Deficit of Ideas in Hamilton's Civic Governance

In the case of our crumbling public housing, budgeting has become a matter of choosing which deficit to grow. This is a political choice.

By Shawn Selway
Published March 02, 2016

I attended the public meeting on Thursday, February 25 looking at the future of the city-owned properties in the West Harbour, including the CityHousing Hamilton properties at 500 MacNab street North and the Jamesville Townhouse complex.

West Harbour (Image Credit: City of Hamilton)
West Harbour (Image Credit: City of Hamilton)

What struck me most forcibly about the presentation was the insistence that the 48 acres of city-owned West Harbour lands are the sole possible source of re-capitalization for Hamilton Housing in that area. Over and over, we were told there is no money for maintenance, as if this were some divinely ordained fact of nature. It is not.

The City takes in about a billion and a half dollars a year. Council simply chooses to spend it on things other than housing, as Matt Jelly pointed out in his recent article: mainly roads, police, and social services. This year we will spend $16 million on new roads - not repairs to existing roads, new roads.

And as Shekar Chandrashekar pointed out in the Hamilton Spectator last Friday, the police will once again salt away some undetermined amount in the millions by double-dipping: allocating funds to sick leave and vacation pay accounts, but actually paying these sums out of separate divisional accounts.

Political Choice

We all know that the situation in Hamilton Housing recapitulates in miniature the overall financial condition of the City, which has a serious and growing infrastructure deficit in all areas of capital spending. Budgeting has become a matter of choosing which deficit to grow.

This is a political choice, and the choice seems to be based on the following line of thought: if we bonus developers and property owners large and small in the downtown, we will eventually recover that money and much more from the increased assessment that arises when land now vacant or "underused" is occupied by new buildings.

Meanwhile, the combination of those and other incentives, along with the relentlessly ascending prices in the Toronto housing market, will produce a residential affordability crunch in Hamilton.

Over the long term, greater tax revenues should allow us to alleviate problems at the lower end of the market, and those same problems should also induce an increase in rental apartment supply and relieve the upward pressure on rents from that side.

In brief, there will be short-term pain for long-term gain. The political choices revolve around who is to get the pain, and how severe it will be.

Right now Council has decided to let the poor and the young in the old city do the suffering. If you are poor and without a car in the lower city, then you are standing in the slush watching yet another Barton bus go by and wondering how you are going to pay for your next move. If you live in Waterdown you are enjoying that wonderful new library and looking forward to that great new highway interchange.

(Yes, yes, I know it is all very complicated and the people of Waterdown are not undeserving; nonetheless when you've worked through all the complications, the bottom line is still class segregation and, if not unmerited privilege, at least unmerited deprivation, which it is the responsibility of government to address.)

Of course, Council could mitigate the pain rather sooner than the market is likely to do, by raising taxes. During this year's capital budget discussions, staff were asked to recommend spending priorities if they had another 0.5 percent increase to allocate. As reported in the 2016 Capital Budget book one, this is what they suggested, based on their conception of "critical need" status:

From which we learn that our unofficial aspiration continues to be: "Hamilton, the best place to drive a car."

Deficit of Ideas

However, there is another deficit that is really beginning to bite, and it is a deficit in ideas, imagination and well-considered alternatives. (A problem to which Graham Crawford and a number of contributors to this site have been trying to draw our attention for some years now.)

Idea-wise, things are much much better on the transportation front than on land-use. And as with our other backlogs, the scale of the catch-up required is daunting.

The fact is that while many seem to share a sense of fait accompli with respect to West Harbour planning, I have to agree with other commentators that alternate proposals have yet to come forward. (In fairness, Deloitte's report was preliminary, and their remit quite limited; it needn't remain so.)

I agree also that leasing should be considered as an option. I had to laugh on Saturday when I opened the New Home and Condo Living supplement to the Spec and saw the headline "Top Four Reasons You Should Land Lease".

These include: "The key to the affordability of land leasing is that individuals purchase their homes and lease the land ... allowing the home to be much more affordable."

Also: "True sense of community: the land lease model of individual homes in walkable neighbourhoods foster a true sense of community and social connectivity." Yowza! Sign me up!

The ultimate Hamilton deal suggests itself. The City sells the West Harbour lands to private interests, who build a couple of nice land-lease "lifestyle communities" on the water for retirees, and wait for the big pay off down the road when those Toronto condos start to crumble.

Less facetiously, and again as Nicholas Kevlahan points out, it would be very unfortunate if the City were to relinquish the land, and then the Federal Liberals come with housing money that we could have used to do the building without recourse to private developers and their inevitable pressure to skew design guidelines to the disadvantage of the eventual occupants of the buildings.

However, is swapping municipal debt for federal debt really the answer? What is the long-term solution, if there is one available to us? What about the co-op model?

And quite apart from the question of tenure, we have also had zero public discussion of what affordable, sustainable, flexible, inclusionary multi-residential design produces in 2016 in the way of building form and materials.

Shawn Selway is a Stelco trained millwright who runs a consultancy in the interpretation and conservation of historic machinery. He lives in the North End with his family.


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By RobF (registered) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 12:26:08

Thanks for this. It is long past overdue that we start tying things together ... intensification may help us repair sprawl, but where we are already compact and mixed-use we need to consider why our city isn't socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable. I'm not saying we shouldn't allow for incremental intensification via infilling or replacement of parking lots, or even modest density boosts when existing buildings age and it makes more sense to rebuild. But intensification can also be like a sledgehammer that shuts down thinking about the underlying nature of the problem ... using growth to grow out of problems that were caused by previous rounds of growth.

