Downtown Bureau

Time to Get Serious About Restoring our Urban Neighbourhoods

The benefits to all residents in renewed property values and increased tax assessment make it a worthwhile investment. A struggling core is a drain to all Hamiltonians.

By Jason Leach
Published May 29, 2014

I was on King Street in the International Village this week waiting for a friend and had a chance to observe how the street functions.

After five or ten minutes, it was abundantly apparent once again that King literally has almost everything going for it - except for the annoying, life-sucking thoroughfare and huge craters of surface parking lots to its north and south cutting it off from the dense residential neighbourhoods there.

Even with only two traffic lanes, cars roared through in a succession of mini-clumps before the street was empty for a minute or two. It's basically like Main Street, but on a smaller scale and just as hostile to any form of vibrant urban life.

I stumbled upon this article outlining some of the main factors that allow for a vibrant 'Main Street'.

There is nothing here that we don't already know. Sadly, some people are still willing to sacrifice business investment and vibrancy along Main and King if it means a slightly faster drive through the city.

Restoring Successful Main Streets

But for those who care about our downtown retail and commercial streets, this article outlining five steps to a successful main street is very informative. Here are the five steps:

  1. A successful pedestrian experience
  2. Density, but at human scale
  3. Viable local business
  4. Nature
  5. Nearby residences

Most glaring to me is the fact that item #1 is completely laughable when talking about downtown Hamilton's streets. We don't do #1 or #4 well at all, which is making #3 - viable local businesses - impossible.

Look at Main or King during lunch or dinner time, and then compare it to Queen or King in Toronto at those same time periods next time you're there. We used to have that. And we still can.

The pedestrianization and ravamp of Gore Park is a great step to adding a better natural experience downtown. A few block segment of empty lots converted to a linear, urban park would also be a great initiative.

Residential proposals at the Royal Connaught, Gore Park, Lister Block and 150 Main West can begin to add much needed residents living right on the King Street corridor.

Applying These to Hamilton

A few further ideas we should consider to allow our main streets to return to their former ways as vibrant people places:

Parking-Protected Bike Lane on Main

Main Street does not work. Every urban expert who has visited in the past 15 years has proclaimed this obvious fact loud and clear.

New York City recently took similar five-lane streets and created a safer experience for pedestrians and cyclists and have seen business improve as people feel more comfortable being there.

There is no reason we can't do the same thing on Main Street.

Street Trees and Greenery

Small pedestrian refuges/islands and bumpouts next to the protected bike lanes can house street trees. Again, NYC has done this wonderfully in recent years in both planters and permanent bumpouts:

Planters frame protected bike lanes in New York City (Image Credit: cityclock.org)
Planters frame protected bike lanes in New York City (Image Credit: cityclock.org)

Not only do trees enhance the look and feel of downtown streets, having them 'inside' the bike lanes helps to give wide streets a narrower, safer feel.

Animate Our Alleys

Cities around the world are bringing pedestrian life and retail into narrow back-alleys instead of allowing these urban spaces to simply be for parking or garbage. Small-scale cafes with patios, public art walks and linear gardens can all open up new opportunities for a superior pedestrian experience downtown.

Hamilton has some perfect candidates for such ideas in alleyways off James North, the long alley running west/east from James on the north side of King and behind the west side of James South from Bold to Duke.

Alleyway cafes (Image Credit: Blogger)
Alleyway cafes (Image Credit: Blogger)

Alleys in residential neighbourhoods downtown can become green linear connections providing great cycling, walking and running routes through urban neighbourhoods.

Enough Talk

If Hamilton is to compete with other Canadian cities over the next decade, we must take the revival of our oldest urban neighbourhoods seriously.

The benefits to all city residents in renewed property values and increased tax assessment make it a worthwhile investment. A struggling city core is a drain to all Hamiltonians.

We know what to do. Enough talk and hand-wringing. Let's do it.

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

72 Comments

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By No traffic (anonymous) | Posted May 29, 2014 at 08:04:48

Best answer is no cut off all Vehicular traffic (except deliveries at specified hours) from Wellington to James. Underpass at John. No other N/S traffic, Make it an Island. Then build some more condos.

