City Still Killing Development Dead with Obdurate Rule Enforcement

By Ryan McGreal
Published July 25, 2013

This story in today's Spectator is infuriating:

The same Gore Park storefront that sat empty this time last year is now filled with daily diners, but the city's focus is on the façade they say doesn't fit with the character of the area.

The Burrito Boyz on the south side of King just west of John is an excellent addition to the Gore district. Instead of a vacant storefront or yet another payday loan shop, we got a respectable business: well decorated, clean, operated by fast, efficient and friendly staff, all in the service of selling delicious, high-quality sandwiches to a bustling daily clientele.

Burrito Boyz in Gore Park
Burrito Boyz in Gore Park

Seriously, why the hell is the City getting on the owners' case over what percentage of their frontage is glass?

Look, I respect and appreciate the Downtown Heritage Character Zone Guidelines, which are in no small part responsible for the urban form of the new building at James and Vine - but they're guidelines, for crying out loud.

We seem perfectly willing to bend over backwards to accommodate "compromises" for developers who want to demolish heritage buildings, and then nitpick to death those entrepreneurs who make the kinds of small-scale, building-by-building investments that are actually responsible for the nascent recovery of the core.

You know what would do more to preserve the character of the Gore than threatening up to a $10,000 fine against Burrito Boyz? Issuing a stop work order on the demolition of 18-28 King Street East. Frankly, the City has no credibility on this issue.

When we're not cherry-picking businesses to harass over inflexible facade rules, we're denying ice cream shops in small neighbourhood commercial properties; shutting down small seating areas outside restaurants and cafes; sinking high-density developments under inane parking requirements; demanding setback variances for hundred-year-old buildings; denying commercial uses that fall outside ludicrously narrow zoning allowances (the owners of a shop on Locke Street were told it was only zoned to sell antiques or fireplaces - I'm not even making that up); telling a hotel condo developer he needs to set his building back from Main Street in case we decide to widen it even more; and on and on.

Despite EcDev's protestations to being "open for business", we're still busy killing development dead with the same obdurate inflexible bureaucratic overreach that has strangled investment in lower city Hamilton for decades.

Systematically neglect your property for years and kick out your tenants? We'll issue you a demolition permit, no questions asked, and even give you a big property tax break!

But don't you dare try to renovate a vacant storefront into a new business inside an existing heritage building with less than 80 percent glass. We have standards to uphold, after all.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Frankenrogers (registered) | Posted July 25, 2013 at 07:00:49

I don't know what to say other than it is frustrating to me as a resident to hear this, I can imagine being the store owner. My wife and I keep talking about opening a store as our plan to get me home and not commuting to Toronto but frankly I have zero faith in Hamilton's city government to risk it. Hats off to those trying and succeeding despite it.

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By theRickYoung (anonymous) | Posted July 25, 2013 at 07:56:10

It is getting harder and harder to fathom what this city is thinking during it's decision making processes. The citizens of this city are doing all they can to improve quality of life and make Hamilton into a world class city that people want to visit and live in. Too bad the city council will have none of that, and really seems to work counter-productive to that ideology. I am moving to Cranbrook BC in 2 months, I hope their city council isn't this ass-backwards!

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By cameron bailey (anonymous) | Posted July 25, 2013 at 09:14:03

Witness the inflexible stance the City took regarding their demand for an accessible washroom at my Hillbilly Heaven on Upper James.

two councillors (Duvall & Farr) refused to help delay the demand - business was firced to close, costing the City 10 living wage jobs.

Utter nonsense

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted July 26, 2013 at 11:17:21 in reply to Comment 90444

Your reputation may precede you Cameron. Try attracting more flies with honey instead of bad racial stereotype "jokes" and confederate flags. The victim thing is a risky play too, which I don’t think has been working for you. Has it?

Comment edited by Kiely on 2013-07-26 11:17:46

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By CB (anonymous) | Posted July 27, 2013 at 12:31:33 in reply to Comment 90492

He tried the victim thing in Burlington...opened...and closed 2 stores there...Burlingtonians don't buy he fled to Hamilton where racial stereotypes, flags, victim thingys go over better there....he will do anything to flog his crap...even offend people and their taste buds....

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted July 25, 2013 at 14:12:30 in reply to Comment 90444

Sure, it's ridiculous that someone with a physical disability should have access to washroom facilities.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted July 25, 2013 at 09:24:54 in reply to Comment 90444

Agreed, the costs and requirements imposed on small business are ridiculous.

I'm not even sure why we need municipal accessibility bylaws anymore - isn't there a new provincial accessability law in place? Why do we have duplicate regulations?

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted July 25, 2013 at 09:36:55

Every single architect, small, private, developer, and independent business owner has told me of the problems they have faced trying to get things done through City Hall. Every. Single. One.

This either says I'm talking to too many complainers, or it indicates a pattern of behaviour on the part of the City Planning Department. I'm all for standards that enhance our quality of life through our built environment, including health and safety, but you really have to wonder why all the stories are the same. I'm not encouraging lowering our standards and accepting anything so long as it is investment, but I do think we need to figure out how to maintain high standards, promote investment, and achieve both as efficiently as possible.

