Revitalization

Our Height Restrictions are Insane

By Jason Leach
Published February 22, 2012

this blog entry has been updated

Hamilton's West Harbour compromise plan will result in potentially 600 new residential units on the entire site. Meanwhile, in the suburban north end of Toronto, 1,660 units are coming to a smallish parcel of land currently housing a strip mall.

Map illustrating site density (Image Credit: Urbantoronto.ca)
Map illustrating site density (Image Credit: Urbantoronto.ca)

Note that the Toronto project backs onto family homes with pools and is too far north to be on the subway line. In other words, way out of the urban core.

We had the Options for Homes condo at the corner of King and Queen Streets held up at the OMB because some folks wanted six stories instead of 12.

At King and Queen, right downtown in front of a future LRT station.

Too tall for downtown Hamilton? Rendering of a residential condo at the southeast corner of King Street West and Queen Street (Image Credit: Chamberlain Architect Services Ltd)
Too tall for downtown Hamilton? Rendering of a residential condo at the southeast corner of King Street West and Queen Street (Image Credit: Chamberlain Architect Services Ltd)

Our height restrictions are just insane. We need to see ourselves as a real city again. Mississauga is now building a bigger skyline than us, which means more density and eventually street life and business success.

Absolute Towers in Mississauga during construction (RTH file photo)
Absolute Towers in Mississauga during construction (RTH file photo)


Update: added rendering of the proposed condo at King Street West and Queen Street.

Jason Leach was born and raised in the Hammer and currently lives downtown with his wife and children. You can follow him on twitter.

38 Comments

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted February 22, 2012 at 12:27:41

Height restrictions were one of the items (along with parking requirements) that developers themselves cited as a barrier to building in downtown Hamilton during the LRT B-line development consultation process.

I think I know why they were proposed, with the thinking being that by limiting height would result in two six story buildings instead of an empty lot next to a twenty story tower that is half empty (yeah, that clearly didn't work out as they planned).

In any event, whatever the rationale was, we need to revisit these height restrictions and determine what the rationale is for them now, whether or not they're achieving that objective, and proceed accordingly.

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By slodrive (registered) | Posted February 22, 2012 at 12:48:42

Good call...and totally agree. I'm failing to find any rationale for height restrictions in a downtown core.

However, I'd caution to use Mississauga as a glowing example. Yes, the height flexibility is good, and the cityscape may look good from afar, but putting up tall towers with acres in between hardly develops a more walkable community. Their urban planning still seems content with a massive population devoid of a downtown - and the identity of a firmly entrenched bedroom community.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted February 22, 2012 at 16:01:42 in reply to Comment 74636

Maybe so, but how long do you imagine we'll have to wait to see Hamilton come out with something like Downtown 21?

http://www.mississauga.ca/portal/residents/downtown21

http://www.torontolife.com/daily/informer/cityscape/2011/03/16/mississauga-freezes-downtown-development-opposing-big-box-retail-is-not-just-for-leslieville-anymore/

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted February 22, 2012 at 23:19:27 in reply to Comment 74648

Hamilton's challenge is far smaller. Here we have a downtown that has grown (and stagnated) more or less organically - it's the historic core of the city, was the centre of commerce for many decades, and while it has been in decline and seen some slow progress forward, many of the same factors that supported it as the heart of the city still exist. Private investment, in the form of a variety of many small actions on the part of business owners on King and James, has been steadily growing with city support (and without it as well).

Mississauga's challenge has been to create a "downtown" where nothing existed before. They've had to come from a much more distant point of origin. And most of their private investment has involved large actions by developers, creating rather homogeneous blocks no matter how pretty they've been designed.

I'm not sure a "Downtown 21" would be a good thing in Hamilton. It might interfere with the progress that is happening right now. I fully believe the most sustainable development is development that grows of its own energy - the city's role should be to help guide it to its fruition, not designate what it should be.

