Andrew Dreschel grapples with the cultural frisson between "old Hamilton" and "New Hamilton" in today's column, an interesting glimpse at how the groundswell of progressive urbanism that is reshaping downtown Hamilton looks from the outside.
Broadly speaking, New Hamilton advocates see themselves as informed progressives, engaged urbanists with a burning interest in the social, cultural and economic lifeblood of the city.
On the other hand, they generally see those who aren’t with them as status quo conservatives, reactionaries with established — and now challenged — influence and ways of doing things.
It's great to see Dreschel acknowledge and even celebrate what he calls "a new kind of Hamilton [that] is slowly emerging in the core. The monthly art crawl and annual Supercrawl are probably its most flashy agents, yet all the affirming arguments, creativity and idealism that were brought to the casino debate lend credence to it."
However, Dreschel also criticizes what he sees as an ugly side to the renaissance. His main complaints seem to be: 1) many so-called "New Hamiltonians" display "zealotry, self-righteous arrogance, immature vulgarities and an overweening patriarchal sense that they know what's best for everyone"; and 2) they behave as though the rest of the city shouldn't get a say in how downtown Hamilton is governed.
It's true that some of the debates over recent hot-button issues, like the proposed downtown casino, have gotten ugly and personal at times. However, it's misleading to suggest that the ugliness has been one-way.
The negative qualities Dreschel observes manifest on all sides in every conflict. Who can forget Peter Mercanti's infamous 47% moment?
"Who are these people? What is their background? What have they done?" said Peter Mercanti. "They get almost all the same weight as the people who really count. It shocks me."
The disdain in Mercanti's words is palpable, but it's not exceptional. Anyone who has lived for some time in the lower city - and particularly anyone who pays attention to civic affairs - is well-acquainted with the contempt and scorn that some residents of the upper city and suburbs routinely heap on the downtown.
For as long as I've been reading the Hamilton Spectator, I've been reading a steady litany of letters to the editor calling downtown a dump filled with lowlifes that should be razed to the ground. (And don't get me started on thespec.com's comment section, which is overrun by the most vitriolic downtown-hating trolls.)
The contempt that some people - again, not all people, and we would be remiss to tar with a broad brush - have for downtown is perhaps best exemplified by the joke told by more than one resident of the Mountain: Every time I flush the toilet, I'm pissing on you.
Vulgarity is ugly and unfortunate, and we should all strive to keep our comments civil. None of us are perfect, and we've all said and done things in the heat of the moment that we would later regret. That in itself is no argument against the generally inspiring, optimistic movement to revitalize the lower city with new ideas and new energy.
Let's get something out of the way: with every ward councillor having a vote on every policy, representatives of the entire city do get a say on downtown.
(Indeed, urbanists are keenly aware that many of the more progressive ideas proposed for downtown are blocked by mountain and suburban councillors who either don't see the value of, or actively resent, spending money downtown.)
As Dreschel notes, downtown does receive significant public investment, though most of it was put in place by previous councils and much of it, like the Downtown Residential Loan program, is directly paid back by developers.
However, Dreschel's numbers completely skip the fact that the massive suburban sprawl that transformed Hamilton over the past half-century was extensively funded and subsidized by the old city. This funding arrangement long predates amalgamation, since tax revenue generated in the old city helped pay for sprawl infrastructure through the Regional government of Hamilton-Wentworth.
More recently, the entire city paid (and continues to pay) for the Red Hill Valley Parkway, the main purpose of which was to open up a billion dollars in new sprawl development on the east mountain, all of which also needs expensive local civic infrastructure.
To add insult to injury, Hamilton's low development charges ensure that the existing tax base continues to help subsidize every new suburban house that gets built.
All those kilometres and kilometres of water, sewer, road pavement, police and fire service, garbage collection and so on are extremely expensive, and the low-density land use they serve does not generate enough aggregate tax revenue to pay for them.
On top of that, we are giving big subsidies and grants to businesses to entice them to rationalize existing regional operations into our suburban business parks.
The simple fact is that low-density suburban infrastructure does not pay for itself. The only way a city can afford suburbs is for its downtown to produce enough surplus revenue to pay for them.
The reason is that urban infrastructure is vastly more cost-effective than suburban infrastructure. If the same amount of civic infrastructure can serve ten times as many people, the per-capita cost is necessarily much lower.
At the same time, economic research over the past few decades has found that a dense, diverse urban land use produces more economic output per capita than a single use suburban land use. A healthy downtown is not only cheaper to operate per capita, but also produces more economic innovation and more wealth per capita.
A sprawling city without a healthy centre is an economic time bomb, as urbanists have been trying to argue for years. It's why every expert who comes to Hamilton give us the same advice on creating the conditions for a healthy urban environment: tame your streets, invest in transit, fix your broken zoning bylaw, protect your heritage buildings, redevelop your surface parking lots, foster creativity, engage citizens.
It is therefore very much in the interest of our suburban councillors to understand what Jane Jacobs called "the economy of cities" so that they can continue to deliver the services and value that their constituents expect.
The array of "facts, stats, and knockout graphics" that Dreschel admired in Graham Crawford's presentation to councillors was an evidence-based effort to persuade them - all of them, not just the downtown councillors - that making decisions to support downtown is not charity but a necessary investment in sustainability for their own wards as well as the core.
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