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.
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