In a telephone interview with RTH, Mayor Fred Eisenberger shared his thoughts on the McMaster Innovation Park location that has emerged recently as a possible alternative to the West Harbour.
By Ryan McGreal
Published August 30, 2010
Tomorrow, on the very day that the Pan Am HostCo is supposed to vote on Hamilton's Pan Am stadium bid, Councillors will meet at an emergency Committee of the Whole meeting to discuss a possible last-minute resolution to the impasse between the City and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who refuse to play at the West Harbour stadium location that Council reaffirmed on August 14.
In a telephone interview with RTH, Mayor Fred Eisenberger shared his thoughts on the McMaster Innovation Park location that has emerged recently as a possible alternative site. Ticat owner Bob Young wrote a letter today to the Mayor indicating that the Ticats would be interested in this site, which is located near Aberdeen Ave and Longwood Rd in southwest Hamilton.
Ryan McGreal, Raise the Hammer: How do you feel about the Aberdeen-Longwood MIP site?
Mayor Fred Eisenberger: The MIP location and its employment lands are part of a grander vision for our city. I think it's certainly not ideal that it gets changed into a location for a stadium site. Having said that, members of Council are clearly interested in some sort of resolution and would be interested in assessing the MIP and other potential sites to find a conclusion that serves both the city and the Tiger-Cats.
My lens for supporting this is still grounded on brownfield remediation, public transit connections, LRT, spillover benefits for the waterfront and downtown - the essence of why the West Harbour, in my view, is still the best site for all concerned. Tomorrow we may see that Council has a different view.
RTH: Was the MIP site studied during the site evaluation process? If so, what was the conclusion?
MFE: I think it was raised by Michael Fenn during the facilitation process. Ten or twelve sites were put forward from the Tiger-Cat perspective, and Fenn tried to find an alternate site that was doable compared to the West Harbour.
The East Mountain was put forward not as a compromise site but an alternate site that met more of the Tiger-Cat goals. Despite this, Council affirmed the West Harbour no less than seven times.
Now, clearly emotions and the potential of losing the Tiger-Cats has affected everyone. This fear is ruling the day more than long-term planning and vision.
If council should decide to go [in the direction of the MIP site] as Mayor I'll do what I need to do to ensure we don't lose the opportunity of Pan Am and the replacement of our stadium. It's less than ideal but has some elements of connection to public transit and regeneration of brownfields, though it's still being done in the wrong location if it's at MIP.
RTH: What will the city do to ensure the innovation employment growth district isn't compromised?
MFE: That's difficult for me to answer. I'm not sure if that's possible to the degree that would involve the entire vision of the MIP site. A stadium obviously compromises that, but if Council looks in that direction, we'll have to look awfully hard to see how we can fulfill the MIP vision with a stadium in the midst.
It's not devoid of opportunities, but we have to look at parking issues. There's a parking requirement for all the MIP sites, and it's time to start thinking about a collective parking strategy with McMaster, the stadium and City to free up more land for more intense development based on the MIP collective theme of research, technology, job and employment producing opportunities.
I don't have all the answers, but I'm very mindful of the issue of wanting to protect employment land. Should Council go down this path, we'll have to look awfully hard to find an opportunity to free up more land that might allow for less parking on the east side of the MIP lands and more room for actual building construction.
It might also mean moving some MIP uses downtown. This is not a plan; I'm just thinking out loud, what happens if. The city building objectives of LRT, brownfield redevelopment, and catalying other investments would be compromised unless we pull some of that into the downtown areas to house research facilities and so on.
Downtown might be a benefit that comes out of what is not necessarily a wise decision.
RTH: Is West Harbour dead?
MFE: The West Harbour is dead in the minds of many Councillors. I'm a firm supporter: I think it works for all parties concerned and still do - and I think the notion of West Harbour development is not at all dead.
From that perspective it's not a perfect scenario, but we're a lot farther advanced than we were just four months ago. Now we own the lion's share of West Harbour properties and have commitments from city to follow through on a significant development at West Harbour that will help invigorate the waterfront and downtown.
Again, it's not perfect but it's certainly far from bad.
RTH: Are any other sites still in consideration?
MFE: Nothing specific. I think the thirst is to look at other inner-city opportunities, but I can't tell you what they are right now. Staff will be directed to look at likely alternative sites - inner-city as well as MIP.
RTH: What would you say to West Harbour supporters about this change in location?
