Revitalization

Double Downtown Density? We Should be Aiming to Quadruple It

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 28, 2008

Today's Spectator carries a head-scratching article on a proposal by Councillor Brian McHattie to double the downtown's urban density of 200 people and jobs per hectare to 400 people and jobs - the same goal as Mississauga's goal for its downtown - by 2031.

It's a head-scratcher because city staff recommend setting a goal of only 250 people and jobs per hectare. Tim McCabe, the city's general manager of planning and economic development, thinks it's "a very risky path." He worries that trying to increase downtown density could jeopardize the city's plans to expand the urban boundary.

(He also echoes the FUD that emanates from the Hamilton Halton Home Builders Association about building heights.)

The fact is that there is absolutely nothing dramatic about doubling our downtown density over the next twenty-five years. In fact, I would consider that the mediocre, bare-minimum goal of a half-assed urban policy. We'd almost get there via nothing but business-as-usual planning, especially if the city's LRT initiative goes ahead.

Density Without Skyscrapers

Look at the numbers. In Hamilton, the population density of wards 1 through 4 is around 1,600 people per square kilometre (according to 2001 StatsCan data - the current density is probably slightly higher).

By comparison, Paris, France has a population density of 25,000 people per square kilometre - well over an order of magnitude higher than Hamilton's lower city. (It also manages to do this with a uniform building height of six stories.)

To the pedestrian, Paris feels lively but by no means claustrophobic. It has plenty of green space, broad tree-lined boulevards, and friendly pedestrian walkways along the Seine.

The downtown core has tremendous potential to densify without disrupting the existing build form. After all, there are whole city blocks given over entirely to surface parking.

Surface parking in downtown Hamilton around John St. and Rebecca St. (Image Credit: Google Maps)
Surface parking in downtown Hamilton around John St. and Rebecca St. (Image Credit: Google Maps)

Yet Hamilton's planners balk at the thought of merely doubling our downtown density and call the goal of raising it to 250 people and jobs per hectare a "reach".

Density and Productivity

This is profoundly short-sighted. The research into density has demonstrated that two vitally important things happen when you intensify land use:

  1. Energy use and the cost of physical infrastructure grows more slowly than the population; and
  2. The rate of innovation by a variety of measures grows more quickly than the population.

In other words, scale up a city and you get both an energy/infrastructure productivity boost and a boost in human intellectual capital. This is partly due to economies of scale, and partly due to synergies from bringing a critical mass of innovators, investors and VCs together to generate and incubate new businesses.

This is why a city can get as big and dense as, say, New York and not simply collapse on itself - the city actually becomes more and more efficient and productive per resident the denser it gets, while at the same time offering a very high quality of life with a staggering variety of amenities.

By not pursuing higher density, we're effectively stifling whatever potential Hamilton has to become a centre of innovation and an economic growth engine in the future.

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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By bob bratina (anonymous) | Posted November 29, 2008 at 14:40:15

Hamilton planners do not balk at the thought of doubling the Downtown density. It's just not reasonable to arbitrarily adopt that target.
There are some restricting factors such as underground rivers which prevent you from digging a foundation deep enough to support a high enough building. That's why the Crown Plaza, formerly Ramada, has above ground parking. That's why Hi-Rise-Liuna had difficulty committing to the size of the proposed seniors' residences next to Lister.
You also must consider the proximity of mature residential areas, whose inhabitants need to be engaged in the discussion of how big the elephant living next door will be. Downtown Toronto is at the 400/ha level and having lived and worked there, wouldn't propose it for Hamilton, certainly not in the form it has taken. We can make in Hamilton our own solution and the density should not be pre-determined. This constant harangue against everything we do has to rise above blog-rant. The big problem is that sprawl was approved because of pressure from developers, and the tax-subsidies to support it along with the loss of industrial and commecial assessment has compromised our financial maneuverability. Having said that, there are some forward thinking people on the planning staff and council who shouldn't be constantly plinked at like targets at a carnival shooting gallery.

