Special Report: West Harbour

Selling Sunset: Quick Fix in Broken Housing Market

If affordability is truly the goal for Strachan/Bay, then it cannot be achieved by putting the land on the market, but rather by making it available on favourable terms to a co-operative or other non-profit housing developer.

By Shawn Selway
Published April 07, 2017

Sunset Garden, formerly known as the Simcoe Tot Lot, is a green space at the corner of Strachan and Bay in the North End, directly across from the main entrance to Bayfront Park. Houses on this site were expropriated and removed during the urban renewal period of the mid-1960s, and the space has been vacant ever since.

Sunset Garden, aka Simcoe Tot Lot, at the corner of Bay and Strachan across from Bayfront Park.
Sunset Garden, aka Simcoe Tot Lot, at the corner of Bay and Strachan across from Bayfront Park.

As usually occurs when land remains out of the investment-disinvestment cycles for a long period - fifty years in this case - it came to be regarded as commons. However, Setting Sail, the secondary plan for the West Harbour, identified it as suitable for low-density residential.

When the ward councillor proposed to sell the land for that purpose a couple of years back, nearby residents petitioned against the new use and the councillor did not press the matter at that time. Now the issue has returned.

In the interim, local residents have installed a garden on the site, which the councillor wishes to move across the road into a grassy area of Bayfront Park, and Metrolinx has built a rather large GO station whose entrance is about 100 meters away.

As a resident of the North End, I read with great interest Matt Van Dongen's recent article about the proposed sale of the Sunset Garden site, titled "Residents want to keep patch of green."

Whatever I might personally feel about that green space at the northeast corner of Strachan and Bay, across from the entrance to Bayfront Park, I am extremely skeptical about some of the claims reported in Van Dongen's coverage of the planning committee meeting at which this land was declared surplus - without any public consultation or even the courtesy of advance notification by the councillors (Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr and Ward 5 Councillor Chad Collins) involved.

I find it difficult to believe that a piece of property located 100 meters from a GO Station will be given over to 12-14 units of low-density housing, much less that it will be "affordable" in any meaningful sense of the word.

I find it difficult because I have read the James Street North Mobility Hub Study, which was adopted by Council on September 24, 2014, as well as City staff's Implementation Update of Jan 17, 2017.

The Study was prepared in order to take into account the development pressures that would arise when the James North GO station was completed and began operation as a regional transit hub.

James Street North Mobility Hub Area (Image Credit: City of Hamilton Report PED14169, Appendix A)
James Street North Mobility Hub Area (Image Credit: City of Hamilton Report PED14169, Appendix A)

An area centred on the GO Station and taking in a large part of the West Harbour was reviewed and a number of "opportunity sites" selected and their development potential discussed in detail. Generally, heights of six stories were recommended, with step-ups from the street.

One of these opportunity sites is at the corner of MacNab and Stuart, directly across the tracks from the Strachan/Bay property, and is currently the subject of an application for an Official Plan Amendment. The application is for an eleven storey building with 77 dwelling units and one commercial use at grade.

Development opportunity sites on the block immediately west of the GO station. (Image Credit: James North Mobility Hub Study, Brook McIlroy, June 2014)
Development opportunity sites on the block immediately west of the GO station. (Image Credit: James North Mobility Hub Study, Brook McIlroy, June 2014)

This site is on the south end of the MacNab Street Bridge over the CN Rail tracks, immediately across the street from the GO station. The Strachan/Bay property is at the north end of this same bridge.

It is reasonable to infer that, had Strachan/Bay been designated surplus, rather than parkland, during the time when the Mobility Hub Study was being prepared, it too would have been deemed fit for six storeys.

As it is, the mapping in the Hub Study excludes the Sunset Garden plot from the area termed the "Primary Zone", meant for the greatest intensification, and includes the Garden as part of the "Strachan Street Green Corridor", which is a linear park.

Had the Councillor provided some opportunity for consultation before putting his motion through the planning committee, perhaps we could have found out what this all means for the eventual development of that land.

Notice of application for an Official Plan Amendment at the corner of MacNab and Stuart, kitty-corner from the entrance to the West Harbour GO station.
Notice of application for an Official Plan Amendment at the corner of MacNab and Stuart, kitty-corner from the entrance to the West Harbour GO station.

