Revitalization

Does the Chamber's Enlightened Urbanism Embrace Livable Streets?

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 23, 2009

John Dolbec, CEO of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, makes some sensible arguments in his letter to the editor day regarding the recent tempest-in-a-teapot about whether downtown panhandlers are to blame for the state of the core.

It's encouraging that he seems to recognize the role of the downtown core in a successful city:

In any successful city, the core is high-priced prime real estate comprised of small offices, apartments and condominiums, with quality shops accessible at ground level.

This, of course, is the inverse of most North American cities, which, after decades of automobile-based planning, are characterized mainly by affluent suburbs and economically distressed centres. (Of course, this is starting to change - a notable effect observed during the recent recession is that cities with the most sprawl saw the sharpest drops in home values whereas the denser, more traditional cities were much better at preserving property values.)

Dolbec goes on to point out that the problem in Hamilton is not that there are so many panhandlers, but that they make up a "disproportionate" share of the total. He even notes, "panhandlers are not at all dangerous" and "our downtown is indeed truly safe" - but adds that these facts are irrelevant because "people feel the core is an unattractive, indeed, for many, an unthinkable place to be."

He contrasts the typical European city, in which:

there are usually more pickpockets than all of the panhandlers of southwestern Ontario combined. Yet, most have no image problem. Their streets are overflowing with residents, workers, tourists, artists and students who vastly outnumber the rest. All cities have their disadvantaged, and no one disputes that poverty is real and poverty reduction vital.

He concludes that the best way forward is not to get sidetracked in spurious debates but "to stick to the plan" - to build incrementally on postitive strategies to boostrap prosperity one step at a time.

Urbanism at Street Level

All good, all good. My concern is that for all his enlightened urbanism, it's left unresolved whether Dolbec now comprehends the most basic instrumental aspects of healthy urbanism - in particular, the role that people-friendly streets play in making cities people-friendly.

A year ago last summer, in response to the vigorous debate over converting downtown streets back to two-way traffic flows, Dolbec wrote a letter to the Spectator pointing out that the Chamber's position on two-way street conversion is "one of benign neutrality" because its members can't achieve consensus on the issue.

This earned a withering rebuttal by Terry Cooke, who called the Chamber's position a "cop-out" and blamed its irresolution on "the most talked about local policy debate in recent memory" for its "fast becoming irrelevant to the decision-making process" at City Hall.

Dolbec is also the business advocate who, earlier that year, argued that it was unreasonable to restrict truck traffic through the city because our just-in-time economy demands it - no matter how incompatible truck traffic is with livability.

Those "successful" European cities that Dolbec admires emphatically do not sacrifice the safety, comfort or livability of their downtown streets to the expediency of through traffic - cars or trucks.

If Hamilton is to make its downtown streets desirable to people who would live, work and play there by choice, we must stiffen our resolve and commit to designing our streets to accommodate people before vehicles.

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 John Dolbec (anonymous) | Posted November 23, 2009 at 14:24:13

Hey, why not ask me?

Short answer:

It is really all about balance!

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By z jones (registered) | Posted November 23, 2009 at 14:43:32

So tell me....how do you 'balance' whether to convert streets to two way? Do you support it or not? Fact is if we're going to make the streets more supportive of people that means we need to make them less supportive of cars, can you live with LRT on dedicated lanes, two way streets, wider sidewalks, bike lanes if they take away from driving? Can't have it both ways you know.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted November 23, 2009 at 14:43:36

Are you the real John Dolbec? Your LTE this morning was great because it was unequivocal in its argument that panhandlers are not to blame for the state of our downtown. It was passionate and forcefully argued based on the evidence provided by other cities. We need more passionate, forceful defenders of evidence-based urban practises if Hamilton is to advance.

