Downtown: the Overlooked Asset

By Jason Leach
Published January 09, 2008

I've long called for Hamilton to recognize the tremendous asset that is our downtown core as we look to turn the corner and bring prosperity back to our economy.

Too often, however, those calls fall on deaf ears as local leaders and residents continue to have this strange love-affair with our bland suburban neighbours to the east.

Hamilton has attempted every other kind of growth model out there - sprawl, big box, highways galore - and yet most people would agree that our city is far from realizing its full potential.

In recent years, we've seen attempts by other suburban cities in the GTA to try to add downtowns to their communities. Some, like Mississuaga, end up looking like a strange combo of post-modern communist Russia set on the surface of the moon.

Image Credit: Skyscraper Page
Image Credit: Skyscraper Page

Others, like efforts to urbanize Markham, seem to have more potential to create a walkable, livable environment. Yet even these are still very sterile, modern and fake-looking if you're looking for true urbanity.

Real Downtown

Hamilton has the only other real downtown outside of Toronto. That city has managed to leverage the appeal of the downtown by doing many little things right ­ allowing the adaptive reuse of old buildings, allowing street uses such as patios and sidewalk stalls, keeping streetcars and two-way streets and maintaining acceptable sidewalks for pedestrians.

Despite the huge population, Toronto has fewer lanes, fewer one-way streets and much more congestion than Hamilton. Yet their downtown booms.

We've sacrificed the public realm at the altar of the suburban pass-through vehicle traffic and our downtown shows it.

People in other GTA communities come here and are amazed at the urban core and fabulous surrounding neighbourhoods. Yes, they are always perplexed at the one-way highways and lack of street life, but overall they see great potential and livability here.

The problem is, we don't.

Stitch into the Urban Fabric

City Hall refuses to stitch into the urban fabric we already possess. We're too busy trying to figure out how to cram another Walmart into Ancaster or Waterdown.

I realize sprawl is here to stay, but we don't need to be wasting urban tax dollars to subsidize it. We need that money downtown.

We continue to demolish wonderful, urban buildings while other municipalities try to figure out how to build them.

In today's Spectator, Paul Wilson has written a great piece highlighting the asset that we possess in our downtown core.

Tim Dobbie, highly regarded former Burlington city manager, has been hired to work with the new economic development group here. He was asked last week if there's an asset Hamilton has overlooked. His answer: "Downtown."

He's from Burlington. He would know.

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 statius (registered) | Posted January 10, 2008 at 00:41:53


While I wholeheartedly agree with you that Toronto has a much more vital and functional core than Hamilton, I certainly would not attribute it to "doing many little things right ­ allowing the adaptive reuse of old buildings, allowing street uses such as patios and sidewalk stalls, keeping streetcars and two-way streets and maintaining acceptable sidewalks for pedestrians."

Toronto has a lousy downtown. Anyone from a real world city will tell you this (and if they say otherwise, they're just being polite). The city has suffered from decades of virtually complete lack of meaningful architectural control. Most of its good old buildings have been torn down and built over. Its transit system, while remarkably efficient, is grimy and not nearly as comprehensive as the city deserves. Its downtown is full of partial one-way streets (particularly in downtown residential neighbourhoods like the Annex). Its major "avenue" (Bloor) is a faceless windtunnel (Fifth Avenue of Canada, yeah right). While it does have patios and sidewalk stalls, this is DESPITE the sheer ugliness and inhumanity of the place, and they have always seemed rather out of place to me. As Robert Fulford rightly noted, the city is an accidental metropolis. It grew too big too fast (feeding directly off the economic decline of Montreal, a far superior city from an urbanist perspective) and it shows. The reason for the downtown's success is really quite simple - the sheer wealth of the place. The city is, by some measures, the ninth largest city economy in the world. It is staggeringly more wealthy than Hamilton, and I doubt if it is really productive to contrast the success of its downtown with the failure of Hamilton's. Moreover, as is well-known (witness the film "Let's All Hate Toronto" for rather amusing proof of this), Torontonians are self-consciously "urban" to an almost embarrassing degree. They take pride in living in 600 square foot condos because it is simply part of the perceived culture of the place. They conspicuously consume luxury goods (notice the pink Holts bags seemingly every woman carries) and drop half their weekly pay cheque at places like Lobby and the Drake because that is what well-off young urbanites are expected to do. Toronto's downtown is not an inclusive environment. With a few endangered pockets of exception, development/gentrification has forced the less fortunate to the suburban fringes of the city. There are virtually no first generation immigrants downtown. They just can't afford to live there. In that sense, Toronto really does have something in common with real world cities like New York, London and Tokyo: it has a critical mass of rich people which effectively keeps the hoi polloi out of site (I don't mean the panhandlers who feed off the largesse of the better-off, but the working poor who are the real underclass in that city) and sustains the shops, restaurants, clubs, and services which make the downtown seem so vital.

