By Ryan McGreal
Published October 04, 2007
"I'm standing on a balcony at Halifax Harbour, and the view is just outstanding. I'm just wowed." Mayor Fred Eisenberger is looking out over a city facing many of the same issues as Hamilton. Through a clear vision and strong collaboration between government, citizens and business groups, Halifax is already starting to transform its downtown into a more vibrant, people-friendly place.
It's an inspiration for the Mayor, who plans to bring the optimism and progress he sees back to Hamilton. He agreed to a telephone interview with RTH to talk about his Next Hamilton initiative, a strategy to build the city's future around harbour restoration, downtown revitalization, rapid transit, City Hall renewal, brownfield development, and completion of the Red Hill Expressway.
The Mayor believes our strategy should focus on three facets: the transition to an information based economy, an urban renaissance through downtown and the waterfront, and modern transportation infrastructure.
He argues that it is a forward-looking initiative. "It's about the future. We can all dwell on what hasn't happened, or what should have happened. This is about what can happen."
He sees building momentum and public interest for a new strategy. He even cited the Hamilton Spectator's "Hamilton Next" series as an effect of this new energy for revitalization.
The Mayor's vision for an urban renaissance emphasises downtown redevelopment, improved transit, and high tech innovation, but the departments of Planning and Economic Develpment and Public Works have traditionally been fixated on greenfields and road capacity. I asked him if he can see a conceptual shift in their approach to development.
"Well, we'll have to get there," he responded. "If we continue to promote a growth pattern that is based on urban sprawl, you're going to continue to have urban sprawl. We need to rethink what urbanization is."
"We need some new regulations on what to put focus and priority on," he added, but noted that this means actually changing our priorities.
He mentioned the upcoming strategic planning exercises with City Council in October to "talk about where we want to go," pointing out that these exercises need to "follow up with public at large."
Among the questions the exercises will explore, he posed: "How do we redesign Hamilton to be that city of the future? What will the public accept? What does the public aspire to?"
As for the prevailing culture, he said, "We have an existing road pattern - it's about flow-through and that's why" our streets are optimized for fast car travel. "Is it going to be the car oriented community or a people oriented community? I choose the later. The question is, how do we get there?"
Hamilton's transportation plan was developed before the provincial rapid transit funding announcement. I asked the Mayor whether it makes sense to reconsider light rail in light of that. Why take the intermediate step of bus rapid transit, after all, when we can get the real thing?
He agreed, saying, "I think we ought to aim high. We know light rail from an environmental basis is the best and that over the long term, it has reduced operating and environmental costs." He also referenced peak oil, since electric transit will be more insulated from rising petroleum costs.
"We need to look for the higher order choice that will serve our environment. With the funding that's out there - $17 billion, a significant amount of money that will be eaten up very quickly - I think we ought to get our fair share. For the lower city, I think light rail is the one."
Going up the mountain, he's not as sure whether light rail makes sense, but agreed that we need to take a close look and conduct the studies to decide the best system.
He sounded excited about public interest in his proposal for making the Gore into a pedestrian plaza. "There are voices against a downtown pedestrian plaza, but also many voices speaking for it."
The trigger for him was the delegation he received from Debrecen, Hungary. "We got to talking about what's happening in our communities and they talked about their dramatic step at taking a formerly flow-through corridor and cutting traffic off, and the posive results that followed - new investment, new development and more people."
He noted that they were able to do this very quickly because of the political state in Hungary, "a little shy on democracy," which meant they could implement their plan very quickly. In Hamilton, the process will be slower but more inclusive. We need "a willingness to look at this initiative in a very serious way, at what the benefts are going to be. We need to look at our ranks, our ability to see the vision in a different way."
One of the principal objections to closing the North side of the Gore is concern about traffic flow. I asked the mayor what he thinks of two-way conversions on adjacent streets to alleviate this concern.
