Special Report: Aerotropolis

GRIDS Goes Bust

How could such a large project, involving so many contributors, end up producing almost exactly the status quo framework that developers want?

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 26, 2006

If we ever needed evidence that Hamilton's home building industry, as represented by the Hamilton-Halton Home Builders' Association (HHHBA) exerts an undue influence on the city's political affairs, the shameful GRIDS final report made this influence perfectly clear.

Volunteers from Citizens at City Hall were at the City Council meeting where the GRIDS final report was presented. Here's an excerpt from the CATCH report of that meeting:

There were twenty presentations at yesterday's meeting - two by representatives of community groups, six by individuals, and twelve by land development interests. The latter included the presidents of Tradeport International, the Hamilton Halton Home Builders Association and the Realtors Association of Hamilton and Burlington, as well as two real estate salesmen and seven presentations by representatives of developers. Three of the latter were given by the same person, Ed Fothergill, who spoke for two of his clients as well as on behalf of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce.

Almost all of the individuals and community groups objected to the GRIDS process or disagreed with its conclusions. The real estate and development speakers all spoke in favour of the staff recommendation, although two or three also argued for inclusion of other lands in the planned urban boundary expansions.

I understand the industry's desire to create a favourable environment for its activities, but the home building industry's interests do not coincide with the public interest, and Hamilton politics are skewed toward what the industry wants.

What the home building industry wants is a steady supply of cheap, undeveloped rural land that they can raze, scrape, level, and compress, and on which they can build large clusters of single family houses and townhouses in a single-use utopia for motorists.

Their influence extends across the political process. Industry lobbying groups, including the HHHBA and the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce (CoC), have dedicated staff who can attend meetings, conferences, and planning workshops. They have the time and resources to write letters, meet with planners, lobby councillors, and ghost-write legislation.

To take a single example of how the business lobbies exert influence out of proportion to their numbers, Raise the Hammer was invited to attend the GRIDS growth strategy meetings. Unfortunately, we could not attend; the meetings were held during business hours and we're all volunteers who work day jobs and only write during our spare time. We have no budget and no staff to dedicate, but you can be sure that the HHHBA and CoC were present.

Business lobby groups have lawyers and accountants who can analyze regulatory frameworks and identify areas to change that will facilitate their business and improve their profitability. The public, devoid of these resources, can only try to match the analysis of the business groups on an ad hoc, volunteer, and catch-as-catch-can (no pun intended) basis.

Businesses can also afford to give significant donations to election campaigns, which means their preferred candidates have more resources and more sophisticated communications strategies than their opponents. Are they "buying" candidates? Of course not. They are simply supporting those candidates who already share their interests.

Their methods of influence grow more sophisticated still. The business model of the Hamilton Spectator, our city's only daily paper, is to woo its key demographic with content and advertising that target their interests. That demographic: 35- to 55-year-old middle and upper-middle class suburban women.

This is why the GO section exists: to showcase the accoutrements of suburban, middle class living: new houses, construction and renovation, furniture and appliances, consumer electronics, mid- to upscale cars, and fashion accessories.

(If you're a 35- to 55-year-old woman and take offense to the marketing department's assessment of your interests, it might be a good idea to let them know how you feel.)

The overlap between the industries seeking to influence city politics and the industries that make up the Spec's advertising base isn't exact, but it is extensive. As a result, the Spec cannot help but reflect and reinforce the mutual interests of its customers - the advertisers who actually pay for the paper - and its audience - the readers, to whom the advertisers pay to gain access.

No "conspiracy theory" is required: this is straightforward economics. The one quasi-public entity that has a real budget is supposed to help the public analyze and understand what's going on - the newspaper - is so beholden to its business strategy that it cannot fulfill its obligations to the public weal. Like a man serving two masters, it must ultimately choose among them.

To the extent that the Spectator reflects and reinforces the home building industry's values, it helps to undermine the public interest. A few weeks ago, Richard Gilbert, an internationally recognized energy policy expert, delivered an exhaustively-researched report to City Council that, if correct, demolishes many of the assumptions behind Hamilton's growth strategy.

The Spec didn't even bother to send a reporter and hasn't mentioned it since, even though this has very serious implications for the city's long term prospects.

In a May 23 editorial defending the city's GRIDS process, Spec editor Robert Howard wrote, "to suggest - as critics are doing - that the city of Hamilton is not engaging its citizens in its growth-planning process and is not giving them incentive or opportunity to comment is unfair."

Let's set aside the fact that the GRIDS plan doesn't even meet the province's under-achieving legal minimum of 40 percent infill in its Places to Grow legislation.

How, if Mr. Howard's chide is correct, are we to make sense of the fact that the aerotropolis boundary expansion has always been closed to debate? It is not enough simply to let the public "comment" on a plan that is impervious to public input. Last year, when I asked Mayor Larry Di Ianni why we were not allowed to consider any GRIDS options without aerotropolis, he answered:

it may have been nice for people who don't believe in aerotropolis for whatever reason, but it wouldn't have been honest, though. Because the region before us, and the city since - even before amalgamation and certainly since amalgamation - has always said, you know, 'The answer, part of the answer to some of the problems that we've got is around the best use of airport lands.'

Since many of those "people who don't believe in aerotropolis for whatever reason" are residents of this city, how can anyone argue that the city is engaging them when it refuses to take their arguments and expressed wishes into consideration?

How are we to make sense of the fact that the GRIDS report itself acknowledges a majority of contributors expressed preference for the infill-no urban boundary expansion option, but the final plan adopted the node and corridors option instead?

What do we make of the explanatory statement in the GRIDS Final Growth Report that the no urban growth options "would not likely be supported by the development community because they would not accommodate the projected housing growth for Hamilton"?

Howard writes, "Where [tomorrow's residents] will live and where they will work has to be planned now to avoid the sort of impromptu, patchwork development that leads to chaos in a city's provision of transportation, employment opportunities, housing mix, and services."

Unfortunately, the GRIDS plan does not improve significantly on today's "impromptu, patchwork development" - in other words, sprawl. Instead, GRIDS actually formalizes today's mode of development, by opening up 2,505 hectares (6,190 acres) of rural land to a new sprawling development of houses and big box stores.

In a false alternative redolent of HHHBA President Anthony DeSantis, Howard writes, "Many of Hamilton's future residents and employers will not be interested in high-density locations. They will want space to live or do business, like many of the rest of us."

Never mind the city-commissioned peak oil report, which the Spectator did not bother to cover, that strongly indicates low density suburban development will simply not be economically viable in years to come. Never mind the vast range of medium density building arrangements that lie between McMansions and condo towers and represent some of the most desirable city neighbourhoods in the world.

What kind of a city are we? What kind of a city do we want to be? Most important, how on earth can we get our elected representatives to pay attention to the difference?

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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