Hamilton doesn't have this. It probably will never have this. And if it ever does get it, it will not be by the same means that Toronto got it because the sort of wealth that exists in Toronto will never come our way.

As Fitzgerald said: "The rich are very different from you and me."

And as Hemmingway aptly responded: "Yes, they have more money."

We can't even compare.

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By statius (registered) | Posted January 10, 2008 at 00:44:26

I realize the above sounds way too pessimistic. What I was trying to suggest is that we should be studying the success of other cities of comparable wealth and size in order to advance Hamilton's rejuvenation. It just doesn't make sense to compare a mid-sized regional city to an incipient megalopolis.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 10, 2008 at 08:42:29're right on here. I much prefer to look at cities like Montreal, Portland, Boston etc.... for Hamilton's inspiriation. I only mentioned TO here because the few things that I pointed out would do wonders for Hamilton - 2 way streets, light rail, wider sidewalks and better design on downtown streets to the sidewalk with no parking lots. Whenever I'm in TO I generall go to Chinatown/Kensington. Bloor St area is horrendous IMO. Absolutely no comparison to NYC. There are definitely better models for Hamilton to follow. I just find it a little frustrating that with a fraction of the population and vehicles we still think we need these 5-lane highways and crappy transit instead of growing up and acting like a real city. Portland, Seattle, Boston, Montreal etc.....

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted January 10, 2008 at 13:22:44


Great comments. While I agree with a lot of what you say (I live in downtown TO), I would make the following clarifications/points:

"Toronto has a lousy downtown" - you have correctly disected the problem with vibrant neighbourhoods like Queen West and the Annex. They are rich enclaves for sure. The lack of intergrated income neighbourhoods in TO is alarming, however, although that is a hugely significant gap, I'm not sure it's fair to write off these neighbourhoods entirely. They are vibrant, and fun to visit (if not affordable for most of us to live in...) and the generate lots of tourist and local dollars.

Again you are right in your one-way street analysis. Huge stretches of Wellington and Richmond are bare and these downtown freeways are a big reason for this.

I would also point out the Financial District. Huge office towers teeming with people from 9 to 5. Dead any other time. All the 'street life' between these times is on the underground PATH network... not a good neighbourhood design.

As for the film, Everybody hates Toronto - I didn't see it but I saw snippets - doesn't this film conclude that the biggest Toronto haters are Torontonians themselves? The Prada bag image of TO is not the real identity of this town. If you go to a rich neighbourhood in TO (or anywhere) you will see rich - or upwardly mobile folks pretending to be rich - acting like many rich people do. Surely Toronto can't be faulted for attracting wealth? In many ways TO has problems caused by the wealth it's success attracts - virtually gated communities, pretentious citizens, high prices, etc. It's not in attracting this wealth that TO has failed (Hamilton should be striving to increase the Quality of Life (and that includes wealth) of it's residents too) but in how this has been managed.

As for useful Hamilton streets, mixed neighbourhoods, attracting businesses, tourists and wealthy/creative residents through an improved Quality of Life - Hamilton can surely learn A LOT from Toronto. Many city building initiatives are independent of the town's size.

It's true that Hamilton has a unique opportunity to prosper and not make the same mistakes as TO. The problem, as I see it, at the moment, is that Hamilton is not doing much at all.