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By fiveway (registered) | Posted May 29, 2014 at 08:21:44 in reply to Comment 101762

Calgary tried this with 8th Avenue SW and it didn't work very well. The street became a ghost-town and people actively avoided the street, with the exception of during lunch hour. They eventually opened up the street to a very small amount of one-way traffic during select hours and that helped bring people back to the street, as cabs and purposeful traffic could access the businesses there.

I'm not saying the pedestrian only idea couldn't work, but for it to be the 'best answer' you'd have to build an awful lot of condos.

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By ScreenCarp (registered) | Posted May 29, 2014 at 09:11:59

With all due respect, if you're unhappy with the design of International Village and think those two lanes are "life sucking", perhaps an urban environment is not for you and you'd be happier in a small retirement village somewhere where everyone drives golf carts. I'm not sure what you think King and Queen St in Toronto have that we "used to have", or when we use to have it just as I'm confused how a steady stream of cars provides a better "pedestrian experience" than clumps of cars followed by empty streets. It's the most "complete" street in Hamilton so I'm not sure what fantasy you expect to have happen with Main. What ever it is, I'd suggest you move now because you're going to be disappointed with that as well.

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By You Incomplete Me (anonymous) | Posted May 29, 2014 at 09:20:09 in reply to Comment 101769

The most complete street in Hamilton? Hilarious! It's so complete that cyclists are told to dismount and take an alternate route.

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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted May 29, 2014 at 10:08:09

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 WaitWhat (anonymous) | Posted May 29, 2014 at 10:29:05 in reply to Comment 101777

Wait a minute, I've felt that tingle of condescension before. Oh God, is mytownstoneyhallscreek back with a new nickname?

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted May 29, 2014 at 10:25:32 in reply to Comment 101777

I would be happy if the rest of council just let those wards that want to start making changes (e.g. 1 and 2) get on with it, for example by using the area weighting money, instead of debating the changes to death and worrying about how their residents will react to changes in other wards.

Council doesn't tend to micro-manage urban design changes in Stoney Creek, Winona or Ancaster. They should give local residents and businesses the benefit of the doubt that they might actually know what will work in their own neighbourhoods!

Besides, "carping on" is part of building change: look at the restart of heritage designations by council and Cannon street bike lane. And many of the people contributing to this site are also working on the ground through neighbourhood associations, with their councillor and with participatory budgeting to drive changes at street level.

What are you doing?

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2014-05-29 10:29:35

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted May 29, 2014 at 13:07:27

One small quibble: A better use for back alleys may be for deliveries only, with the street on which the businesses front being car-free. That was the highly successful formula for making Yonge Street in Toronto car-free in the 1970's. As well as, of course, a gazillion highly successful car-free streets in Japan and Europe today.

Allowing cut-through "rat-running" car traffic through downtown is profoundly disfunctional and highly dangerous.

As we have seen from the Medical Officer of Health data recently posted on RTH, 93 people are killed in Hamilton every year because they are poisoned by the lethal air pollution put out by car drivers. An additional 395 people in Hamilton are poisoned by car drivers every year and injured so seriously they have to be hospitalized.

Children, the elderly and hospital patients are particularly vulnerable to being poisoned by car drivers. Every year in Hamilton children suffer 15,510 asthma symptom days and an additional 279 children suffer acute bronchitis attacks due to being poisoned by car drivers. Health care costs due to people being poisoned by car drivers are $511 million every year in Hamilton.

Mode shift away from car driving by making walking, cycling and public transit the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of travelling from A to B eliminates these lethal poisons and saves lives, injuries, the suffering of sick children and serious health-care costs.

Due to its high concentration of people, downtown Hamilton should be a high priority area for eliminating cancer poisoning of its population by effective mode shift policies.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2014-05-29 13:07:54

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By Jeremy_S (registered) | Posted May 30, 2014 at 20:14:49

Take a virtual tour down this street in St. Remy, France.

International Village could look something like that! I don't see one-way streets as being synonymous with fast and dangerous streets. I see one-way streets with synchronized lights that force drivers to go at high speeds to avoid a red light as the problem.

Is the problem with one-way streets really the fact that all cars are moving in the same direction, or is the push for two-way streets based on the observation that two-way streets are less efficient for cars, and therefore speeds are lowered due to gridlock? If it's calmer traffic we want, can't we have efficient, one-way streets with low speed limits? As an occasional driver, I'd rather cruise slowly and avoid red lights altogether than have to deal with stop-and-go, two-way traffic. As an occasional pedestrian, I find it convenient to cross a street mid-block when there's regular breaks in traffic and I don't have to worry about cars coming from two directions.