Comment edited by ScreamingViking on 2012-02-22 23:20:46

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By Asymmetrics (anonymous) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 01:13:23 in reply to Comment 74673

Hamilton's key challenge in terms of a sustainable urban environment is courting new private sector residential development downtown, ideally developments geared to families as well as singletons, the demographic norm for downtown. The last three major private sector residential projects downtown were probably The Annex, The Core Lofts and the Pigott Building. I think the to-market dates on those were 2005, 2004 and 1996. Downtown Hamilton has a population under 7,000, and that number has changed little in the last 20 years. Even if downtown's small businesses closed at 6 daily (and most do), that would be a barrier to vitality. I'm not sure I agree that downtown's stagnation is a small problem. If that were the case, RTH would've never evolved past Roy Green cameos.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 23:31:10 in reply to Comment 74675

I didn't mean to imply that Hamilton's challenge was small. It isn't.

I just think it's smaller than Mississauga's. Maybe it's more that it's different, but I think we have a better foundation to work with. For example, one-way streets notwithstanding in Hamilton, has anyone ever tried to walk along Burnhamthorpe or Hurontario and get somewhere welcoming to a human being?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 24, 2012 at 06:28:38 in reply to Comment 74719

Intensification done wrong can end up functioning as vertical sprawl: streets are not pedestrian-friendly or walkable and you still need a car to get anywhere.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2012-02-24 06:28:49

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 22, 2012 at 17:35:29 in reply to Comment 74648

If they manage to pull off Downtown 21 while we're still sitting here with 5-lane truck freeways and parking meters in Gore Park, we might as well seal off the entrance to the city and call it a day.....

Comment edited by jason on 2012-02-22 17:35:35

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted February 22, 2012 at 12:50:34

From the Peopleshere:

The thought of Hamilton having to develop the height of Mississauga in order to have a density suitable for a vigorous, self sustaining tax base makes me sick to my stomach.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted February 22, 2012 at 14:17:21 in reply to Comment 74637

... why? What's wrong with high buildings?

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted February 22, 2012 at 17:17:58 in reply to Comment 74641

Given that the comment wasn't mine...though I align myself completely with it...what's wrong with high buildings?

Inherently, nothing.

But they are not a cure-all, and their height has to be appropriate to the area.

Comment edited by mystoneycreek on 2012-02-22 18:06:01

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By Peopleshere? (anonymous) | Posted February 22, 2012 at 14:29:59 in reply to Comment 74641

And what the heck is a Peopleshere?

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted February 22, 2012 at 17:18:32 in reply to Comment 74642

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By RB (registered) | Posted February 22, 2012 at 13:24:07

I don't know all the details, but I just can't help but feel as though this height restriction puts a serious, serious limitation on our potential investment.

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By Woody10 (registered) | Posted February 24, 2012 at 00:20:38 in reply to Comment 74638

You feel right. It does in a big way.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 22, 2012 at 17:34:07 in reply to Comment 74638

chat with local architects and developers from Hamilton and Toronto and they will confirm your concerns. We are losing a TON of investment by having a pile of unnecessary hurdles to high quality, urban development projects. Even boring little Burlington is outpacing us and allowing buildings taller near the 407 than we allow downtown on King St:

http://www.ironstonecondominiums.com/

http://www.stratacondos.ca/

Developers know there is such a hunger for high quality, urban-focused development right through urban and suburban centres in the Golden Horseshoe that they are more than happy to pass us by and our dinky little 4 or 15 storey height restrictions, even in neighbourhoods with 25-45 storey buildings already in existence. More arbitrary red-tape in the Hammer.

Comment edited by jason on 2012-02-22 17:48:33

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted February 22, 2012 at 23:07:21 in reply to Comment 74653

I agree, restrictions are not reasonable in some parts of the city. But have there been a lot of applications to change the zoning on specific sites to allow taller buildings?

One could argue that while developers know what they can and cannot do at present, they are also well aware of what they can and cannot fight to change.