In a town that claims "Open for Business", I really wonder if they have tried doing any "mystery shopping" to test what the experience really is like. They should. And surveying people is a non-starter because people are hesitant to complain as it may make the next project even harder to do.

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By ScreenCarp (registered) | Posted July 26, 2013 at 00:40:13 in reply to Comment 90447

people are hesitant to complain as it may make the next project even harder to do.

This is a problem. This type of bureaucratic nonsense drives me nuts. I listened to some involved folks on CHML today to hear how the city has been "flexible". Come on...look at that storefront compared to so many other's in the core. Stop it, and leave them alone. Wait, no...give them a patio and picnic tables in the Gore. Encourage the folks doing good work to do good work and others will follow.

So who is making these decisions? I suspect they're not elected... can council "direct" city manager, planning, bylaw enforcement and the like? It's been stupid like this as long as I can remember, how do we change it?

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By Simon (registered) - website | Posted July 25, 2013 at 22:02:50 in reply to Comment 90447

Everyone knows that there is no point trying to work with the City. The unspoken rules are:

  1. If you are a small business owner or resident, your best bet it to forget about going to the City for any kind or approval or permit. Just go ahead with your plans and hope that nobody complains. If there is a complaint, you're screwed because you don't have any money or resources to fight it, and you're not going to win anyway - apologize, feign ignorance and cut your losses before enforcement gets involved.

  2. If you are a greenfield home builder. No worries, the whole system is set up for you. As long as you pay lip service to whatever application you're making and pay the fees, all clear.

  3. If you are a large developer - take the same approach as small business and residents. Just do what you're going to do regardless of what the City says. If the City raises a stink - you know its just a bluff - tell the City to go play hide and go fuck yourself, then play the economy and jobs card. As long as you have the money and resources to fight city hall for a while, by the time they get around to enforcement your project will be done and you can point at is and tell everyone how great it is. Oh and then you can get some grants too.

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By LeeEdward (anonymous) | Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:55:56

It's interesting to see how the double standard plays out based on how many zeroes you put after your offer tot he city for permits and such. Throw enough zeroes in and we'll let you level half a city block (so long as no one is watching). But try to run a small business that many folks in town actually welcome and like, and we'll come down on you like a tonne of bricks.

Is there any way of determining if someone with deep pockets is angling for that property? I'm willing to admit I'm probably talking out of my posterior, but when I hear that a small business like The Burrito Boys (whom I frequent) is being picked on by the City, all I can think is, 'who stands to gain?'.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted July 25, 2013 at 13:52:10

Also, not sure if anyone has any information on this, but do they have any more tables/chairs now?

I went with some of my friends a few months back (okay, maybe 6 months) and there were about 10 of us, and we pushed nearly every table in the restaurant together so we could all sit together.

The restaurant seemed to have room for a lot more tables and seats than what was in there, most of the floor was just empty space, something I commented on before I left, suggesting they should get more tables (I can't imagine how busy it must get at lunch).

Anyways, I'm wondering first if they have more tables and chairs, and second, if they haven't, could it be because a city bylaw is restricting the amount of seating they can have based on the parking available (or some other similarly stupid requirement?).

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted July 25, 2013 at 14:06:49

How do all the gaudy yellow signs, flimsy banners, and building-covering panels on various other downtown businesses fit "heritage"?

Yet if you don't have enough glass on an otherwise classy and attractive frontage, you're under scrutiny?

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By Keith (anonymous) | Posted July 25, 2013 at 14:37:23 in reply to Comment 90465

They likely all pre-date the guidelines so they were grandfathered in. It's because of abuses like those of previous rules that these guidelines exist.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted July 25, 2013 at 15:03:01 in reply to Comment 90470

You're probably right.

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By Yuki (anonymous) | Posted July 25, 2013 at 15:05:21

This city is still run by a bunch of yokels. Waiting for a new guard to come in at city hall. The downtown core is SO LUCKY to have an influx of passionate, urbane small entrepreneurs and the hicks running this city are penalizing them, and throwing up more hurdles. WTF?

Burrito Boys is the anchor restaurant that the Gore Park strip needed. Thanks, dudes! Love your fish burritos and love the fact you've inspired other purveyors of non-cruddy food that yes: if you build it, diners will come!

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted July 26, 2013 at 11:21:57 in reply to Comment 90473

I think this has more to do with the unelected mandarins than it does the elected doofuses.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted July 25, 2013 at 19:07:25

Building standards should be more about the state of repair of the building then the materials used, but I will agree in principal on a material use standard. I mean, I don't think many here would object to a ban on aluminum siding for a facing (see 170 King St E) or a restriction for no more then 50% stucco.

However, it has to make sense. 80% glass is idiotic! Even more so in an area littered with predominant brick facing. What if I want to open a restaurant with privacy? What if I want counter-top sitting Windows like Burrito Boyz? It's asinine and ridiculous.