I had dinner at a restaurant on King St between Caroline and Hess yesterday during rush hour. We had a window seat. The lull in traffic between red lights was a nice, peaceful break from the roar of speeding cars that was there the rest of the time. I'm glad the bus lane added a buffer. If the synchronization of the lights was slowed down to only allow a speed of 30 or 40km/h, the roar would be diminished, there would not be the same frustrating gridlock that you get with two-way traffic (ie James and John near St. Joe's), and there would still be the peaceful lull which is a safe time to Jaywalk. If cars are riding a wave of green lights, they're not idling much which is better for fuel efficiency and air quality too.

Am I missing something here? Maybe someone could write an article (or point me to one already written) that explains how, if at all, the benefit of two-way streets goes beyond just slower traffic (which one-way streets can accomplish along with other benefits that can't be had with two-way streets).

Comment edited by Jeremy_S on 2014-05-30 20:15:56

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 30, 2014 at 23:21:47 in reply to Comment 101866

great observations. I've written about this before in reference to Portland and Montreal. Fantastic, complete one-way streets in those cities.

Our problems are absolutely the timed lights and crazy restrictions at city hall on sidewalk patios. I suspect that wonderful neighbourhood in France sees a lot more consistent traffic than King in the IV, making it easier to keep traffic slow. I've always felt the International Village, and King West where you ate yesterday could be like this:

http://goo.gl/Wj7k3C

And this: https://www.activetrans.org/sites/defaul...

Plants tons of large street trees, and get rid of the metal grates that keep them small and withered. Deprogram the lights and encourage (not restrict) businesses from bringing patios right to the sidewalk edge along with other displays, bike racks etc.....

One way streets don't have to be horrible, but we do them 100% wrong because we're addicted to high speed traffic.

One of the great benefits of two-way King however is ease of access for west end/Dundas customers heading downtown. Shop-keepers brought this up decades ago when the conversion first happened. All of the customer base west of the core is now whisked past the core on Main and can't come east on King to shop.

One only needs to look at King/Queen/College in TO to see how versatile and excellent retail streets like this function as two-way with slower traffic and curb parking. If they can do it with their millions of people, surely we can.

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By Hot Air (anonymous) | Posted June 01, 2014 at 22:09:05 in reply to Comment 101876

- jason sez: "great observations. I've written about this before in reference to Portland and Montreal. Fantastic, complete one-way streets in those cities."
-- We get it. You love Portland. You're free to move back any time. You seem to want us to be followers, not leaders.

- jason sez: "Our problems are absolutely the timed lights and crazy restrictions at city hall on sidewalk patios. I suspect that wonderful neighbourhood in France sees a lot more consistent traffic than King in the IV, making it easier to keep traffic slow. I've always felt the International Village, and King West where you ate yesterday could be like this:"
--I thought the problem was one-ways and all the lanes? Now it's the timed lights and inability to impede the sidewalks?

- jason sez: "Plants tons of large street trees, and get rid of the metal grates that keep them small and withered. Deprogram the lights and encourage (not restrict) businesses from bringing patios right to the sidewalk edge along with other displays, bike racks etc....."
-- Now the problem is metal grates? Maybe it's the abuse the trees get from passers-by, and/or lack of care from city arborists? Again, the issue isn't synchronized lights or lack of patio space.

- jason sez: "One way streets don't have to be horrible, but we do them 100% wrong because we're addicted to high speed traffic."
-- I thought they were horrible which is why you want them converted? Now it's that they move too quickly? Make up your mind, man!

- jason sez: "One of the great benefits of two-way King however is ease of access for west end/Dundas customers heading downtown. Shop-keepers brought this up decades ago when the conversion first happened. All of the customer base west of the core is now whisked past the core on Main and can't come east on King to shop."
-- Are there a lot of people heading from the west end and Dundas coming downtown? My family is from the west end and haven't been downtown in years. A number of friends also live in Dundas, and they don't come downtown unless they're visiting me. Their families don't come downtown. Who is coming from the suburbs to visit the core?