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 29, 2008 at 15:10:48

Hey Bob and Ryan,

There is very easy and ample opportunity to increase Hamilton's core density and we should be striving to do it as soon as possible. A few well-placed 'towers' would be nice and acceptable on locations that can house such buildings. Otherwise, let's look to Brooklyn and Paris as a model to follow for the rest of our density increases. Brooklyn is more dense than Toronto with very few towers. Most of the city is brownstone walkups and 3-6 storey streetscapes with shops on the bottom and apartments above. We could add tens of thousands of new residents downtown simply by building these sorts of projects on all the empty lots and parking lots. There's no need to go several stories underground for a 5 or 6 storey building.

Find out which sites can handle large towers and zone them appropriately. Otherwise, let's stick to a Brooklyn-style of development that will not only increase the density, shopping opportunities and residents, but will also rebuild streetscapes and comfortable walking connections between downtown and surrounding neighbourhoods such as Corktown, Durand, Central and Beasley. There's wonderful housing stock and residential neighbourhoods in the Catharine North area, north of Wilson. Yet look at the horrendous walk one of those residents has to get down to King St. Rebuild those streetscapes and suddenly we're connecting our downtown neighbourhoods again.

Cheers

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted November 30, 2008 at 05:59:29

Jason, when the city removes its zoning restrictions you're going to be amazed at what the free market will do for Hamilton.

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By AMH (anonymous) | Posted November 30, 2008 at 14:27:50

While I agree that we can work on increasing the density in the core, I truly believe we need to be a bit more intentional in how we do this. Particularly I think it is important that planners make a concerted effort to build buildings that are family-friendly. We have an overabundance of one and two bedroom units. I would like to see more three or four bedroom units for families. There is so much downtown to offer to young families and if more young families move into the core I believe that the downtown businesses would benefit.
I like Jason's idea of keeping the Brooklyn style of development focusing on 5-6 story buildings rather than the monstrosities that are being pushed in Toronto.

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 30, 2008 at 18:33:56

ASmith....would removing restrictions give us the same fabulous results we've seen on Wall St recently?? Lol.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted November 30, 2008 at 19:15:23

Jason, when the city gives the market freedom to grow we will see more of everything. More high rises, more mid rise buildings and more single family homes. Over time, increased population will dictate that development goes up rather than out, allowing mass transit to become economically viable, even without government subsidies.

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By Robert_D (anonymous) | Posted December 02, 2008 at 09:22:20

Bob,

Have planners look at what the density would be if we built four story buildings, to the curb, on all the land that is now surface parking. I think you'll find it's a very reasonable target.

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By Wiccan (anonymous) | Posted December 02, 2008 at 11:39:11

Has anybody bothered to ask if there actually is demand among the public to live in high dense areas? Downtown Hamilton is currently pretty dense and the place has been declining for decades as people move to more less dense areas. What makes you folks think that people are interested in high-density living in Hamilton? As much as Jason and Ryan would like to, you can't force the public to live someplace they don't want to.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted March 18, 2009 at 11:43:56

Wiccan, you must be new here. Why would Ryan and the crew actually take into account what people want? He knows what is best and that is what we should aim for. Do you hear people saying that they WANT to live in a Brooklyn style neighbourhood? Does not matter, Ryan and others like him have decided that is what is best, therefore that is the way Hamilton must evolve. Just ignore the fact that most people actually want their own house. Given a choice who would want to raise kids in a high density sea of brownstones compared to the classic house with the white picket fence in the burbs? Why would anybody with little kids want the bother of their own backyard? As soon as people stop buying new houses developers will stop building them, just look around it certainly has slowed down in this economic climate.

The constant refrain of cram them in downtown and then give them high speed rail will soon dull your senses.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted March 19, 2009 at 23:40:46

Mr Meister,

You seem to be basing your opinion on personal prejudice (and a generous helping of contempt) rather than factual analysis. So in response to your points:

Do you hear people saying that they WANT to live in a Brooklyn style neighbourhood?

I never said downtown Hamilton should look like Brooklyn, which at 13,814 people per square kilometre is nearly ten times as dense as Hamilton and the second most densely populated county in the USA - so your reference is something of a straw man.

