Revitalization

Plenty of Room Downtown

By Jason Leach
Published June 10, 2009

Now that the Hamilton School Board has killed the Education Square project, McMaster is said to be looking for alternate sites to locate their new health centre. In today's Spectator, Mac's vice-president is quoted saying that it might be difficult to find a site large enough downtown for this development.

Allow me to help out.

This image shows all the empty land and parking lots in downtown Hamilton:

Highlighted areas are surface parking
Highlighted areas are surface parking. Click on the image to view larger. (Image Credit: Flar on
Skyscraper Page)

Boston or Paris, this ain't. If Hamilton has one thing in massive supply, it's empty land in the heart of the downtown core. Decades of council-approved demolition permits and conversion to parking lots have led to this glut of available land. Close your eyes and choose a piece, McMaster. There's ample selection.

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 Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted June 10, 2009 at 10:10:19

McMaster also wants a high visibility location and I'm guessing that's why they aren't looking into John and Wilson megablocks. Those could become higher visibility if LRT and 2 way streets spread traffic (and development) out more proportionally throughout the core. It's also likely due to the ghettoizing effects of one way Cannon and Wilson that those lots would not be seen as fitting for a high profile institution.

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 10, 2009 at 10:35:10

then they should choose one of the 5 mega-lots available along Bay Street from Main to Market. It's remarkable to sit in Harvest Burger at King and Caroline and have a perfect view of City Hall. There's no shortage of land available downtown in high visibility locations.

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted June 10, 2009 at 10:59:27

I agree about the spot on King. It's huge, and right across from the former location. How much of that block does the proposed Hilton take up?

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By JM (registered) | Posted June 10, 2009 at 11:30:35

"How much of that block does the proposed Hilton take up?"

...thats one of the problems

theres a lot of these empty lots with "proposed" ideas for them plenty of proposed ideas.......

when will any of them see a shovel in the ground?

and i think that lot @ king/bay is a MUNICIPAL parking lot (not sure)

the mega parking lot from hess to Caroline would be a great spot too - but that has a "proposed" Shoppers/LCBO/Parking structure. again - when is it going to happen?!

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 10, 2009 at 12:01:47

I'd rather have a new health centre on that mega-lot than some stucco-slathered one storey slab building with a shoppers and LCBO.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2009 at 12:35:31

Jason, the issue is not so much that there is space in the downtown, but how many of those properties are actually for sale?

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By highwater (registered) | Posted June 10, 2009 at 13:04:14

I'd rather have a new health centre on that mega-lot than some stucco-slathered one storey slab building with a shoppers and LCBO.

I heard it was going to be two storeys. Woo hoo!

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted June 10, 2009 at 13:20:01

It's called expropriation. Sorry if that offends anyones' political beliefs but if there is a respectable institution looking for downtown property, they should not be stalled one day because a parking lot owner doesn't want to sell. It should be as simple as moving in there with jackhammers.

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By Just Wondering (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2009 at 14:25:00

Hi Jason
Could you explain your opener on this piece, "Now that the Hamilton School Board has killed the Education Square project"? I've heard rumblings that it was Mac who wasn't serious and essentially killed the deal (if they ever wanted it in the first place). Do you know the ins and outs? The Spec says they don't. Just wondering.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted June 10, 2009 at 15:49:15

On Ryan's comment. Points 1 and 4 are related. If the increase in value is greater than the property tax then the vacant lot/empty building acts as a (low risk) investment.
I get the reason for reduced taxes on vacant property (allows time to renovate/repair). But there should be a time limit implemented on the length of time the reduced rate should be held.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2009 at 16:09:22


"It's called expropriation"

Well Jonathan, why don't you volunteer your property to be expropriated?

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 10, 2009 at 16:12:42

I'm just basing my statement on the back and forth negotiations that went on and some inside info I've been given by friends. From what I've been told, Mac continued to bring back offer after offer, only to be denied by the board. Many trustees want to stay downtown, but Spence and a few other big wigs were desperate for a move to the burbs according to my sources. Now Spence is leaving for Toronto. Too bad that didn't happen about a year sooner.

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted June 10, 2009 at 16:32:06

Capitalist: I'm not biting.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted June 11, 2009 at 15:02:47

It really all has to do with the severe Property Speculation problem we have Downtown Hamilton.