I'm not sure the wave of condo investment has been lapping at our shores until fairly recently. Perhaps if the demand starts to ramp up, there will be more and more requests to amend zoning to allow larger buildings? And that will cause the city to do a more thorough assessment of current rules?

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted February 22, 2012 at 16:05:03

Height restrictions are restricting our development. City council needs to man-up.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted February 22, 2012 at 17:21:59 in reply to Comment 74649

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Comment edited by mystoneycreek on 2012-02-22 18:06:38

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted February 22, 2012 at 20:38:54 in reply to Comment 74652

Great, I nominate you to do the interview, write an article for RTH or the Spec or Bayview Observer, and then we can all be enlightened by your hard work.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted February 23, 2012 at 05:07:25 in reply to Comment 74665

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Comment edited by mystoneycreek on 2012-02-23 05:08:06

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 09:33:44 in reply to Comment 74681

Pot calling Kettle, Pot calling Kettle, come in Kettle...do you read me?

I'm really typically not this sarcastic with you, but I just had to step in because I think it's far too easy to tell other people what to do but much harder to do things yourself. Like the people who complain events are not listed in our event page - go add them!

I still think I would have been more enlightened by your interview than by that clip...

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By manup (anonymous) | Posted February 22, 2012 at 19:59:43 in reply to Comment 74652

and you need to stop playing judge judy and executioner for civic engagement

who made you the referee of what people are allowed to say and do?

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted February 23, 2012 at 05:02:12 in reply to Comment 74663

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Comment edited by mystoneycreek on 2012-02-23 05:03:11

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By Sigma Cub (anonymous) | Posted February 22, 2012 at 18:06:57

The question is whether they can reverse-engineer those parking lots. (And that's the same issue Hamilton has, if I'm not mistaken.)

Massive Population Devoid of a Downtown vs. Medium Downtown Devoid of a Population is not a permanent dichotomy. Looking for ego-lift off Mississauga's circumstance is understandable, but they have development momentum and (apparently) a game plan. How long until the punch-line changes?

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By TreyS (registered) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 09:52:18

Height restrictions in other cities exist because of a reason. Ottawa, no buildings taller than the Parliament (within a radius) Montreal, no buildings taller than the mountain, for view reasons, still allows for 60-story buildings though. Vancouver, and Tokyo it's an earthquake thing, but for some reason Seattle and LA can build 70-stories. Athens, nothing to shadow the Acropolis. etc.

In Hamilton we have no good reason why we have a height limit. It's just another regulation on free-enterprise.

Originally our tallest -- Century 21 -- was to have a revolving restaurant and heli-pad, so that diners could see the city below, Toronto and onto the mountain. Too bad our ambition died in the 70s. So we knee-cap developments at 9-12 floors, for why?

Comment edited by TreyS on 2012-02-23 09:54:09

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By Steve (registered) | Posted February 27, 2012 at 14:44:05 in reply to Comment 74696

FTR, some buildings in Ottawa are now taller than the Peace Tower. I believe Campeau first broke the rule many years ago (like 30) and there are now a number of buildings higher.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 10:35:53

If you want your city to grow there are really only two choices: up or out.

Up is cheaper... both fiscally and environmentally.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted February 24, 2012 at 11:02:18 in reply to Comment 74701

Unless you give the land away at a freakishly cheap discount and eat the servicing costs. Then businesses will definitely find that out is cheaper.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted February 25, 2012 at 17:37:39

Is this the same problem that affected Stinson at Main and John? Sounds like that is becoming a compromise candidate to the original. How much hassle would he have faced with his pyramid at the Connaught? Oh the humanity.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 25, 2012 at 18:39:43 in reply to Comment 74746

No, it was even more absurd. They wanted him to set it back further to allow for future widening of Main St.

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By A Spire Higher (anonymous) | Posted February 26, 2012 at 09:32:38 in reply to Comment 74748

The great irony of the HamiltonGrand situation is that Stinson's last project was One King West, a building whose claim to fame is that it's about 10 meters wide and has a height-to-width ratio of around 11:1.