Does not matter, Ryan and others like him have decided that is what is best, therefore that is the way Hamilton must evolve.

We're simply advocating for what works in nearly every vibrant, economically healthy city: setting development rules that allow for dense, lively urban neighbourhoods in the downtown core.

Right now our rules are designed to prevent density, mandate driving and make mixed-use development illegal. So much for what people want.

Just ignore the fact that most people actually want their own house.

I live downtown and live in my own house. It's tall, narrow, semi-detached, is set close to the street, has no garage or even driveway, and its price per square foot compares favourably with houses in, say, the Ancaster Meadowlands.

Given a choice who would want to raise kids in a high density sea of brownstones compared to the classic house with the white picket fence in the burbs?

Judging from populations and housing prices, lots of people would make that choice. Stop reasoning from your own prejudices.

Why would anybody with little kids want the bother of their own backyard?

We have a small backyard (approx. 400 square feet) and our kids quite enjoy it.

We also have four excellent parks, including football fields, basketball courts, baseball diamonds, and a 400m track, all within close walking distance. We're also walking distance from the Bruce Trail, Rail Trail, and Radial Trail, on which we regularly encounter deer and other wildlife.

In addition, we're within close walking distance to several schools, several churches, a public library, a public swimming pool (olympic sized), two outdoor ice rinks in the winter, tennis courts, a lively commercial district and other amenities which we enjoy on a regular basis.

That's not even to mention what we can reach easily and safely on our bicycles.

As soon as people stop buying new houses developers will stop building them

If there were a free market for housing, I would agree with you. However, a combination of massive public subsidies and restrictive municipal zoning rules and bylaws result in a heavily regulated market in which it is effectively illegal to build neighbourhoods.

Based on a) the housing values in existing neighbourhoods built before the modern era of single use zoning and b) the very high market popularity of 'new urbanist' neighbourhoods in cities where they are allowed to be built, I'd say the public demand for dense urban neighbourhoods is very high.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted March 20, 2009 at 02:31:27

Ryan, if living downtown is what people wanted then they would move there of their own volition. The downtown core would be a busy, thriving, growing neighbourhood. Instead we have a place most people are trying to avoid. That is not my prejudice it is what people are doing. I think you are the one who is letting their prejudices cloud their reasoning. If you are living downtown and like it then enjoy it just realize that you are in the minority and stop trying to force your values on the rest of the world. Sure there are good things about living downtown but it is not something that appeals to the vast majority of people. You have a very strong sense of what the world should be like. The one thing that is missing from most of your ideals is reality. It is not hard to figure out what people want. Where do people strive to live? Where do they want to shop? It sure is not downtown.

You have on several occasions mentioned subsidies for roads and now for houses. Where does all this money come from? Where does the city, any city, get there money? Where do the provincial and federal governments get their money? Could it possibly from all those motorists paying huge amounts of taxes when they buy a car, gas and repairs? I do not agree with all the money that the U.S. and Canadian Governments are putting into the Detroit three but that is why, the car industry is a huge contributor to our economy. How heavily subsidized are those amenities you say you enjoy, the library, the churches and the pools? It is the people in Ancaster paying huge property taxes that pay for a lot of your amenities. Have you not heard their complaints about exactly this?

It is obvious by reading your posts that you are an educated and intelligent man, if we could only give you a little dose of reality.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted March 20, 2009 at 10:38:55

Mr Meister wrote:

if living downtown is what people wanted then they would move there of their own volition.

People respond to incentives. For the past half-century, vast public incentives have been poured into suburban sprawl while downtowns have been horribly mismanaged with urban expressways, oppressive megaprojects and the deliberate concentration of social services.

In the meantime, it has actually been illegal to build traditional neighbourhoods anywhere, regardless of how many people might want to live in one. (This, of course, is why homes in surviving urban neighbourhoods command such a tremendous premium - think of milion dollar, 1,200 square foot brownstones in Bloor West or the Beaches in Toronto.)

People have not been making choices in a free market.

The downtown core would be a busy, thriving, growing neighbourhood. Instead we have a place most people are trying to avoid.

