Policy

City Official Plan: Officially Underwhelming

By Ryan McGreal
Published June 30, 2009

Council voted yesterday to approve the city's Official Plan (the Official Plan web page had not yet updated with the council vote as at this writing). It defines a variety of areas (PDF link) throughout the city that are zoned for mixed use, industrial, commercial, residential, institutional, open space, and so on and establishes density targets (PDF link) for key areas of interest.

The general goals of the Official Plan are positive, and emphasize increasing density around the city's defined nodes and along its transportation corridors, as well as creating more pedestrian-friendly streets. One thing that stood out for me in today's Spectator report was the statement: "Picture James Street North or Locke Street versus Upper James" - I thought again of my fantasy of converting Upper James into a grand boulevard.

Unfortunately, while the rhetoric is sound, the implementation is underwhelming. The downtown mixed use area (PDF link), bordered by Queen St., Cannon St., Wellington St., and Hunter St., has a density target of 250 people+jobs per hectare, up only slightly from the current density of 200 people+jobs per hectare.

Last November, Councillor Brian McHattie tried to persuade staff and council to adopt a slightly more ambitious target of 400 people+jobs per hectare. This was met with resistance from staff, who warned that increasing downtown density could jeopardize the city's plans to expand the urban boundary.

As city planner Bill Janssen explained in March:

The one concern that we have with increasing, or having a target in the plan that we don't know we can achieve, it may impact what other development can be undertaken, particularly in greenfield developments. [emphasis added]

Meanwhile, council is busy voting to convert existing industrial employment lands for big box commercial use even as it insists we need the airport employment growth district (AEGD) because we don't have enough industrial employment land to meet our future needs. The AEGD is being developed under a separate plan outside the Official Plan process.

The Province has made it abundantly clear that it wants municipalities to focus on intensification, mixed use development, multi-modal transportation and limiting sprawl - to the extent that Provincial Minister of Energy and Infrastructure George Smitherman warned last November:

I'm giving them very careful consideration to the priorities of municipalities who have done their work to meet the growth plan. [...] When things are tough, I will stand behind those who stand up for the Growth Plan. [...] I think we all recognize that achieving the Growth Plan objectives is not just a numbers game.

Unfortunately, the city's GRIDS plan is just that, a numbers game. It's an unambitious, bare-minimum plan - and I'm highly skeptical that the plan as formulated will even meet those minimum targets, given that it back-loads all the actual intensification into the last ten years.

As I wrote earlier, 400 people+jobs per hectare is not an unrealistic goal. Other cities have achieved densities at least ten times higher than Hamilton's without skyscrapers - e.g. Boston, which is mostly two- to four-storey buildings and Paris, which is almost entirely six-storey buildings.

We risk losing out on a sustained wave of economic growth and development (as opposed to mere geographic growth) if we aim too low for our downtown.

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, aging Baby 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.

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 jason (registered) | Posted June 30, 2009 at 18:14:33

So you're telling me that downtown Hamilton is currently sitting at 200 j/p per hectare, EVEN with the vast, hellish acres and acres of empty land and parking lots???
So with this snazzy new plan, maybe we'll see one of every ten lots built on (with a 2-storey stucco slab box).

Underwhelming is right.

Downtown target isn't much higher than the target for Eastgate for pete's sake. A suburban district with streets like Queenston and Centennial is only going to be slightly less dense than our downtown?

It would seem to me that we could double our downtown density simply by building on empty lots. And what's with the 'maximum' of 500 units for any new building downtown?? So, if Donald Trump wants to come along and build a mega-tower with 1,000 units are we going to say "Sorry pal. Your proposal uses our land and infrastructure services too wisely. Cut it in half, add a surface parking lot, and then maybe we'll talk".

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By synxer (registered) | Posted June 30, 2009 at 19:44:15

The City's management is a real piss off at times.