The response to the admittedly bizarre setback considerations at King & John (something that should have been discovered pre-purchase with a bit of due diligence) has not been to grow higher, but to shave floors off, to the point where the Grand's height-to-width radio is roughly 1:1.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 26, 2012 at 16:47:31 in reply to Comment 74749

...something that should have been discovered pre-purchase with a bit of due diligence...

Getting a little tired of this defense being dragged out every time a developer or creative entrepreneur gets sandbagged by one of our uniquely insane bits of red tape.

The reason he was forced to reduce the number of floors is because his original investors were scared off by the setback nonsense. I'm sure he would have loved to have gone higher.

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By A Spire Higher (anonymous) | Posted February 27, 2012 at 23:43:17 in reply to Comment 74751

It may seem arcane, but he's a developer, right?

Think of the setback as a property line or an easement.

If you were in the position of trying to rebuild your worldly fortunes and reassert your bonafides as a Serious Developer, wouldn't you be a little curious about where you stood, literally as well as figuratively?

And if, like Mr. Stinson, you had a long history of getting screwed over the small print, wouldn't you be a litt OCD about all the Ps and Qs?

It's certainly not the lone excuse, and it's not even intended to be a very good excuse, but neither is the city alone to blame any time someone gets buggered over someone's ignorance of the fact that the city has ridiculous zoning and a black sense of humour with regard to urban planning.

I'm sure some people are getting a little tired of "the setback nonsense" being dragged out every time Mr. Stinson cues the tiny violins.

The fact that the head of the property's investment consortium had his wings clipped by the OSC in August 2009 was, to my mind at least, a more significant disincentive. (The setback story came out a year later.)

I stand by my One King West comment. If there was sufficient will and vision and private sector investment interest in the core, the setback would be regarded as a challenge, not a crippling blow.

Instead, we have what is starting to look like capitulation to the status quo. The fact that these are mostly 300 square foot investment properties (ie. rental apartments, 33 a plate) may also have impacted their investment appeal. Perhaps not in an entirely positive manner.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 26, 2012 at 20:39:27 in reply to Comment 74751

I'm with you. I can understand if someone buys a home on a residential street with plans to knock it down and build a 40 storey condo mid-block, but nobody should EVER have to even think for a second that we might widen Main Street.
If I was an investor I'd get out of here too. I can just see them in their TO offices saying "seriously, Hamilton might WIDEN that horrendous freeway??? They're more backwards than we thought."

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By Ruth (anonymous) | Posted March 04, 2012 at 21:16:17

Thanks to all for sharing in such a lively conversation.

I must confess that I haven't read all 35 + comments. As a relatively newcomer, I sense that Hamilton is perhaps suffering from an identity crisis: history vs. future, community-driven vs. cosmopolitan drive, etc.

Imbedded non-profits are advocating that 'moving is not an option', whilst, as a recent McMaster grad I can attest to the fact that living here having to commute to TO is not a real option either. The civic movement is fervently against the Aerotropolis, while some feel that having a viable international airport in Hamilton will encourage companies to establish themselves here vs. in Toronto.

I hope that open discussion vs. adversarial debate will result in discovery of sustainable solutions including the attraction of employers to the Hamilton core. Let's rebuild a sustainable viable economy here in Hamilton (and multi-story buildings, if that's what is require) to sustain Hamilton-based families including their recent McMaster grads.

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By TreyS (registered) | Posted March 05, 2012 at 11:20:35

Niagara Falls has taken closer steps to three new skyscrapers, a 57-, 42-, and 32-story buildings for either residential or hotel use all on a parcel of land about the same size as the Board's Crestwood site.

This is directly across from their new Scotiabank Convention Centre. http://www.niagarathisweek.com/iphone/ne...

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By @Trey (anonymous) | Posted March 05, 2012 at 22:10:54 in reply to Comment 75020

Surely you don't like what Niagara Falls has done in the past decade or so. The place is an absolute crap hole now

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