Sadly, your stance on two-way reversion is the ultimate in equivocal, followed up by your above weasely reference to 'balance'. If the above comment was left by an imposter, I apologize, but like Ryan, I still take issue with your previous utterances re two-way streets. To avoid the irrelevance that Cooke warns about, you would be much better off acknowledging the mountains of evidence showing how damaging one-way streets are to the public spaces that you advocate for, and using that evidence to educate your membership, much like you used evidence to argue against scapegoating panhandlers in your LTE.

The road to hell is paved with people trying to achieve 'balance'. And it's a one-way road.

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By jonathan dalton (registered) | Posted November 23, 2009 at 15:17:52

I just read about how they ruined the market in the 1950's as part of the reconfiguration of our streets to prioritize car traffic. My friend found a book from 1987 about the whole 150 year history of the market and it was full of pictures of York, Market and James Streets the way they used to be with the open air market. Seeing those pictures made me realize what we had back then was very close to the European public squares - a useful public area surrounded by buildings with every amenity. What we try and so often fail to create today - think Gore Park, the City Hall courtyard, the roof of Jackson Square, (Fail, Fail and Fail) is just what we destroyed 50 years ago. It doesn't need to be this difficult. Still, kind of funny how the market renovations and York streetscape is just getting around to fixing what we are finally admitting that we broke: Bring it out to the street, slow down traffic.

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By John Dolbec (anonymous) | Posted November 23, 2009 at 15:34:06

Yes, it is me!

But, it seems to me that you are asking for simple "15 second" answers to very complex questions - sorry, they will not come from me!

Nevertheless, the "one way/two way" street debate for me is a "red herring" - there are lots of successfull cores world wide that have either, or both.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted November 23, 2009 at 15:46:39

"Nevertheless, the "one way/two way" street debate for me is a "red herring" - there are lots of successfull cores world wide that have either, or both."

Buffalo?!

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By jonathan dalton (registered) | Posted November 23, 2009 at 15:53:41

The issue is not simply one way vs. two way, it's a matter of size and scale as well as speed. The one way streets you see in Montreal are not 5 lanes wide, they're more like 3, with ample sidewalks. The size of the buildings also factors in. Cities like Paris have one way thoroughfares wider than Main. Why do they work? The buildings are all 7 or 8 stories high, preserving the 'outdoor room' feeling. Also, ample sidewalks, bike lanes, street parking. There needs to be a minimum ratio of friendly space to zoom zoom space. That's what we don't get - direction of traffic flow is only part of the equation. We can't just make all our buildings bigger, but we can slow down the traffic and add more friendly design elements.

Anyway it IS being changed, even if they bungle rapid transit, and we'll know soon enough.

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 23, 2009 at 15:54:49

It would be a nice change of pace if the Chamber were to actually endorse urbanism and a vibrant downtown core. I"ve been waiting for years for them to come around. Maybe this letter signals a start?? Heck, Terry Cooke has come around and even Dreschel is confusing me lately. Of course, if their idea of 'balance' is the same as Scott Thompson's then it's the status quo.

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By jonathan dalton (registered) | Posted November 23, 2009 at 15:57:58

Balance is exactly the correct word. Balance is not what we have now.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted November 23, 2009 at 16:59:16

Jonathon Dalton wrote:

Balance is exactly the correct word. Balance is not what we have now.

But that's not what the John Dolbecs and Scott Thompsons of this world mean when they use the term 'balance'. They're not talking about a more balanced transportation network, rather they're trying to present themselves as unbiased by advancing the notion that there is some kind of fantasy middle ground between evidence-based best practices, and the received wisdom of the status quo. Whether they do this because it satisfies their egos to appear 'above the fray', or because they fear change, or a bit of both, is anyone's guess, but it adds nothing to the debate. Too bad. It's a missed opportunity to help improve the quality of life (and hence the desirability) of Hamilton, which you would think would be a goal of the Chamber. Fortunately, as you say, Hamilton is changing without them (hence Cooke's warning about the Chamber's impending irrelevancy).