Comment edited by -Hammer- on 2013-07-25 19:07:34

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By Furious George (anonymous) | Posted July 25, 2013 at 20:41:56

This is just another in a long line of people who are being picked on by the bullies of the city. Is it the mafia? Is city hall just justifying their existence by hitting someone who can't hit back. They quake in their boots at the likes of Vranich and BBS, but the little guy gets screwed.

On a side note, I am fining this Amy Kennedy who wrote this article becoming the heir apparent to Paul Wilson as far as Urban issues are concerned. The Spec would be wise to give writers like this free reign to pursue this kinds of stories.

I read an earlier article from her:

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By Furious George (anonymous) | Posted July 25, 2013 at 20:42:39

Oooops, that should say Kenny, not Kennedy. Stupid spell check.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 25, 2013 at 23:02:13

Let's all be honest though. The city does have a point. Burrito Boyz isn't really blending in with the general vibe along King Street:

I'm sure if the Boyz just add more ugly banners and boarded up windows they wouldn't get hassled at all. Perhaps they should get a huge 'Money Mart' banner made up and keep it handy for whenever a city official is planning to visit. Just hang that up on the facade for a few hours and all will be fine.

Comment edited by jason on 2013-07-25 23:04:39

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted July 26, 2013 at 07:47:24 in reply to Comment 90480

Curious how/why nobody tipped them to the requirement when they were getting the permits to change the facade. Post-reno, the space was fitted with a glass curtain wall and two access doors, which presumably would have satisfied the city requirement.

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By Keith (anonymous) | Posted July 26, 2013 at 11:16:23 in reply to Comment 90486

If you read the article, then you'll see they state that they "were aware of the glazing requirement (which falls under downtown heritage character guidelines) when they began renovations, but they were also trying to match the look of Burrito Boyz locations throughout Toronto."

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By ScreenCarp (registered) | Posted July 26, 2013 at 01:44:05 in reply to Comment 90480

Indeed! It's horrific and embarrassing. And weird. I think it's bizarre that all we can get going on on these blocks is Dollar Stores, Money Marts and Government Buildings. This should be prime real estate, and the heart of the Hammer.

We should be wining and dining A list retailers by selling them on our heritage value.
We should be offering tax breaks, grants and flexibility to folks who are committed. We should be helping the Variety Store and the Pizza Place fit in without driving them away. We should encourage the small businesses who will be the agents of change. Heritage grants are a good start, but I think we need to be actively selling and overcome the corrupt, difficult image that we have. We need to be enforcing the worst offenders, and ensure the buildings in the downtown core don't deteriorate and are fully utilized. Stop rewarding empty buildings and parking lots.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted July 26, 2013 at 08:02:21


“The most exciting by far, is the long-awaited redevelopment of the Victoria Hall and Foster-MacKay buildings on the south leg of the Gore. These buildings are brilliant and Victoria Hall is a national historic site with its metal façade. With lofts and live/work units, this building will be a fast seller and a huge success.”


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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted July 26, 2013 at 08:18:58


Committee chair Bob Bratina said he is pleased with the report, but that some of the key recommendations on homelessness, street people and panhandlers still need much more discussion.

"We haven't finished our work because we still want to meet with social services and discuss matters raised with regard to those agencies."

Bratina hopes to bring the report forward to council by the end of February.

Some key recommendations:

Physical environment

* Develop a more proactive property standards enforcement program.

* Aggressively enforce downtown property standards.

* Police and property standards inspectors should respond quickly to complaints.

* Make James Street North a priority for complaints about bars for three months.

* Update property standards rules to include "perception" issues such as replacing broken windows with windows, not boarding them up.

* Identify shoddy facades and encourage owners to use money from available programs to fix them.

* More garbage cans in high litter areas.

* Hire street youth and homeless people to clean streets similar to program in Victoria, B.C.

* Get businesses to wash down their sidewalk twice a day and clean windows.

* Speed up replacement of broken street lights.

* Continue lighting alleys, especially in James Street North neighbourhoods.

* Trim more trees to increase lighting.

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By Jim Street (anonymous) | Posted July 26, 2013 at 08:44:53

From the murky depths of City Hall...

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted July 26, 2013 at 11:27:42

Sometimes in this city you have to laugh to keep from crying... unbelievable how we are essentially a beggar of a city yet cityhall acts like some sort of despot king ("I tax you for not enough glass!")... until a big enough player comes along and then we revert to the fool.

Cityhall sure does love playing the tough versus the little guys though.

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By rabbitupnorth (registered) | Posted July 26, 2013 at 13:48:25

This is dysfunctional bureaucracy at its finest. Burrito Boyz looks like a terrific addition to the community, despite not being a big bucks developer. Sounds like the City needs a bit of a shake up to make the rules make sense and to operate fairly and even handedly. Just sayin'

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted August 04, 2013 at 11:22:03

At least the payday loan/cheque cashing business in the ground floor space of Victoria Hall failed before the city could find them in contravention of design guidelines.

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