- jason sez: "One only needs to look at King/Queen/College in TO to see how versatile and excellent retail streets like this function as two-way with slower traffic and curb parking. If they can do it with their millions of people, surely we can."
-- Again, let's be followers, not leaders. I've been to those streets, and recently, too. There's lots of traffic zipping around, including streetcars. What's your point? Millions of people don't live on those streets, and those in your "millions" don't visit those streets daily, weekly, or even monthly. A coworker lives right downtown on College st. She doesn't visit any of these shops as they don't carry clothing, food, or items she'd purchase. Is she the minority?

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By DissenterOfThings (registered) | Posted June 02, 2014 at 09:24:24 in reply to Comment 101913

So we're somehow leaders because we have freeways running through our urban centre? Please go back to your troll-hole.

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By CharlesBall (registered) | Posted June 02, 2014 at 14:22:21 in reply to Comment 101922

Just had my first experience traveling downtown on King.

I live in Westdale and rarely travel downtown past John Street. Had to go to the Catholic Children's Aid Society today.

It took me 25 minutes to get from Wellington and King to Dundurn and King. Google Maps says that is 2.5 kms. Average speed was just over walking speed, but then I hit every light until Queen. Literally just happened. Left the CCAS at 1:30. Traffic seemed normal until Wellington(ish)

Two right lanes empty from John to Bay.

South (left) lane on King full of buses from John to the Convention Centre effectively reducing the traffic for cars on King to one lane.

Will not do that again.

(Water through a pipe man. Narrow the pipe down at one spot and water can't get through.)

Comment edited by CharlesBall on 2014-06-02 14:24:19

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By redmike (registered) | Posted June 02, 2014 at 14:58:23 in reply to Comment 101928

"It took me 25 minutes to get from Wellington and King to Dundurn and King" dont believe you.

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By mikered (anonymous) | Posted June 03, 2014 at 06:11:16 in reply to Comment 101931

I can believe it. Try going downtown in rush hour sometime! I have had to go through the core a lot lately thanks to the KEnilworth access being closed, and it's a nightmare. So, maybe this is just due to the closed mountain access, but it certainly hasn't made me think that I should stop and run into a store to shop, eat, etc.

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By CharlesBall (registered) | Posted June 02, 2014 at 15:09:50 in reply to Comment 101931

Hey red mike, you Irish, Nordic or just a commie? Sorry, shouldn't bait the troll.

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By notlloyd (registered) - website | Posted June 02, 2014 at 19:13:16 in reply to Comment 101933

One post a troll does not make.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted June 02, 2014 at 14:51:11 in reply to Comment 101928

You're driving through the centre of downtown to go somewhere. Name any successful city anywhere where you do that. Where you take a shortcut through the centre of town.

Anyhow, next time take Cannon for westbound traffic.

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By ScreenCarp (registered) | Posted June 03, 2014 at 00:43:12 in reply to Comment 101930

Well traditionally speaking, "Main Street" has always been the main street through town. I mean King Street is Highway 8. But as it was pointed out, this trip was from Sanford to Dundurn, not really through town.

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By CharlesBall (registered) | Posted June 02, 2014 at 15:04:20 in reply to Comment 101930

Will do, for sure. And I don't lie.

(Never considered it a shortcut though before. Sanford and King is hardly cross town from Dundurn - its only about 3.5 kms. However I certainly now consider it a long cut ; ) )

Comment edited by CharlesBall on 2014-06-02 15:16:23

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By ScreenCarp (registered) | Posted May 31, 2014 at 00:45:02

The patio idea is great, and these are great examples of one way streets. I think when LRT arrives, we should just block it off to car traffic and make it a pedestrian/bike/LRT mall. I think the slower traffic has already made the IV a gateway to downtown and really breaks the 20 minutes across the city mold. It often takes me 20 minutes to get from Victoria to James alone, so already it's not for through traffic. Through traffic can bypass north on Cannon, South along Hunter and King will open up again at James and then Bay.

The best part about shoppers coming East from West/Dundas is the parking that's easily accessible from Main Street. Main and King are only a block apart, as is King William (which is due to become two way). One of the "two way is better for retail" arguments stems from the expectation that folks will "cruise" the strip at slow enough speed to look in the windows and that they'll be able to access the stores easily. I think in these days of GPS folks know where they're going, so it's really convenient to drive down Main, park in a lot off of Main and walk the downtown. King and Main don't have to be two way in the core because they're so close.

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