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 23, 2009 at 17:00:56

Jon Dalton, you are correct. I've been on streets in Portland that used to be 3 and 4 lane one-way. Now the sidewalks have been widened huge and traffic is restricted to one lane while LRT gets a lane. In other cases, cars are restricted to one-lane while street parking gets both curbs. And in Portland, they don't have 8 billion signs every 6 feet restricting street parking 10 feet from curbs, near taxi zones, near bridges, trees and whatever other stupid reasons there are that one can drive an entire block in Hamilton and see 4 street spaces because the rest of the curb lane is reserved for use 2 times a week by some delivery truck or something. Great use of public space.

In Portland, it's curb to curb parking. The spaces are painted on the road which helps to cram more cars onto a block instead of leaving it up to the drivers to make their own spots like we do on Locke etc.....

balance is the key. Enough of the over-zoning and overly red taped restrictions on everything in this city.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted November 23, 2009 at 17:28:07

Maybe what we need is a group like the Yes Men to come here to Hamilton, to challenge the Chamber

http://www.commondreams.org/video/2009/1...

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted November 24, 2009 at 08:10:35

I drive on Cannon to take the 403 to work, and had a thought yesterday morning when I was stuck behind a truck and couldn't accelerate to the actual speed limit b/c the truck, as trucks are wont to do, took longer to increase its own speed after having been stopped at a light. Found myself wondering if two-way traffic with no transport trucks really wouldn't give us avg. commute times that are no different from commute times now. As a driver I'd gladly put up with it if they did turn out to be a little slower-- instead of driving behind trucks that I can't see around and that impede my ability to negotiate the road as safely as possible. Two-way streets would make the city more liveable for both pedestrians and commuters, really.

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted November 24, 2009 at 09:32:56

I agree with Johnny Dolbec that there are successful towns with one way streets. The key is to slow down the downtown traffic so that it is safer to walk around. However I believe we have shown enough evidence on this site to present a strong argument for two-way conversion as a useful means to achieve this slowing down, and also improve the ability to negotiate our streets. When I was a newcomer to Hamilton I drove the wrong way down one of the downtown streets. It was a rainy day, dark...easily done. A friend of mine came to see a show at Hamilton Place a while back. He drove around looking for a restaurant after the show, got lost in the one way maze, and never came back.

Going two-way makes a lot of sense on many levels. One way streets buy us nothing except more speed, which is not what we need.

Come on John! Make the call!

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 24, 2009 at 09:39:12

Anyone who's serious about making Hamilton the "Best Place to Raise a Child" needs to read this study:

http://raisethehammer.org/blog/1082/

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By Every Whichway (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2009 at 16:02:09

St. Laurent in Monteal is one way north. St. Urban, two blocks over is one way south. Clark, in between, is one way, sometimes north, sometimes south. St. Laurent has been one of the livliest streets in Montreal. It is currently well along the way to condo-ized gentrification. Rene Levesque, on the other hand is two way, and it must be somewhere around 8-10 lanes. Can't say for sure. I seldom walk there, and then only to cross it. When I drive I'm too busy working my way through traffic to count lanes. Mostly, when in Montreal, I drive, park for the duration and use the metro or walk to get about its many, great communities.

I don't think I've been panhandled in downtown Hamilton as much as I have in other cities: Montral, Chicago, Ottawa or Toronto (I'm not widely travelled, as you can see.) I've felt annoyed, uncomfortable, but never threatened. My impression is that in Hamilton we don't much like our fellow citizens. It's a form of self loathing that came forward in the recent Royal Cannot discussion. Folks who might need a little help with the rent were "the wrong type of people" for the downtown.

Now the downtown BIA doesn't like panhandlers, who essentially represent, to the BIA I suspect, anyone who congregates downtown but doesn't shop in their stores. On my last stroll through Gore Park I saw people of all ages socializing on the busy park benches, people ride up on bikes to greet friends, a family taking pictures of their kids chasing pigeons around the fountain. No panhandlers at that moment, though I've no doubt someone somewhere was doing something questionable. I just didn't bother to question it.

