As downtown has undergone a revival, Council has lost its sense of urgency and now refuses to follow through on the revitalization initiatives it started in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
By Ryan McGreal
Published April 27, 2015
Notes from my presentation to the Hamiltime! urbanist tour of Hamilton on Saturday, April 25. I met the tour at Sam Lawrence Park around 11:30 AM.
Downtown Hamilton, view from Sam Lawrence Park
Hamilton is a city that has long been caught in the trap of an economic monoculture, a trap of our own making. We grew up with a relatively small number of large industrial employers, which provided an upstream market of suppliers, a large pool of well-paying jobs for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers, and big industrial property tax revenues for the City.
Over the past 30 years, globalization and automation have eliminated most of those large employers, their jobs and their property tax revenues. Despite the global trajectory of changes, Hamilton remains substantially stuck in rust-belt thinking.
To this day, our economic development strategy leans heavily on servicing industrial greenfields next to highways and the airport to lure companies here with big discounts and subsidies.
This approach tends to attract bottom-feeding companies looking to consolidate their operations and minimize their costs, rather than visionary companies looking to maximize their value. If they come here at all, it is because we're the cheapest place to operate, and if another city undercuts us, they'll leave without a second thought.
We are mostly failing to cultivate our potential to foster an urban environment that supports starting and growing new local made-in-Hamilton companies.
We are not acting on the economic research that cities are natural engines of economic development - that the essential economies of density, scale, agglomeration and association are drivers of innovation and growth.
Our legacy of rust-belt thinking also manifests in our one-way street network, which was designed in the 1950s for an army of workers driving to the industrial north end and persists today despite all evidence that it has long outlived whatever limited utility it may once have provided.
Wellington Street North during rush hour (RTH file photo)
Multi-lane thoroughfares that were designed to carry 30-40,000 cars a day now carry less than 10,000. They run past people's homes and through their neighbourhoods, deterring the kinds of chance encounters that enrich our lives even as they produce new ideas.
Our rust-belt street network hurts our ability to offer a high quality of life in urban neighbourhoods for those people who seek it. It hurts our ability to attract and retain creative professionals and entrepreneurs. It hurts our ability to provide safe, livable, inclusive streets for everyone.
It persists against all the obvious harm it causes because it continues to serve the narrow interests of people who simply want to drive through the city quickly and easily. This, in turn, plays into an urban/suburban dynamic that Torontonians will find very familiar
The good news is that things have been changing, albeit slowly.
In the 1990s, a broad, citizen-driven visioning and planning exercise called Vision 2020 produced a set of ideas to steer Hamilton toward a more hopeful, more sustainable future.
This was a time when the state of the lower city and downtown core was truly dismal. The fear that Hamilton could follow the footsteps of American cities like Detroit and Buffalo into collapse spurred Council into a sense of urgency. They were persuaded to adopt some of the initiatives from the Vision 2020 exercise that have paved the way for the revival that is currently underway.
They agreed to convert a few key streets to two-way, including James and John. At the time, the streets were widely regarded as too far gone to save. Over the past decade, James Street North has gone from the poster child for urban disinvestment to the model of urban revitalization.
They eliminated development charges for new downtown projects. This makes sense since the infrastructure for infill projects is by definition already in place.
They established a downtown Residential Loan Program to bridge the financing gap for new residential projects. Money has been loaned out, repaid and loaned again in this successful program.
It also helps that Hamilton is just close enough to Toronto to be a potential escape hatch for people being priced out of that red-hot market.
In addition, Hamilton is arguably the only authentically urban rather than suburban municipality in the GTHA other than Toronto - a real mid-sized city with a coherent, intact urban form and a more human scale.
The problem is that as downtown has undergone a revival, Council has lost its sense of urgency and now refuses to follow through on the revitalization initiatives it started in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Two-way conversions that were approved in 2001 languish year after year without funding and attempts to make modest investments in increased livability that will pay huge net returns are met with resentment and divisive politicking.
Now, as in the 1990s, the push for change must come, and is coming, from the bottom up, not from the top down. Engaged citizens and groups in Hamilton need to get better at organizing to cooperate and build support. We need to get better at explaining how a healthy centre benefits the whole city.
We need to align the interests of urban and suburban residents and find ways to neutralize the negative effects of wedge politics. We don't have a high-profile Rob Ford type here, but the same dynamics are definitely in play.
We need to get better at integrating the fresh perspectives and ideas of people choosing to move to Hamilton from other places - places from which we can learn lessons to apply in our own ongoing revival.
We need to figure out how to let go of our destructive legacy of rust-belt thinking once and for all. I hope events like Hamiltime can help us with that.
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