It's obvious Downtown is littered with vast, open lots... but their development all depends on their current owners selling them.

Sadly most are Vranich-like losers who are just sitting on their land waiting for that 'big break' (did someone say NHL franchise? BETTER SELL QUICK!!).

Sadly, it's looking like Stinson is just another addition to the bunch... project announcements... exciting photo rederings... constant let-downs.

And why has NONE of the parties (Mac, HWDSB or the City) suggested the N/E Corner of King & Bay... you know, that empty lot directly behind the exact site they wanted in the 1st place? You know, that site that's been empty for decades which is attached to the curent school board site?

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 11, 2009 at 23:12:30

perhaps all of these building owners can take a long look in the mirror if they're wondering why the value of their properties has dropped so low.

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted June 12, 2009 at 08:24:58

"Properties cannot simply be expropriated, I don't believe Universities have these powers and the City can't expropriate and turn around and flip it. You can only expropriate for a municipal need. If expropriation were that simple you'd think the City would expropriate strip clubs, peep shows and known drug havens. "

The city has done exactly that - for example, the Sandbar (crackhouse) and Maxim's (strip joint). The problem is how long the process takes. Malicious uses of property need to be defined, and surface parking lots downtown should be at the top of their list. Their parasitic effects on downtown vitality are simply unmatched. I am not proposing that they be torn up overnight, but a plan needs to be formulated for dealing with them. Loans and tax breaks are not aggressive enough.

They expropriated entire blocks of legitimate and profitable businesses for Jackson Square and City Hall which affected hundreds of individual property owners, some of which had served the community for decades. It should be much easier to take one property from the hands of one owner who is using it inappropriately to the detriment of the entire community.

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By JM (registered) | Posted June 12, 2009 at 09:13:40

yea... the city DID expropriate entire blocks to build Jackson Square

but that just got them stuck in a 99 year lease, and a lot of space they cant fill!

if the city expropriates these lands, they would have to sell it to a developer in order for anything to happen - which will put them back to exactly where they are now

the city cant just keep spending its (our) money on building empty shells...

and they are on the right track with the loans programs - people just need to understand that things dont happen overnight. its all about private-public partnerships...

the snowball just needs to be pushed down a hill, right now its sitting on a plateau

btw, "Really?" ...the School Board will never sell off their parking lot, unless they find someway to redevelop their site. its free parking for their employees

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted June 12, 2009 at 10:56:25

Tear down the Lister and build it there.

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted June 12, 2009 at 11:48:31

"but that just got them stuck in a 99 year lease, and a lot of space they cant fill! "

True. Perhaps I should clarify, I am suggesting a process to expropriate parking lots if and when a suitable use is found. The failed Education Centre proposal is a prime example. McMaster has a major building project which is ready to go, with its own financing, and there is plenty of underutilized land which suits there project. What is lacking is an expedient process by which they can aquire the land. This is the first time such a situation has arisen since I began following local developments. It highlights the inadequacy of our municipal structure to facilitate appropriate development. On the other hand, we are reminded almost daily of our inability to prohibit inappropriate development.

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted June 12, 2009 at 12:49:08

I didn't try to discredit others, just point out some specific instances where property has been seized from its owners when it is in the general public interest. I do stand corrected on the details of how those properties changed hands.

If the city gained 'special powers' 40 years ago due to concern about the deteriation of downtown, what about today? Downtown is in far worse shape. Instead of worrying about rundown buildings, we're dealing with entire city blocks of absolutely nothing. Bring on the special powers.

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 12, 2009 at 13:01:21

as far as I know, the city bought the Maxims building. It went up for sale and they snagged it.