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By beancounter (registered) | Posted June 30, 2009 at 22:48:51

According to Wikipedia, "In Canada, an urban area is an area that has more than 400 people per square kilometre and has more than 1,000 people... In China, an urban area is an urban district, city and town with a population density higher than 1,500 persons per square kilometre... ...(and) in Japan urbanized areas are defined as contiguous areas of densely inhabited districts (DIDs) using census enumeration districts as units with a density requirement of 4,000 inhabitants per square kilometre"

Perhaps some day Hamilton will become an urban area... Well, maybe downtown Hamilton will become an urban area.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted June 30, 2009 at 23:18:14

I would guess the 500 units is related to the sub-surface geography of Hamilton. Although, it could also be arbitrary.

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 30, 2009 at 23:51:13

I'm guessing it's arbitrary, like much of this plan.

Other parts of the world are figuring out how to build mile-high towers in the middle of water...I think we can figure out a way to deal with a few underground streams if someone really wanted to.

http://www.fosterandpartners.com/Project...

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By JonC (registered) | Posted July 01, 2009 at 07:53:29

Maybe not the best reference point, since the Millennium Tower has been a pipe dream for two decades now, and based on the current global economy, I wouldn't expect that to change any time soon. They've also been trying to peddle a taller version to Shanghai, to no avail.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 01, 2009 at 08:14:45

I realize that. My point is simply that it is possible to build a 500+ unit downtown. I don't understand why we have a maximum cap on units that a project can hold. Not that we're in danger of anyone building anything remotely close to this anytime soon, but still, this is a plan for the future, so let's plan for the future as a real city (urban area).

Boston might be a better example. 3/4 of the city is built on Boston Harbour.

What this plan doesn't do, that it should, is have a MINIMUM building height downtown. The downtown secondary plan calls for a minimum of 2 stories, but upon further digging at city hall, it's only a minimum height in feet.
So, a big boxer could come along and build a building that is a huge one storey box and meet the minimum height standards. We need a minimum of 3 actual stories downtown.

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted July 01, 2009 at 10:00:55

What good is a plan anyways? http://www.myhamilton.ca/myhamilton/City...

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 01, 2009 at 11:34:19

Jon Dalton, we could crash this server by posting great plans that have never developed in this city.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 01, 2009 at 23:26:04

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted July 02, 2009 at 12:47:54

"Unfortunately, while the rhetoric is sound, the implementation is underwhelming. The downtown mixed use area (PDF link), bordered by Queen St., Cannon St., Wellington St., and Hunter St., has a density target of 250 people+jobs per hectare, up only slightly from the current density of 200 people+jobs per hectare."

Increasing the density target from 200 to 250 represents a 25% increase. This is not unsubstantial.

Just exactly how is the city going to enforce these density targets? The government can't force people to live where they don't want to no matter how much you and Jason wish that were so.

Ryan, Jason stop telling people where to live. It is not your business.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 02, 2009 at 13:07:42

Capitalist, encouraging density does not equal mandating it. Please stop attacking strawmen and start debating honestly.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted July 02, 2009 at 13:22:21

Ryan, so how does the city plan on "encouraging" density? And if they are "encouraging" density then why are they setting targets?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 02, 2009 at 13:55:08

Capitalist,

That question has already been answered countless times on this website, but here are a few ideas, in no particular order, to get you started:

  • Eliminate regulatory obstacles to density - height limits, mandatory "free" parking requirements, etc.
  • Eliminate artificial subsidies to low-density sprawl development.
  • Establish bridge financing for brownfields remediation (possibly by expanding the residential loan program).
  • Establish a straightforward urban, form-based and performance-based building code to replace the current labyrinthine zoning system.
  • Eliminate property tax advantages to undeveloped and under-developed land (e.g. surface parking).
  • Establish an urban boundary and stick to it.
  • Re-balance public spending between roads, transit, bike lanes and sidewalks (right now public spending overwhelmingly favours roads).

Here's an interesting graph of property value declines in US cities. Generally speaking, cities with extensive low-density, suburban development have seen the steepest property value declines, while cities with dense, urban built forms and economies based on urban models of innovation have seen the smallest drops in property values.

http://www.creativeclass.com/creative_cl...

This is not a coincidence: low-density, car-dependent sprawl develepment is viable only in an economic environment of abundant gasoline at low, stable prices - an environment that no longer exists.

Places like Seattle, Portland and Boston have done the best job of weathering the storm, while places like Phoenix, Las Vegas and Miami have done the worst job.

