a much different picture.

As we all know, this city will not move forward without investment and I firmly believe that proper investment by city council will result in much spinoff investment from the private sector. That of course, is the thinking behind aerotropolis and Red Hill.

Like many people, I believe that Hamilton's future firmly rests downtown. Even if our airport somehow takes off and becomes a hub for thousands of jobs, the city's image - like every city on earth - is directly tied to the health and success of the downtown core.

The following proposal is a recipe for success in my opinion. I have done research for this proposal in the hopes of convincing council that if we can find $500 million for two highways and over $100 million for our airport, surely downtown Hamilton can be given the same priority. In fact, it must be if we have any chance of succeeding.

I think our city has gotten to the point of understanding this reality and council has demonstrated some early signs of investment in the core with the residential loan program and streetscape plans. I believe the seeds have been sown in the minds of our leaders and they have realized that a healthy Hamilton must have a healthy downtown.

For that, I urge city council to take a good hard look at the Downtown Streets Master Plan. This document already exists and is a wonderful plan for many of our downtown streets. The focus is on slowing car traffic, wider sidewalks, public art, signage and unique paving and lighting materials. If you haven't checked out these plans, take the time to do so now.

1: Implement Downtown Master Plans

Part 1 of my proposal is simple: speed up the implementation of the master plans for Hughson Street, King William Street and King Street West, including two-way conversion of King Street. In a recent article I have spoken of the need for the south leg of King to be pedestrian-only, so we'll leave that alone for now.

The Downtown Master Plan calls for the above three streets to be reconstructed in the next 10-15 years. I suggest we do all three streets for their entire length in the next five. The cost breakdown is as follows:

As a downtown resident and one who spends my money almost exclusively in the core, I can assure you that the street system is the biggest hindrance to developing a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere that will result in street-oriented shopping, dining, and people gathering. Folks in the burbs might always harp about getting rid of the goth punks, but they are also the same folks who won't allow the city to build a skatepark for their own kids. Let's put NIMBYism aside for a moment and focus on the real issues downtown and real solutions. The street grid is top of the list in my mind.

2: Move Market to King and James

The recent issue of H Magazine has a wonderful proposal by Bruce Kuwabara, the architect who designed the recent renovation at the Art Gallery. He wants to knock out the corner of Jackson Square at King and James and build a market building 'like no other' for our farmers market. I've suggested this very idea and think it would be amazing for the downtown core. Anyone who frequents the market can only imagine bringing all that life and energy right to the street level across from Gore Park. Yale Properties doesn't lose their main tenant and the stallholders get to stay in Jackson Square a mere 5 minute extra walk north of the parking garage on York.

3. East-West Streetcar Line

The city should begin planning for a streetcar line linking McMaster to the Theatre Aquarius area. In Portland, Oregon their first modern streetcar line opened in 2001 and has been a huge success. Note the following stats:

Since 1997, over $1.84 billion Cdn has been invested near the Streetcar line, including over 5,300 new housing units and more than 3.7 million square feet of office, institutional, retail and hotel construction - all within a 90 block area formerly home to mostly decaying industrial buildings adjacent to the downtown core. New parks, employment, and retail have made the area a major destination and key source of rides for Portland Streetcar.

Now imagine a line running from Mac to Ferguson and King William. The total distance would be 10.4 kilometres, with 5.2 kilometres each way, passing close to the following hotspots: McMaster University, Westdale Village, Research Park at Camco site, Main West Esplanade, Locke South, Hess Village, HECFI, AGH, City Hall, downtown office towers, Gore Park, Farmers Market, James South and North, GO Station, hotels, King East, King William, and ending at the Ferguson Station/Theatre Aquarius area.

Also consider the amount of underutilized land along this corridor: Main St/ King St West lots, Bay/King parking lots, Jackson Street, King William/Rebecca/Wilson Streets, Main and Catharine area, empty buildings scattered along King, James and other streets.

So far, Portland has seen private investment outweigh the city's investment by a margin of almost 30 to 1. Any city would kill for that type of return. Add $70 million to the $14 million for streetscape projects and you're looking at massive downtown revitalization efforts for $85 million - much less than Red Hill and the airport.

Add in the cost of converting the King and James corner of Jackson Square to a more open farmers' market (note that Bruce Kuwabara appears to be a master at undertaking large, high-quality projects very economically), and all three proposals can probably be completed for the price City Council wants to spend on merely servicing 3,000 acres around the airport.

I believe this proposal is very doable considering the recent gas tax announcements. I also believe the private sector would flood city hall with building applications if we could pull off these three developments over the next 5-7 years. There is no need to wait for 10-20 years to see real change come to our downtown core. The money is there.

Is the political will?

Jason Leach was born and raised in the Hammer and currently lives downtown with his wife and children. You can follow him on twitter.

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By tvguy74 (registered) | Posted None at

A recurring theme among these articles is why is City Hall not doing this or that. Why should it be solely up to City Hall? It's time the business sector in this city started to give back to the community. Most Hamiltonians want a better city, but they expect council to pay for it all. It doesn't have to be that way. I grew up in Hamilton but now live in downtown Burlington. A great deal of projects to enhance Burlington are funded jointly by City Hall and the business sector. This is partly why Burlington is getting a new waterfront park, why the old stores downtown are being restored and the list goes on. Also more residents should be involved in making a change. Gage Park is jewel in Hamilton's crown but in a recent article the Park Dept. stated it only had so much funding a year to pay for restoration and replanting work. Would it not make sense then to set up a Gage Park Conservancy Trust run by members of the public who through fundraising events get more cash. This is how NYC pays to upkeep Central Park.