Here's the thing, as I see it: there are still some downtown business people who think the area's future hangs on bringing people in from the suburbs to shop. To accomplish this the people who live or come downtown now must be gotten rid of, somehow, because they create a bad image that scares outsiders away (nevermind that some of those scary folks might be the outsiders' own kids.) But, as someone has pointed out above, since the urban renewal of the '70s, what is there that's sold downtown that isn't sold in a suburban shopping mall, where, despite two murders at Limeridge Mall for instance, many still feel safer than downtown? What's sold downtown that's not sold in suburban malls is perhaps the art in galleries on James St. N., but I suspect that draws the sort of clientelle that frightens many suburbanites and the downtown BIA. However, that district does serve a number of people who live in the area. Not all, but many.

It is my belief that in the current, post-renewal, and now post-industrial economy, cities have become increasingly centralized at the same time as they have become fractured into different communities of interest. So downtown for Southern Ontario folks who enjoy theatre might be King St. E. or W. in Toronto. Downtown for South Ont. sports fans would be the areas around the Rogers Centre and that Air Canada place. Downtown for South Ont. gamblers is Niagara Falls. The central financial area is still Bay St., but that is drifting. Shoppers split between Eaton Centre and Bloor St. Other communities, whether they be the Bloor West Village, or Locke St. South, Ottawa St., The Beaches or Old Oakville, thrive by serving their nearby residents first, and then developing a commercial mix, even specialties, that draw shoppers from further away. Sometimes the balance is destroyed and locals move away, such as in Niagara-On-The-Lake.

The old Hamilton downtown is never going to be the urban centre of the city that it was fifty years ago, the place where everyone went for financial services, legal help, big department stores, major sports and theatre, etc. The city is now 500,000 and stretches from almost Grimsby to almost the 401 to almost the Grand River. The old downtown is just one small segment of the old city, but as we've realized when it comes to transportation routes, all roads in South Ont. connect to central Toronto. You can get to Yonge & Front Streets as fast from downtown Hamilton as you can from Scarboro. More to the point, you can get there as fast from downtown Hamilton almost as fast as you can get to downtown Hamilton from Carlisle or Binbrook.

Still, central Hamilton can be a stimulating and enjoyable urban environment in which to live, play, and work, with some interesting, funky shops and pubs that the locals use and visitors occassionaly find to enjoy just as they have found Locke St. Bagels, Bryan Prince Bookseller, Ottawa St. interior design shops. But this happens only if there are enough downtown residents, and they're not driven away by a lack of businesses that will serve them, or the imposition of facilities (such as stadiums) in their midst that are meant to serve almost exclusively people from outside the area at the expense of residential quality of life.

They key is not whether the streets are one way or two, or even if there's a balance between the two, but whether they first serve area residents. There's nothing so bad about the people in Hamilton, downtown or in the suburbs, that they don't deserve decent places to live.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2009 at 22:08:33

I agree with John Dolbec regarding the downtown panhandlers. I work in toronto and there are many panhandlers (probably more per capita than hamilton), however downtown t.o is not disproportionately low income (or full of lowlifes) as downtown hamilton is. This explains why the dt core is full of cheap crap stores. The Royal Cannot project is just another nail in the dt coffin. Middle class people do not want to spend time in such an area.

On another note, more dt streets need to become one-way (not all of them however). At the top of the list is Main and King. More one way streets is actually good for car traffic as it would be less confusing for people to navigate dt streets (one of the things that many out of towners complain about Hamilton is the one way streets). At night main street is dark and desolate. Who would want to spend time there??

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By geoff's two cents (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2009 at 22:30:11

Every Whichway, Are you suggesting that, just because things are the way they are now (ie. that Toronto for most people is "downtown"), that it will never be different? Had city planners in the 1950s and 60s thought that way, downtown Hamilton nowadays would be a very different place.