Actually, the populations of many downtowns - including Hamilton's - has been increasing for the past several years as cities have reversed their earlier anti-downtown policies and regulatory frameworks and downtowns become more desirable places to live.

This is what you can't seem to understand: that when society changes the balance of incentives and disincentives, people adjust their decisions accordingly.

In particular, young college educated people today no longer want to live in the suburbs the way their parents did. Partly that's a response to the changing administration of downtown, partly it's due to growing environmental awareness of the unsustainable land use and energy model behind sprawl, and partly it's due to the lack of cultural amenities in the suburbs.

At the same time, Boomers are starting to move back into the city again, so they don't have to drive as much and are closer to the amenities and services they desire.

In other words, the a) most creative and b) wealthiest segments of our population are starting to move back into cities. If Hamilton does not arrange to accommodate those people, they will go elsewhere and we will lose out on their innovation and wealth.

You have on several occasions mentioned subsidies for roads and now for houses. Where does all this money come from?

Highway subsidies come mainly from general provincial (and sometimes federal) taxes. Road subsidies come from municipal property taxes. Further, since Hamilton does not charge enough in greenfield develpment charges to pay for the cost of servicing those areas, the existing city subsidizes every new house that is built, draining the city of operating funds.

In addition, since Hamilton mandates "free" parking at nearly every destination (for which property owners must pay whether they want to or not), that represents another subsidy from everyone to those people who want to drive. At the same time, it provides a major incentive to drive more, since one of the biggest costs of driving (termination cost) has been taken care of.

People have to pay these subsidies whether they drive or not.

It is the people in Ancaster paying huge property taxes that pay for a lot of your amenities. Have you not heard their complaints about exactly this?

Actually, my property tax rate is significantly higher than in Ancaster (though the difference is gradually shrinking). Since development charges aren't enough to pay for greenfield development and highways to service them, my taxes are actually subsidizing those houses in Ancaster - not the other way around.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted March 20, 2009 at 13:18:53

Ryan >> when society changes the balance of incentives and disincentives, people adjust their decisions accordingly

From 1975 to the end of 2008, home prices, adjusted for inflation, went up approximately 1% per year. Assuming that these figures are roughly the same for Canada, this means that living in Hamilton, with tax rates at 1.6%, a property owner faces a real dollar net loss of .6% of the biggest asset in their portfolio every year because of taxes. If you live in Toronto, you actually make money in real dollar terms by owning a property, gaining about .15% every year in increased net worth.

Is it any wonder that the housing stock in Hamilton is less cared for and more run down than in Toronto and other jurisdictions that have lower tax rates? Why would anyone invest in a home, if by doing so, you end up with a higher net loss on the deal? If the city was smart, it would realize that people do indeed adjust their behaviour based on incentives and disincentives and they would cut rates to less than 1%. By doing this, the city would make owning and investing in housing a winning proposition, not only for the homeowner, but also for the city's tax coffers.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted March 20, 2009 at 14:03:43

Ryan >> when society changes the balance of incentives and disincentives, people adjust their decisions accordingly

I think this also applies to our elected officials. If we want them to do a good job for us and make wise decisions, we need to pay them accordingly. I like the idea of tying their compensation to property values, perhaps a percentage of the increase in home prices as judged against the national or provincial average. That way, if the homeowners of Hamilton saw their net worth climb faster than the average, our local politicians would deserve to share in that added prosperity. If property values grew more slowly then the average, they would simply collect their base salary.

It seems we all want prime rib political decisions making, but at ground beef compensation. If we were willing to share the wealth from increased property values, I think both the residents of Hamilton and the politicians would be far better off.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 14, 2009 at 10:34:50

despite all the massive government money given to sprawl development over the past several decades, it's interesting to note that Hamilton's downtown had one of the highest growth rates in the entire urbanized city over the past 10 years. In many locales from Charlton/James to Inchbury/York to Dundurn/Aberdeen to BaySt North, house prices have gone from $100,000/$175,000 up to $275,000/$400,000. It seems that even with massive incentives directing people out of the city, folks are rediscovering it, paying more for it, and loving the heart of the city.

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