The motion entails a zoning change. Specifically, Planning and Economic Development is directed to initiate a site-specific zoning bylaw amendment to change the zoning from "Neighbourhood Park (P1)" to "residential purposes". No height restriction is indicated. Presumably the intention is to re-zone as residential, low density.

It would have been helpful if this were made clear in the text of the motion. As it is, I am at a loss to understand how a low-density zoning is to be maintained against an eventual buyer's wish to maximize returns by increasing the size of their building. To do so they need only apply for an Official Plan Amendment, and if denied or unanswered, proceed to the Ontario Municipal Board.

In view of the Province's and the City's density targets and Metrolinx's notion of what should occur in the near vicinity of mobility hubs, it is hard to imagine that an appeal to the OMB on the question of height with respect to Strachan/Bay would fail.

OMB decisions are made first of all with regard to "good planning", as defined by expert witnesses accepted as such by the Board at its hearings. Both the City (in accepting the Mobility Hub Study) and the province (in its Transit Supportive Guidelines and Mobility Hub Guidelines) have made clear what they regard as good planning at mobility hubs. It is not low-density residential.

The West Harbour GO station from the Sunset Garden site. The application for an eleven storey building is posted on the lot at the south end of the MacNab Street bridge, at the left of the photo.
The West Harbour GO station from the Sunset Garden site. The application for an eleven storey building is posted on the lot at the south end of the MacNab Street bridge, at the left of the photo.

But what is most important is that the meaning of "affordable" in this context is not at all clear. The secondary plan for West Harbour follows the Provincial Policy Statement in defining affordability as either a percentage of market values or a proportion of the buyer's or renter's income.

Affordable ownership housing is that for which payments take up no more than 30 percent of gross annual income, or whose price is 10 percent below an average price in some undefined regional area.

Affordable rent is no more than 30 percent of income, or any rent which is at or below the average rent in some undefined regional area.

This may have made sense in a remote Golden Age ten or fifteen years ago, but not any more. Housing costs as a whole have doubled since 2005 over eleven major Canadian markets. Toronto prices have more than doubled.

Does anyone think that incomes have doubled in the same period? Whatever the reasons, income and housing prices and rents have been uncoupled in large markets, and this is happening here also.

The result is that the market as currently constituted does not and will not supply housing which is affordable to low and middle income earners, either as renters or as first-time owners.

If affordability is truly the goal for Strachan/Bay, then it cannot be achieved by putting the land on the market, but rather by making it available on favourable terms to a co-operative or other non-profit housing developer.

Whether this would be the best use of that particular piece of land is another question altogether, which I lack space to enter into here. Selling off municipal land and vague talk of "creative" partnerships with the private sector is a medium term fix at best.

The creative thing to do here now is to turn away from a broken market, and use some of the large quantity of land we own to produce real innovation in housing supply for low and middle income earners.

Strachan/Bay land in upper right area of the image. Soon to become 12-14 units of affordable housing?
Strachan/Bay land in upper right area of the image. Soon to become 12-14 units of affordable housing?

Shawn Selway is a Stelco trained millwright who runs a consultancy in the interpretation and conservation of historic machinery. He lives in the North End with his family.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted April 07, 2017 at 10:55:46

a piece of property located 100 meters from a GO Station

Even six stories is inadequate density so close to a train station. The current application at McNab and Stuart for 11 stories with commercial at ground level is more reasonable for something so close to a GO railway station.

My concern would be that as some form of public housing, there will be political pressure for too low density, such as only six stories. In this particular case, selling the property to a private developer will mean that public good of high density in this location will align with the private benefit of obtaining maximum profit through higher density.

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By GWW (registered) | Posted April 07, 2017 at 11:59:20

Higher density is the way to go for an infill site so close to the Go Station. The City of Hamilton should be selling this property on the basis of a high (100?) minimum number of unit, with the developer allowed to increase density if the market demands more . Take a look at what is being put up in Burlington near the Go Station off of Fairview near Brant Street, there are 350 units spread over three buildings(A much larger site). Judging by its size compared to the Stuart street property it probably could support more than a 100 units. Given that condos are generally one or two bedroom units, these will cost less than the average home, making them affordable for people commuting to Toronto from the Go Station. The sales revenue on the land could go towards doing non-profit housing where lower density(townhouses or stacked townhouses) can be built at a lower cost than Condo Hi-Rise construction in the suburbs.