MFE: It's very disappointing that we haven't got a collective will on Council to stay with West Harbour. It's disappointing the Tiger-Cats won't go there, but at the end of the day, in the absence of the Tiger-Cats as long term tenant, we're all hearing rumblings about HostCo saying a 5,000-7,000 seat stadium with temporaries is where they'll end up. That's not a useful scenario going forward.
So there are not a lot of good options, but we're trying to make the best out of a not particularly good situation from a West Harbour perspective.
I think it's clear that a commitment all members of council should and must make, whatever happens, the West Harbour is an imminent development opportunity that we have to fulfill now in partnership with the Feds and Province, and any other public sector and private sector developers. A lot of developers have come to the table, we've made some significant gains, a number of private sector developers want to help development in Hamilton. There are varying ideas of how to do it, and that's all invigorated by this debate.
For the long term, a very significant step forward in a lot of the vision of Hamilton.
RTH: If the West Harbour is not chosen, will this affect the planned GO station on James or the LRT time line?
MFE: The Canadian Urban Institute (CUI) has highlighted a clearly identified critical mass of development that will include LRT, the West Harbour, currently empty spaces and parking lots. Moving the stadium to the MIP will have no material effect on our LRT plans, especially if we do a significant West Harbour development.
GO is still on track to put a station at Liuna on James. There's no doubt it will come. It would still be a much more interconnected scenario if the stadium went into the West Harbour, but West Harbour redevelopment in general and other critical mass developments fully justify an LRT.
We need to maintain that vision and notion that critical mass will make it go, and it's all there, identified by the CUI study - a good blueprint for how to regenerate inner cities.
RTH: Given that HostCo has rejected proposals in Burlington and Markham in the past week, what is your understanding of what HostCo requires to accept a site proposal?
MFE: It's pretty clear at this point, based on all the signals and what we're hearing, that HostCo demands a long-term, high-performance sport tenant. Translation - a professional long term tenant. While we've gotten some mixed signals through the process, there's no doubt in my mind that they'll accept a stadium with a long-term tenant.
The private sector and additional public sector money will still be necessary to get it up to 25,000 seats.
There's a possible GO connection via LRT to the MIP site. James to McMaster will have better land value uptake right off the bat. We want to connect an LRT line from GO at Liuna up James North and over to McMaster as a first step. That begins to make some sense in terms of critical mass.
We also have bus operations and that would be an opportunity. MIP is close to a bus line, unlike the East Mountain location, which is far removed from transit corridors. Main-King already has reasonable rapid transit capacity.
Ultimately LRT is the answer.
RTH: Do you think there's still time to develop this proposal for HostCo?
MFE: Yes. Time isn't measured in months but weeks - that's not ample time, but it is time to come to some conclusion. [HostCo] are prepared to give us a couple of weeks to come to terms with the Tiger-Cats.
RTH: Have you discussed this with HostCo and the Province to see if they're open to the idea?
MFE: There have been discussions on an ongoing, almost a daily basis through entire exercise, and we can expect ongoing discussions. City staff will report tomorrow what they've specifically been told by Hostco and what they're expected to do.
RTH: Is Council - or are you - willing to walk away from a stadium deal if it does not meet the city's objectives?
MFE: It's premature to say. We need to see what the whole picture looks like after the discussions. We need to look at what's on the table. If we can get the stadium in a reasonable location with West Harbour redevelopment in partnership - it's not perfect, but it could be good.
I still think the perfect scenario would be the West Harbour with development around it; but we can still do West Harbour redevelopment in a similar vein with a stadium in another location. If the plan still has benefit to the neighbourhood and the waterfront downtown, we've had some measure of success.
We need to see what the whole picture looks like in the next couple of weeks to determine if what fits the bill is going to have a longer-term objective for the city.
RTH: Given the chance to go through this process over again (as if you'd want to!), what if anything would you do differently?
I think the city has acted very honourably through the entire process. We've been fully open and transparent throughout the process, with stacks of material published and shared with the community.
Knowing that the Tiger-Cats had a problem with the site and were emphatic about it, after we were very clear about what we were prepared to talk about and brought in a facilitator, we've done everything humanly possible to understand and appreciate the Tiger-Cats' concerns, and I've done everything humanly possible to ensure the city building objectives weren't lost.
I didn't believe that based on how this unfolded - certainly a surprise to me - that we'd have any issue with who'd be performing in the stadium. Euphoria turned to shock to see that we ended up in this turmoil.
But sometimes you have to go through turmoil to get to a conclusion. Certainly no one wanted that - I certainly didn't - but we're at a point where everyone understands that Pan Am is in jeopardy potentially, and so is the football team. Now everyone realizes it's time to work on a solution.
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