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By jason (registered) | Posted None at

you're right on. I too, wondered the same thing when I read that story about Gage Park. I think part of the reason for the constant poking and prodding at city hall is because they are ultimately the ones who are allowing the developers to run wild over the countryside. It's not a developers job to 'do this or that' in Hamilton's urban communities. They simply want to make money and the easiest money to be found is in sprawling blobs of cardboard cutouts across farmland. A true urban boundary (like Burlington has) would force the developers to either get creative, or hire someone with a creative bone in their body, to rework the great stock of old buildings in the city and to built on the amazing plethora of empty lots and sites throughout Hamilton. We could add hundreds of new construction projects into the old city of Hamilton itself if the developers were 'forced' to. When I say forced, I mean make it financially feasible, such as the downtown residential loan program, and put an end to low density sprawl. You're right - it should be funded by both parties, but the big problem in Hamilton is that the developers fund election campaigns and in return they get free reign outside of the urban boundary. That is 100% the fault of the politicians and we are simply trying to get citizens to realize that and hopefully bring in some new blood at the next election. Cheers Jason

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By jason (registered) | Posted None at

It would be unfortunate if RTH readers did not appreciate the massive efforts that RTH and other activists are making, and have made, in trying to get some of these good ideas and partnerships off the ground. The simple fact is that so many good ideas, public/private partnerships and the like, have been created and driven by 'regular citizens' and have gone nowhere. Why? Because they have been stymied by City Hall. City Hall - specifically a select group of influential politicians - does not have the political will or where-with-all to support these initiatives, and thus they have gone by the wayside. Am I making this up? Nope. Here's a few examples of initiatives driven by the public that have come to nothing thanks to political ignorance: - Downtown 2-way streets committee. Founded circa 1992. Presented research and options for making King St 2-way. Ideas were ignored. Committee was dismantled. - 2004 Charette - competing bids came up with different ideas for how they wanted Hamilton to look in the future. Where are these ideas now? - Artists in Residence - proposal by local resident to create an Artist village in the core. Lobby efforts and citizen input resulted in no action. The list could go on and on. I could talk about my efforts to arrange for meetings between the Mayor and various citizens groups which involved over 2 months of schedule trading e-mails and vmails with the result of only one successful appointment. We could talk about so called public input into Aerotropolis which was basically ignored. We could talk about my request to a councilor that the public be invited into the Lister discussions, before the announcement was made. And the councilors 'no thanks' reply indicating that 'some people have different agendas'... We could talk about the general intelligence and attitude of many councilors who appear to show little more than disgust at the very idea that a citizen should take their own initiative instead of doing as they are told. Despite all this the citizens of Hamilton continue to put forth their ideas and try to work with our council the best they can but the fundmental truth is that we are stuck with a bad bunch of boys and girls who simply cannot - or will not - grasp the complexities of the issues, and the overwhelming evidence that their direction has not worked, and will not work. RTH is not closeminded, and it is not in the business of simply laying blame. However, if you think their critisism of City Hall is intense just remember - there is a reason. Cheers Ben Bull RTH

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted None at

Another thing to keep in mind: City Council is supposed to represent the public as a whole. If Hamiltonians want project X developed in their city, the best way to do it is to pay for it directly out of tax receipts and build it at cost. The problem with public-private partnerships (P3s) is that they almost always end up screwing the public to enrich the companies involved. The evidence for this is overwhelming, and governments that embraced the P3 model early are now seriously re-evaluating their decisions, even as Canadian governments stumble blindly where others have already trod. Simply put, corporations don't do anything for free. They expect a good return, whether it's guaranteed profits, good PR, or access to politicians to influence the regulatory framework. When P3s are written, corporations charge a price that will guarantee healthy profits, and shift all the risk to the government (i.e. taxpayers). If there are cost overruns, the government eats it. When there are profits, the corporation soaks it up. Corporations are also usually protected from liability for not doing their job properly. The entire contract is usually shrouded in secrecy, preventing the public oversight that might otherwise keep the players honest. P3s tend also to go to the company that donates the most to the governing political party. Kickbacks and pork-barreling are always a problem in government, but the P3 model makes it far too easy to sink into a morass of cronyism that is so hidden by confidentiality agreements that even government auditors cannot get to the bottom. Another problem is that the corporation ends up borrowing the capital to build the project, but usually has to borrow at higher rates of interest than governments, which are generally bigger and have better credit ratings. At the same time, the corporation ends up owning the assets even though the government paid for them. A final problem is the imaginary efficiency gains from letting a private business run a public operation. "Efficiency" usually means laying off staff, cutting corners, and refusing to accept accountability for problems. (Remember Hamilton's disastrous run at privatizing its water treatment system.) Once profits, lawyers' fees, cost overruns, management fees, higher financing costs, etc., have been tallied, the P3 ends up being more expensive than if the government had simply completed the project itself. At bottom, there's no such thing as a 'free market'. Businesses operate in a physical and regulatory environment created largely by governments, and that environment is going to have a huge influence over where investment flows. Today, the framework favours greenfield investment on farmland at the edge of town, with all the myriad social, political, economic, and environmental problems that entails. It's unquestionably up to the government to change the framework so investment flows back into cities and real, diverse economies can thrive in balance with their physical locations.

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By Trey (registered) | Posted None at

The 407 was a P3. Enough said.

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