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By Selway (registered) | Posted April 07, 2017 at 12:09:46 in reply to Comment 121134

I don't see that the "public good" is automatically served by putting 11 storeys on that site. Why? Assessment cannot be the only criterion for development. If that were so then we would carry through the original owner's plans for Bayfront Park and sell it for towers - to the detriment of the public and also to the many private interests in the area -- including the "private benefit" of the developer of Witton Lofts.

The problem here is not only that there is to be no discussion about what criteria should prevail, but more fundamentally, that it is not clear than the City has the tools to achieve what the councillor says he wants to achieve.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted April 07, 2017 at 16:02:50 in reply to Comment 121139

Assessment cannot be the only criterion for development.

That is not what I wanted to say, so let me be a little more clear. The population of Hamilton and the GTHA is steadily increasing. Those people have to go somewhere. The question is whether they will go to appropriate or inappropriate places.

The appropriate places for high-density growth and development are places such as next to GO train and LRT stations as well as existing downtown surface car parking lots.

The inappropriate places for such growth and development are urban sprawl or places currently occupied by buildings of a high heritage value. An example of the latter is the proposed destruction of pre-Confederation buildings at Gore Park.

This article is about an infill 100 meters away from a GO railway station. High density is the way to go for this property.

My concern is that if this property is developed by a public or non-profit entity, as the author advocates, is that political pressure will result in an inappropriately low density level.

This is not to say that I am an opponent of non-profit entities providing housing. I am a member of the Board of Directors and Corporate Treasurer for Micah House, a provider of housing for refugees. These positions are entirely unpaid, and I will add that the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

My point is that I am not against non-profit entities providing housing. I am against public and non-profit housing in inappropriate areas where they are vulnerable to political pressure being brought to bear to result in inappropriately low density.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2017-04-07 16:03:22

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By RobF (registered) | Posted April 07, 2017 at 21:24:31

Judging by its size compared to the Stuart street property it probably could support more than a 100 units. Given that condos are generally one or two bedroom units, these will cost less than the average home, making them affordable for people commuting to Toronto from the Go Station.

We need a "planning" reality check. I've taken my lumps in the North End defending intensification. But it needs to be done in a way that is sensitive to the existing neighbourhood and surrounding properties. That site was designated low-density residential in the area's secondary plan for a reason: the adjacent properties are single-family homes and the property itself may not be large enough to support high-rise development without contravening the protections accorded to properties in the "stable areas" zone adjacent to areas designated for change (major or gradual).

Any increase above what is permitted by the secondary plan would require an OPA and rezoning, and would need to address the legitimate planning concerns that would arise from neighbouring land-uses in relation to what i've said. The OMB would certainly be receptive to arguments in favour of higher density and greater height, but not without a planning rationale to address other considerations including impact on adjacent properties, etc. These same considerations will apply for the development proposed across the tracks. I'm not saying that a higher-density development isn't appropriate or possible. More that you can't just straightforwardly translate it's within 100m of a GO station into it should be however big the developer wants to go because more density is in the public interest. Our planning framework is more complicated than that for good reason.

And as Shawn states in his article these lands went thru another planning exercise after the GO Station was announced in 2012: the James North Mobility Hub Study. That was specifically done to address where additional intensification resulting from the province's transit investment should go. Some of us attended and participated in the public consultation process for that and have supported the outcome, including the intensification it recommends. Council adopted the study's report in 2014. It didn't identify this as an "opportunity site" presumably for sound planning reasons and recommended it be included in the Strachan Street Green Corridor.

Why do we bother with these planning exercises I ask myself?

Comment edited by RobF on 2017-04-07 21:36:03

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By ceesvang (registered) | Posted April 09, 2017 at 08:07:00

Comment by Rob F - Why do we bother with these planning exercises I ask myself? Ditto, and thanks for the article, Shawn!

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