Light Rail and Downtown Revitalization

By Jason Leach
Published June 22, 2007

Here's a salient quote from HDR, an employee-owned architectural/engineering firm specializing in civic projects, in a monograph on urban revitalization [PDF]:

Twenty years ago, Portland's central business district was a typical tired downtown, with fading retail and rising office vacancy rates, when compared to suburban office parks. Today, the light rail system, MAX, carries 50,000 passengers a day to a downtown rated as one of the most livable in America. Office vacancy rates are now lower than suburban ones, and rents are higher. The best, most attractive retail in the region is in Portland's downtown. Over $2 billion of development has been constructed around downtown station areas.

There's no overstating the message that streetcars and light rail are economic development tools, not just transportation modes. From the monograph:

From its very inception, the streetcar [in Portland] was seen first and foremost as a redevelopment tool. Its backers organized a nonprofit corporation that built and now operates the line. The corporation is made up of developers, retailers and property owners, as well as city government officials. They have succeeded.

I'm tired of people, especially at city hall, saying, 'downtown will never be what it once was. Retail will never come back.'

Downtown will go as far or lag behind as much as they allow it to. It's time for this city to get some leadership and vision.

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


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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 22, 2007 at 09:51:57

The report also looks at buses (even buses that have been "styled" so they don't look like buses) and concluded that they're just not as successful as light rail / streetcars at attracting riders or spurring investment. "people can still detect a diesel bus, and rightly or wrongly, many middle and upper-income Americans avoid riding buses."

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By Anonymous (anonymous) | Posted June 23, 2007 at 00:08:06

Let's come to reality here. Light rail transit is definitely something we should push for but I believe it is ridiculous to think that it alone will solve Downtown Hamilton's issues. The issues are more complex than that. The City has blown tremendous amounts of money on one-way traffic conversions, pretty streetscapes, paying for development etc. to little avail. I believe that until the social issues are dealt we will not see substantial revitalization. We are forgetting the social component. Look at the condo conversion at the old spec building..........nothing has happened there in is probably on the verge of bankrupcy and the city has 100's of thousands of dollars in it that could be lost. We have to help the people living below the poverty line first.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 25, 2007 at 08:42:25

I'm not aware that anyone's saying light rail will solve Hamilton's problems; but it is a significant, and necessary, part of the solution.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted June 25, 2007 at 09:20:37

Additionally, the conversion to two way on James Street has indeed helped to revitalize business interests in that area. The traffic calming project on King between Wellington and John has also breathed some new life into that stretch of road. Now is our chance to spend some long overdue provincial money on transportation. The point isn't that LRT will solve all of our problems. The point is that it will only help... and we need to make sure we take this "gift", use it wisely, and don't squander it on half-assed solutions.

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 25, 2007 at 10:27:53

also, keep in mind that the rate of return on investment in other cities that have built LRT systems is mind boggling. no other project ever built by the city will garner such massive investment from the private sector. I think we'd all agree that Hamilton could use that, especially from Mac to Eastgate.

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