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By statius (registered) | Posted January 10, 2008 at 14:37:03


Don't worry, my views on TO weren't formed by "Let's All Hate Toronto". While I am a Hamilton native, I have lived in Toronto for the past 8 years and have gradually grown to hate the city for many, many reasons. Perhaps this is because I have lived in a number of the richer enclaves (the Annex, and now Yorkville) and do not particularly care for the way the Toronto rich behave (I think they are much more self-conscious about their success than the well-off from more cosmopolitan cities). I know that Toronto's downtown is by many measures I success; I just think that this is attributable more to the sort of industries that are located there (financial services, big law, advertising, an extremely lucrative medical research sector, etc.) and the sort of high-salaried people they employ than englightened urban planning. You're right about the annex though - it is a fun neighbourhood to live in (although the economic polarities between its wealthy bobos and the down and outs on their doorstep are sometimes a bit disturbing). If I were not moving back to Hamilton, I would probably be moving back to the annex.

The thing about Toronto is that it didn't attract wealth through good urban planning but rather through a shift in the nation's economic and political axis. That's the macro view anyway, one which I think is supported by a lot of solid economic history.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted January 10, 2008 at 17:05:32

Hi Staitus,

Again, nothing much to disagree with in your comments, although your assertion that high salaried workers were attracted by the Canadian/World economy rather than urban planning is curious. I'm not entirely sure what you mean. As I'm sure you're aware, the Richard Florida view is that creative class types (which would include some elements of high salaried workers) move to cities for the living environment as much as they do the work on offer. I doubt Toronto would have been able to retain (or even attract) as many high paying industries if the town did not provide a good quality of life for its residents. The two are intrinsically linked in my view.

You're moving to Hamilton? You should write for RTH. You have some very original and insightful views.



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By statius (registered) | Posted January 10, 2008 at 19:38:50


I appreciate your kind words.

I agree with a lot of what Florida says. But I side with some of the more conservative academics who argue that (at least with respect to some cities) he has got the causality aspect of his theory all mixed up. For instance, great cities like New York and, even more to the point, London, are so immensely wealthy not because they have attracted high-salaried bankers, managers and professionals, but rather for historical reasons. In other words, capital has always been concentrated there. To paraphrase Simmel (who anticipated a lot of what Florida would later say in more facile form), London was not always the heart but has always been the money pot of England. The banks, corporations, law offices, etc. have always been there. That is why the well educated go there. That is why they went there even when London was an overcrowded, violent cesspool in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They had no choice. The same is true of Toronto to a good extent. Historical analysis shows the transfer of capital from Montreal (which at one time controlled about 95% of Canada's marketable capital) to Toronto beginning in the 1950s and culminating in the mad rush of the Anglo elite (along with their money) from Quebec to Ontario in 60s and 70s as a result of perceived political instability (i.e. FLQ crisis). In my view then (it is not an original view, I admit) there are really two classes of successful cities: those cities which have succeded because of thoughtful planning and lifestyle advantages (e.g. Portland, Vancouver, etc.) and those which succeed simply (or primarily) because they are (for historical reasons) primary centres of capital (e.g. London, New York, Paris, Toronto).

To illustrate: in my profession, if one does not want to work in Toronto, one simply has to accept a much lower salary. I was lucky enough to find a position in Hamilton which would pay me a lesser but still comparable amount to what I would make in Toronto and so I jumped on it, but this was sheer luck, and such positions are extremely, extremely rare. Half of the people I know are from BC, Alberta, Quebec, and the Maritimes, and they simply would not be in Toronto if it were not for the jobs and the money.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted January 11, 2008 at 16:47:20

Some thoughts on improving downtown:

1. Convert most one-way streets to two-way. King and Main should be two way in particular. Just compare the lack of businesses on the one-way section of Main (in the core) versus the two-way sections in the west and east end.

2. Subsidized housing units and homeless shelters are not a way to revitalize the downtown. Hamilton and the core in particular seem to have more than their share of this type of housing. As a result, the downtown is dominated by people of lower socio-economic background. I know of many people who will not go downtown just for this fact alone. In addition, the downtown becomes home to only dollar-store retail.

3. Commercial and residential tax rates in the downtown should not be higher than other areas of the city.

4. The costs of doing business downtown need to be addresses e.g. how long does it take to get building permits or other approvals? I understand that red tape is a big problem in the core if not the whole city.