The fact is that density confers measurable economic benefits. At higher density:

  • The productivity of public infrastructure improves, resulting in a lower infrastructure cost per capita.
  • The rate of innovation increases, resulting in more economic opportunities per capita.

Now add to this the fact that property values in dense cities hold their value much better than property values in sprawling cities, and this tells us a couple of things:

  1. Density is better for the economy.
  2. Density is popular and commands a premium price in real estate markets.

Does this not matter to you, Capitalist?

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted July 02, 2009 at 15:17:25

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 02, 2009 at 15:40:15

Ryan >> cities with extensive low-density, suburban development have seen the steepest property value declines

They also ran up the most in during the boom...tinyurl.com/ldlp6o

>> 2. Density is popular and commands a premium price in real estate markets.

If this is the case, then why does downtown Hamilton have such low real estate prices, while Ancaster's are much higher? Hamilton's downtown has more public infrastructure per unit of area than any other part of the city and yet nobody really wants to live there.

Perhaps, people actually like living where homes are kept in good repair, where people have money to spend at local businesses and where the overall feel of the neighbourhood is positive and safe. Downtown Hamilton has none of these things and restrictions on consumer choice will do nothing to fix this.

If the city scrapped zoning requirements, this would let developers build according to what brings them the most profits. This is important, because profits are directly correlated with happy customers. By limiting developers ability to make profits, you limit the happiness of the home buyer. Is that a good way to attract people downtown?

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 02, 2009 at 21:08:34

I love comments by people who have little to offer in the way of thoughtful insight...they always resort back to "don't tell me where to live" or "don't tell me which mode of transportation to use".

Yet, that is EXACTLY what has been done for decades, on the backs of taxpayers. People have been forced to drive everywhere and they have been forced to live in suburbia.

ASmith and Capitalist couldn't be further removed from the real beliefs espoused by their screen names. A free, open market is supposed to give people CHOICES. If I want to live in a downtown highrise, I should be able to without having insane tax rates in order to subsidize Mr. and Mrs. American Dream.

If I want to use transit or my bike as my mode of transportation I should be allowed to. Yet look at Hamilton. If anyone can keep a straight face and show me proof that Hamilton offers commuters plenty of equally convenient commuting options, I'll do the moonwalk naked down King Street (I'm sure Ben would come here to see that!).

Many trips in Hamilton that take 15 minutes via car take 1-2 hours via bus, are nearly unwalkable with any sense of safety and are extremely dangerous by bike.

Change your screen names to "Socialist for the rich" or "No choice is the best choice" , but stop coming on here pretending like you care one bit about seeing Hamilton become a more balanced city with options for everyone. That's what WE are trying to promote. You're trying to promote the very thing that Mr. Smith hated - complete government control over where and how we live.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 02, 2009 at 22:23:13

Jason >> If I want to live in a downtown highrise, I should be able to without having insane tax rates in order to subsidize Mr. and Mrs. American Dream.

I agree 100%, lower tax rates to 0.5% and let people decide what type of homes get built.

>> If I want to use transit or my bike as my mode of transportation I should be allowed to.

When you allow politicians to control how land is used, you end up with decisions based on politics, rather than profits. In areas of the economy where profits dictate production, there are no shortages to speak of. In areas of the economy where government monopolizes production, you do have shortages.

In the private sector, if you buy a big house, that doesn't limit my ability to buy a smaller house. In government, if you get a new car lane, it does limit my ability to get a new bike lane. In the private sector, there is no conflict between consumers, both get what they pay for. In the government sector, all there is, is conflict, with various parties vying for the biggest share of the pie. That's why people vote. Voting is a form of warfare that pits one resident against another. I ask you, which is the better system, the one that causes conflict between neighbours, or the one who gives everybody what they pay for?

>> You're trying to promote the very thing that Mr. Smith hated - complete government control over where and how we live.

The only reason why you don't have good cycling infrastructure is because the government monopolizes that area of the economy. Remove government from the equation and the market will decide what gets built. If you're correct in saying that lots of people want to use bikes, then the big bad free market will build them until the city is fully covered.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 02, 2009 at 22:58:14

....just like the big bad free market has built all the highways???