From a Vancouverite perspective, the answer to downtown's woes is precisely livability - not only slowing down traffic (perhaps with two-way conversion) and widening sidewalks, but encouraging downtown living as well. The large scale housing boom beginning in the late 1980s (facilitated not only by Expo 86 and the branding this made possible - Hamilton will soon have Pan-Am - but by effective leadership and vision, coupled with sound planning) made downtown Vancouver a very different place from what it once was. If I had to pick a key feature differentiating Hamilton from Vancouver, however, it would be a defeatist attitude that permeates the whole city, leaders included. The notion that, for some reason, Hamilton will always be a bedroom community just because it's been one for the past thirty years is completely foreign to me.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted November 25, 2009 at 00:30:35

Er, Capitalist, I'm assuming you meant to say more dt streets need to become two-way?

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted November 25, 2009 at 08:24:51

What do you think of homeless people?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOd9S6YRT...

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 25, 2009 at 13:23:58

Hamilton, without a doubt, has an image problem. Or rather, we have an "image problem" problem. We're obsessed with the notion that some superficial change, event or landmark is going to solve all of our problems. Some say it's the Pan-Am games, others say it's "getting rid of the panhandlers", fancy "downtown hamilton" gates and banners or even redeveloping keystone buildings (the Lister, Howard Johnson, City Hall etc).

This image problem has two components, the first being the reality we see, the second being the eyes viewing it.

Firstly: Hamilton is a city with problems. Poverty, addictions, deindustrialization, the draining of urban shopping flow to suburban retail empires though an expensive and unmaintained set of urban highways etc... These problems are solvable - there's boatloads of books, courses and Profs talking about them right now at McMaster, though you'll probably never see anything in the Spec reflecting current sociological or urban-design theory (or coun that's come out since the 1960s). But every time someone actually tries to tackle them they're drowned out by more talk about "fixing Hamilton's image problem". Wanna deal with crazy people downtown? Start funding the HPH again! Wanna deal with alcoholics and crack addicts? Treatment centres! The homeless? Affordable housing! Want people living, shopping and working downtown? Stop subsidizing suburban growth. Tired of ugly strip-mall architecture in the city? Get rid of zoning requirements for setbacks and parking lots...

Secondly: it's time to recognize that a very good chunk of the problem with "downtown's image" is the prejudice and bigotry of the people viewing it. We all know who these "scary people" downtown are - minorities. The poor, homeless, mentally ill, natives, immigrants, countercultures, young or otherwise marginalized. How far are we willing to go to "clean up the core"? If we can demonstrate that we'd get more shoppers from the suburbs if we got all the black people out of the core (and honestly, we might), would we do it?

What can you get in the core that you can't get at Limeridge?

  • Authentic ethnic food, clothing, groceries, (Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Ethiopian, Caribbean, Indian etc)
  • Much better prices
  • Cheap, varied housing (apartments, houses etc) -Public Library, Convention Centre, Copps Coliseum, Farmers Market, City offices etc
  • Bars and clubs to suit many different tastes (clubs, pubs, dives, bars etc)
  • Harvest burger. How do ya beat harvest burger?
  • Arts and culture - More galleries than I can count and tons of local and visiting musicians
  • Walkable, bussable and bikable places to live, work and shop.
  • Local publications like Mayday and H-Mag.
  • Myriad chances for political involvement (council meetings, protests, speaking events etc).
  • Access to intercity busses and trains

What other part of Hamilton can offer anything that compares to this? Perhaps it's time to start enjoying downtown for what it is and what it has, rather than an idyllic picture in our heads which will never come to pass?

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted November 25, 2009 at 16:00:29

@highwater
Yes. Thanks for correcting me!


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By kdslote (registered) | Posted November 26, 2009 at 13:35:39

From Richard Sennett's The Uses of Disorder, "The ills of the city are not mechanical ones of better transport, better financing, and the like; they are the human ones of providing a place where [individuals] can grow into adults, and where adults can continue to engage in truly social existence."

Until we recognize that cities and downtowns in particular are for staying in, not moving through we will remain mired in mechanical and logistical thinking while human experience and quality of life suffer.

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