5. Enforce property maintenance laws. Businesses that have a real stake in the downtown will abide by them, those who won't can be pushed to sell to others who do. We only want committed business people downtown anyway.

6. Try to get rid of strip clubs and other seedy establishments. I know this may be difficult.

7. There is not enough green space in the downtown core. How about widening some sidewalks and planting some trees? Why is the front of city hall all concrete?

8. Get the buses out of Gore park. How many people want to sit at Gore park in the summer with 50 buses idling there?

9. Is anybody in the city's economic development department actually soliciting reputable condo developers to build downtown? If not why not? The former Bell building condo conversion project was a huge success and built by a reputable builder. Let's market that success to others. Same goes for commercial businesses. We can't build a downtown around government employment and call-centre jobs. We need to encourage law firms and other professional services that have left to return to the core.

10. The impact of light rail on the downtown will be negligible. Most people in Hamilton with a half-decent job owns a car. That is not going to change any time soon and people won't leave their cars at home to wait by the side of the road in the cold crappy weather to take light rail when they can drive to their destination in half the time. Best thing would be to expand buses on the crowded Beeline.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 11, 2008 at 17:44:01

you're bang on with every point except number 10.

here's some reading if you're interested:

light rail isn't about transit and transit riders (it is a little). it's about economic development. if buses could accomplish the same sort of EcDev as rail, cities wouldn't be spending tens of millions and billions on rail.

other than number 10, which takes some planning and money, I don't see why Hamilton isn't plowing through points 1-9. they are easy, and most can be done quickly. do they still not care enough??

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By statius (registered) | Posted January 11, 2008 at 20:52:14

"5. Enforce property maintenance laws. Businesses that have a real stake in the downtown will abide by them, those who won't can be pushed to sell to others who do. We only want committed business people downtown anyway."

This should be done. The penalties for non-compliance ($50000 to $100000 for corporations and personal liability for their officers) are surely enough to impel all but the most deep-pocketed to fall in line. As for enforcing such a by-law against an organization like LIUNA - this would probably be much less productive ... and the city is clearly trepidatious about alienating a major developer (perhaps the only major developer right now) working (or at least making pretenses of doing so) in the downtown core. Perhaps it should change its mind on this one.

As for the strip clubs and adult theatres, such business are always attracted to low rent areas. They are bottom-feeding industries which never stick around when the property prices go up. As long as other developers and business people can be enticed to invest downtown in spite of them, they won't pose much of a problem in the long term.

As for light rail, I too was initially skeptical about its potential concrete benefits to Hamilton's beleaguered public transit system. However, when you think about the environmental impact of buses versus a quiet electric rail system (I don't just mean in terms of emissions), the increased ridership potential (thus hopefully displacing some of that car usage you refer to above), etc. it is hard not to see light rail as something markedly desirable for the city. If anything, its greatest benefit may be upon the image of Hamilton over anything else.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted January 14, 2008 at 10:10:29

Very interesting reading for a Monday morning. I side with everyone...can I do that? I don't like walking around Toronto but then again, my walking around TO for recreational purposes has been mostly around Union Station. Other than that, it's been as a member of the BTTB marching in the Santa Claus Parade and I'm not a fan of most of the areas we marched through. Also, there's an underground shopping district which if I'm not mistaken runs under many of the larger buildings around Union Station. I've never had the opportunity to visit it, but it seems like it'd be interesting from the drawings I've seen as I worked on projects on top of it.

As for LRT, definate economic benefits as Jason stated and it would also allow for transit to run through Gore park without having the 50 buses idling there that Statius is talking about. As for strip clubs...I'm happy to say that the "Gentlemen's" club that used to be on #20 has been demo'd. Not sure what's going on there. Anyone know?

I'd like to see some more well done condo conversion projects downtown. I don't want offices and businesses that close at 5. It'd be nice to see some nice mom and pop establishments thrive downtown along with some residential above 1st floor stores etc.