I agree with most of your post, but you continue to forget this huge point. It's government, not free markets, that has led to North America being paved with suburbia.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted July 03, 2009 at 15:30:47

Both political and profit motives are a catastrophe waiting to happen if not tempered with reason and goodwill. I can't explain it better than Noam Chomsky:

"Modern industrial civilization has developed within a certain system of convenient myths. The driving force of modern industrial civilization has been individual material gain, which is accepted as legitimate, even praiseworthy, on the grounds that private vices yield public benefits, in the classic formulation. Now, it has long been understood, very well, that a society that is based on this principle will destroy itself in time. It can only persist, with whatever suffering and injustice that it entails, as long as it is possible to pretend that the destructive forces that humans create are limited, that the world is an infinite resource, and that the world is an infinite garbage can. At this stage of history either one of two things is possible. Either the general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community interests, guided by values of solidarity, sympathy and concern for others, or alternatively there will be no destiny for anyone to control. As long as some specialized class is in a position of authority, it is going to set policy in the special interests that it serves. But the conditions of survival, let alone justice, require rational social planning in the interests of the community as a whole, and by now that means the global community. The question is whether privileged elite should dominate mass communication and should use this power as they tell us they must -- namely to impose necessary illusions, to manipulate and deceive the stupid majority and remove them from the public arena. The question in brief, is whether democracy and freedom are values to be preserved or threats to be avoided. In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than values to be treasured; they may well be essential to survival. "

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 03, 2009 at 18:31:29

Jason >> It's government, not free markets, that has led to North America being paved with suburbia.

If roads were privatized, the goal would be to maximize profits, which would mean keeping roads flowing with as few accidents as possible, while also serving as many users as possible. Instead, we have roads run by people with only a passing concern in keeping them safe and with no interest in maximizing the user experience.

Cut tax rates, sell off the roads to capable managers and this city will be far better off.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 03, 2009 at 18:44:29

part of your equation would probably be true - "private owners would look to maximize profits".
I'm thinking of the 407.

However, I fail to see how the 407 owners are trying to serve as many users as possible. They are serving FAR fewer users than if they would reduce the tolls.

Basically, I'm saying all this to say that you are 50% right - private owners definitely will look to maximize profits.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted July 03, 2009 at 20:27:41

Jason >> They are serving FAR fewer users than if they would reduce the tolls.

No, you're right. However, if they had competition with other toll roads, they would be forced to drop their prices, which would dramatically increase the number of people who could access them.

As long as businesses could make a profit, they would keep building lanes, both for cyclists/pedestrians and cars. Better yet, roads that don't have much traffic/profit potential would be demolished and given over to better uses. They key driver behind transportation development would be profits, not politics and therefore would exist in those areas where demand from the public was enough to justify the costs.

Under this scenario, the HSR would also not need subsidies, as one can imagine Main St and King St toll roads being able to charge a healthy price to access their system. Driving a car on these streets would be rather expensive, but much less per person for a bus/trolley car. In fact, there could be various levels of mass transit, each with a different level of comfort and quality of service.

Furthermore, if developers wanted to still build suburban paradise, they would need to factor in the cost of repairing miles of low traffic density roads. I think this market approach would save more green space then the current legislative approach.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 04, 2009 at 09:21:12

unfortunately, it's too late to implement your model of growth. I would have been on board back in the 40's before we started with the following decades of mega-sprawl.

But to privatize everything now would simply result in zero investment in transit, cycling or pedestrian amenities since the damage has already been done - sprawl reigns supreme.

Hence, the reason we advocate for a balanced system here on RTH. Your last couple posts have some great points and would have worked if implemented from the start.

Instead, our genius leaders allowed oil companies to buy and destroy transit systems, we subsidized their model of development for decades and are now paying for it.

Balanced transportation systems are needed now. The past can't be undone, but the future can be done properly.

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By arienc (registered) | Posted July 07, 2009 at 09:02:29

A Smith...on the topic of profit, I think Pope Benedict said it quite eloquently in his Clarity in Truth letter today...

"Profit is useful if it serves as a means toward an end," he wrote. "Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty."

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