"I'm not sure going two-way alleviates the traffic concerns," he said, because the idea should be to move through traffic out of the core. He identified major corridors like Burlington St and the Linc as "opportunities to offload" traffic from the core.
"I'm open to looking at traffic patterns that invigorate our downtown core. Two-way conversion on James and John has been positive. It has taken some time to get used to, but has invigorated the businesses and offered a new view on what downtown looks like. People who just want to get home pick different routes to do that."
He repeated this point. "People need to know that downtown should be a destination, as opposed to a pass-through."
In other cities that have undertaken efforts to revitalize, poor people have often been displaced and left behind in the renaissance. I asked the Mayor what we can do to ensure this doesn't happen here, in a city that already has a 20 percent poverty rate.
"We're going to be asking for an economic development strategy that talks about that very thing. It is about jobs, it is about a living wage, it is about pople having the resources to have a decent quality of life. We need to take the steps to get there."
He thinks "we haven't done enough to evaluate what our opportunities are, how we can bring them to the community and develop the resources to get success." Programs are in place now to help people with low incomes, but "they're not always completely adequate or completely in our control."
I asked him about the Poverty Roundtable's recent call on the province to develop a provincial strategy. He expressed support, saying, "It doesn't take just one group agency or just one government to solve this problem. Hamitlon has suffered more than most cities; we're going to have to be a collaborate effort, with not just government, but businesses as well, helping folks through education, matching skills training with available jobs. It takes everyone to achieve success."
I asked the Mayor what challenges or impediments he faces in developing his initiative. "Time," he laughed. "I want to mak sure there are reasonable expectations of what we can achieve and how long it will take."
He also emphasized that we need a new, inclusive way of making decisions. "We must get processes in place to give people the opportunuty to collaborate. That's a new word in Hamilton. Consensus has not been part of the political framework. It certainly wasn't when I was in council before.
"I really think that's the way forward. it's not going to be City Council that's going to solve these problems. We can only lead the way by bringing other resource and partners to thte table."
He noted that the economic development team in Halifax is a partnership between the city and the business community. He described "a design scenario downtown that brings in all the players and starts talking about what we want our city to look like in 10-20 years. That's going to take some time - it's two year project."
The city just emerged from a multi-year, long-term planning process under the framework of the Growth Related Integrated Development Strategy (GRIDS). I asked how Next Hamilton differs from that exercise.
"GRIDS was a Council process, not as collaborative as it could have been, and was decided in the absence of consensus in the broader community as to what what the future directions ought to be."
He agreed that GRIDS is "a foundation to move forward on. Nodes and coridors are a logical way to reurbanize our community, but there's a lot more to do in terms of the steps to take."
He wants Next Hamilton to generate consensus from all the participants and affected parties, not just Council. "If the development community isn't on board, we will continue to have urban sprawl. We need collaboration and consensus. Developers live in our community, they want to do right by it, they want a vibrant, healthy community as well. We need to talk about what that looks like" so developers understand it and buy into it.
We've come quite a way from the days when Mayor Larry Di Ianni dismissed the idea of even considering a development scenario that didn't include aerotropolis because it "wouldn't be honest" since he had no intention of accepting it, or when the city's department of public works dismissed the idea of converting Main Street to two-way because it carries too many cars as a one-way thoroughfare.
We still have a long way to go before we achieve Mayor Eisenberger's vision for the city, but his approach stands in marked contrast to the city's 'my way or the highway' political traditions. Collaboration and consensus take longer to achieve, but they produce more lasting results and encourage a culture of respect and inclusion.
After almost a year of laying the groundwork for a conceptual shift in how political decisions are made and what urban development means, the Mayor is starting to go public with his initiatives.
Some people will oppose these initiatives out of ignorance or fear of change; others will oppose it because they benefit from the status quo. Ultimately, Mayor Eisenberger will succeed or fail based on whether he is successful in achieving a culture of collaboration and consensus to replace the culture of cronyism and confrontation that has held this city back for so long.