In the North End we're being told that to fix CityHousing in our neighbourhood we need to step aside and allow the land beneath the housing to be sold and the existing housing razed to monetize the latent value of the land if its upzoned. They're doing this in Toronto ... the ratio for Regent Park is either 4 to 1 or 5 to 1 in terms of new units to what existed. On principle it sounds great, especially if you frame the existing use as an under-utilization of the land.

Of course, people live in the housing and send their children to my kid's school, so people's lives are disrupted and friends and classmates are separated in the process. But that we're told can't be helped given the aging buildings and capital needs of CityHousing.

The trouble is the result of selling the land for intensified market redevelopment and using the money to rebuild CityHousing units elsewhere also at higher densities is still a one-shot deal. Once the land is sold we've exchanged the asset which is owned by all of us for cash. We'd better hope we don't make the same mistake again and build something that isn't long-term self-sustaining. Or we're destined to repeat this process. Except it's much more costly and difficult to deal with redeveloping or intensifying on lands with high-rises or mid-rises already on them.

That is already evident if one reads carefully the Deloitte real estate strategy report for the West Harbour and contrasts the comments for the Jamesville Townhouse Complex with those directed at 500 MacNab (the 17 storey Ken Soble Apartments).

The real question not being asked is why not rehabilitate the existing units, or consider a creative/innovative retrofit in the case of the Jamesville complex to fix some of the units and do some selective intensification and redesign based on feedback from the residents and wider community? My guess is that for both sites the actual housing is structurally in reasonable good shape, but the interiors and systems need upgrading.

Of course, the real push for selling off these lands might be dual get the cash and remove what is perceived to be a blot on the image and marketability of the West Harbour to outsiders. This is the City as real estate vision for our common future. The modern equivalent to sweating the land for more ...

Comment edited by RobF on 2016-03-03 12:34:16

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By JimmyStreet (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 15:17:08

I know you have said this in the past Shawn and I agree with you, the city wants to wipe away any character and charm the North End has. History and heritage, which should be utilized in crafting an interesting future is swept aside and wiped clean instead of being highlighted. Think of what could've happened at the Rheem plant building - a new velodrome in an old shell? A museum of working ideas? A marketplace of local goods? The North End can be a positive vehicle for change, but instead we'll just get another expensive car we can't afford to maintain.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted March 05, 2016 at 16:31:18 in reply to Comment 116770

city wants to wipe away any character and charm the North End has

In all fairness, replacing the townhouses on James North with, well, anything could only increase the character and charm in the North end.

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By Selway (registered) | Posted March 05, 2016 at 23:04:50 in reply to Comment 116853

Not really. Character in this context arises from retention of unaltered instances of built form into a time when when those forms and their construction techniques have been superseded. It is additive. What gives the historic centre of Hamilton its "charm" is the dense historic layering of the area. It is not just the artistic merit of this or that particular building that we appreciate, it's also ordinary buildings that are typical of the period when they were built, including the more recent. It is the accumulated record of change that makes a place interesting to move about in.

If it were just a matter of character and charm, it would make more sense to keep that block ( people in the North End call it "the survey")because its a very good example of the architecture as social remedy thinking of the period in which it was designed and built. However, as a place to live the relation of the units to the surrounding streets probably needs to be reconfigured. The complex turns inward with results different perhaps from what the designers hoped. In any case, what you see there is not original either. A few years ago the facades were redone, and those odd gables added,so it looks like one of those towns from the television westerns where all the storefronts are made artificially higher to convey a false appearance of growth.

Anyway, the point is, are you looking at those buildings, or just reading them? By which I mean are you looking at a physical thing in the landscape and wondering why it is like that? Or are you reading a sign? It's the difference between reading these words, and looking at the typeface and wondering what style it is and how it happens to be on this page.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted March 05, 2016 at 21:11:04 in reply to Comment 116853

Start with that sort of thinking and pretty soon you can rationalize anything. Who decides what counts as character or charm?

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By Selway (registered) | Posted March 03, 2016 at 22:54:16 in reply to Comment 116770

Well, I don't think that all is going to be expunged. The old CN station is there, and the Custom House, though I guess these are technically in Central rather than the North End. Rheem and that Gartshore Thompson building on the block immediately west went down too fast, with no call for alternatives. The lost possibility that bothers me the most is sound stages for the film industry in the Rheem building, but I don't know if that's realistic. Whether either building was worth keeping in the long run is another question, which was just pre-empted, no discussion.

The velodrome, well Council didn't like the price tag – which, as you indicate, might have been reduced if it could have been put inside the Rheem structure. As I recall it, during the stadium brouhaha the velodrome discussion went behind closed doors and never came out again.

In any case, there is still the city works building across the street from the Rheem site, and for the time being that structure is slated for full or partial retention in the Urban Design guidelines for Barton Tiffany.

The North End proper lost its pre-confederation house a few years back. There are three interesting old churches, but no-one's talking about their fate at the moment. For the rest, the housing stock is wildly varied and the whole neighbourhood is a showcase of every vernacular facade treatment known to man. Let's enjoy while we can.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted March 05, 2016 at 16:33:06 in reply to Comment 116796

You mention the Customs House.

I love the Customs House. But it's so hard to see for all the scrappy trees that line the railway tracks.

Whenever the topic comes up I like to ask: what would you think about the city getting rid of those trees and opening up the view?

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By Selway (registered) | Posted March 05, 2016 at 22:41:31 in reply to Comment 116854

Pretty hard to get a better view than the one you have now from the Macnab Street bridge. Surely between Hydro and the railroads there's enough tree-whacking going on already.

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