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By is there anything that can be done. (anonymous) | Posted June 12, 2009 at 14:02:43

So with all of this said .. does this mean that there will be empty spots (parking lots) in our city for decades to come or with this snowball theory , all of the lots that are empty will be sold out within 10 years to building this place up and bringing money and population into the city? I understand there is alot of things that undermine the building aspect currently.. but does anyone have any clue to when the reign of the parking lot wasteland end? not exact dates I'm looking for but if someone could explain what would detour the current problem our city is facing? if I was mayor Id jump all over this and at least do something, at least take out anything empty in the core and replace it with something to serve the general public, such as jobs, office space, shelter.. something, and to the mayors defense I think he prob looked into this problem already and is working on it or maybe he hasnt but ... I dont know, it pains me to see so much potential in my own city go to waste to some slack jaw watching his rat-hole parking space deteriorate and cause the city to look horrible and rundown.. Im just a normal local much like everyone else reading on this site.. but something HAS to be done to clean up the city's act so that we dont have problems for something that is worth something wanting to move downtown then to be moved probably to an entirely different city.

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By reasons to be hopeful (anonymous) | Posted June 12, 2009 at 14:25:32

"does this mean that there will be empty spots (parking lots) in our city for decades to come" -- LRT will do alot to boost property values so the speculators can cash out and get out of the way for real developers to make some money building density. Things are looking up for sure!

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted June 12, 2009 at 15:19:29

is there anything that can be done >> does anyone have any clue to when the reign of the parking lot wasteland end?

As soon as government gets out of the way, slashes tax rates, scraps top down planning restrictions and otherwise lets the free market function like it used to, then you will see Hamilton's downtown come back to life. Hamilton used to embrace private enterprise and during that time period it created large amounts of wealth. As soon as it shifted against business and towards unions and government handouts, the party ended and the result is the mess we see today.

Just look at China, it continues to shrink the size of government and embrace free enterprise. The result is millions lifted from poverty and a reduction in mass starvation. Open your eyes people, government has killed Hamilton and it continues to do so.

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By Daddy Fewbucks (anonymous) | Posted June 12, 2009 at 15:37:52

I seem to recall a comment from Councillor Bratman, in regard to redeveloping the Gore Park/MacNab Street bus terminus, to the effect that the city owned the land under the former Robinsons Department Store building. Maybe I'm wrong, and/or maybe he was wrong, but that does strike me as a pretty high-profile chunk of vacant downtown property adjascent to underground parking (Hamilton Place, AGH, Jackson Square) even more central to public transit, if that's possible, than the long-negotiated Bd. of Ed. site.

If the city is sitting on this land waiting and hoping for a high-tax paying development to appear, then that makes them (us) roughly equivilent to other downtown property speculators, each waiting for the other to make the first move. If the city is sitting on this land because it's too "complex" to think about building a medical centre on in conjunction with planning for a street transit terminus, well that just makes them (us) kinda, sadly, disappointing in a "the easy we can do given enough decades (think the Lister Block), the complex we can't do at all" kind of way.

But then "too complex" was given as the main reason why we've plans for a new stadium in the middle of a residential community (when being in the middle of a residential community was a significant reason why Ivor Wynne never became a multi-function facility) instead of over top the city-owned sewage overflow tank at Cathedral Park, next to major transit routes and an area suited to a major commercial boost, without necessarily disturbing residents a block or two beyond.

If you're uncertain, Cathedral Park is that seldom used chunk of greenspace between King and Main and skirted by the Main East exit ramp from Hwy.403. Behind the Dundurn St. Fortinos. Don't think I've ever seen any ball players there, but do I think I've seen a ball diamond.

Not that I know anything about property development, (and not that I'm going to let that stop me from commenting) but as a transportation/commercial hub, that's a plot that just screams to me with entertainment-centre-development potential. So much potential that the potential realization of that potential must potentially be pretty complex. Too bad the city owns the biggest chunk of relevant properties, then.

BTW, since we're jawing property development, just got the following bit of news from a Downtown BIA newsletter:

"After more than 40 years of protection from the elements the cladding has been removed from the 1855 Thomas Building next to the Lister Block at 46-52 James Street North. Unfortunately what remains is only the stone walls of the façade which have no redeeming architectural or historical value whatsoever. Gone are the building's original stone projections, including the window surrounds, and roof cornices that made this 19th century downtown building unique. Severe water damage to the existing stone blocks on the front façade have eroded the backface of the building to such a degree that it will be unlikely that LIUNA (Labourers' International Union of North America) the owners of the building, will be able to save it."

Oh lordy, here we go again.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted June 16, 2009 at 10:30:56

JM, great point...why not start forcing downtown parking lots underground?

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