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By Leisha (anonymous) | Posted January 14, 2008 at 21:10:20

Another challenge that the downtown faces is the lack of support by the financial industry. The banks have a tendency of refusing to lend money for legitimate ventures; the insurance companies have a tendency of refusing to insure these ventures. There is a small chance that these companies will go against their shareholders and take a calculated risk. However, it will come at a tremendous cost to the downtown entrepreneur. A cost that might be too great for it to be feasible. I realize that criminal activity has been cited to justify this, but strategies need to be developed to combat this from continuing.

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By statius (registered) | Posted January 15, 2008 at 16:10:56

"I'd like to see some more well done condo conversion projects downtown. I don't want offices and businesses that close at 5."

Who works to 5 anymore? I'm expected to stick around till after dinner - often till 8 or 9 - and so are all of my peers. Very few (a privileged few) in high demand white-collar professions and industries such as law, investment banking, advertising, etc. work a standard 9-5 schedule anymore. Consequently, there is a tonne of evening business nowadays for restaurants and other businesses in traditionally white collar areas. Why do you think the most expensive restaurants in Toronto thrive in the financial district? Firstly, because we have expense accounts. Secondly, because we don't have time to go home for dinner, often returning to work afterwards. Further, consider that in most major cities a lot of the nightlife is concentrated in the vicinty of the financial district. Why? The combination of high stress and high income leads a good number of my colleagues to drop a truly staggering amount on booze (and other substances) at overpriced clubs and lounges as soon as Thursday or Friday hits (depending on where you work) in the desperate hope of decompressing for the weekend. They almost always end up going back on Saturday night too. Thus I think having a high concentration of white collar work in the core could be a plus. If this were combined with some new, upper end condo development, I think the downtown would be setting out on a pretty good track to renewal. The thing is, the yuppie paradigm has shifted. Young, educated people rarely want to face the hassle of a commute anymore, particularly with gas prices being as they are and the moral turpitude which attaches to driving long distances for no good reason everyday.

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By statius (registered) | Posted January 15, 2008 at 16:22:14

I should qualify my remarks.

Clearly, major hurdles need to be overcome if Hamilton is ever to entice the sort of high-demand white collar industries I mention above. Consider that in London, Ontario, financial services and major law firms abound. Hamilton on the other hand has managed to attract only one national law firm to its downtown, and it has to resort to paying well above the city average to attract the sort of lawyers it needs. London firms pay less and get top quality lawyers with minimal difficulty. Something very serious needs to be done about the city's image before it can attract the sort of person it needs to sustain a rejuvenated downtown.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 17, 2008 at 10:58:49

Just want to chime in a quick note about one ways in Toronto vs Hamilton.

First of all, Richmond and Adelaide are the only real one-ways in toronto that are comparable to ours and (no surprise) they are among the least vibrant streets in their core.

The one way residentials that you mention in the annex are actually quite efficient at doing what they are meant to do: keep through traffic OFF the side streets. The design of these streets -- where two one ways meet head to head; where you are forced to do unnecessary loops to get through; where some streets end in a false dead end -- this is a very efficient and cheap way to manage traffic through these areas and it's done on purpose. Hamilton could benefit from these ideas, as anyone who lives in durand can attest. Our residential streets easily become through streets and people drive like maniacs where children should be playing.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 17, 2008 at 11:04:15

Regarding light rail, it will absolutely have a positive effect on economic development.

When the rails are laid, developers will be clamouring to snatch up all of the land neighbouring the line because the LRT line will be a clear indicator of where the city has put its "eggs". Buses just do not have that effect no matter how many you throw onto a street nor how fancy they look.

ANd you will be surprised at the number of drivers who will take a train. If you can hop on a train that comes by every 5 minutes and be at work in 10, you'll see some real ridership growth. buses just can't compete and that's why everyone chooses to drive.

I agree that it is hard to get drivers to switch to transit, but LRT is a whole different league than buses.

Think of how many richie rich take the TTC subway, and ask whether those people would take a bus? Not likely. So you see in Toronto that any residential development within walking distance of a subway stop is worth way more than any land that requires a bus or streetcar transfer.

LRT is sexier than a subway even. People will take it.

Not to mention, it will save operating costs down the road since more riders can be pulled by a single driver, and the operation is detached from gas price spikes.

The sooner we invest in LRT the sooner we'll see a real turnaround. In fact, I'd move LRT to the top of your list!

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