By Ted Mitchell
Published January 11, 2008
My head is still spinning from tonight's (Jan. 10) meeting about Trinity Development Group's proposal for the West Hamilton Innovation District, meaning the area between Frid and Chatham Streets and Aberdeen Ave, immediately west of the CPR train tracks.
Check out Google Maps for a better look at the area.
An important thing to note is that the development plan on Trinity's website is not what was presented. The current version on the website looks like big box hell.
This may be misleading. Depending on who you listen to, the new proposal is either smallish-big-box hell, or a fantastic opportunity for economic development in West Hamilton.
Seeing as Trinity's option to buy is conditional on a return to "K zoning" which permits everything but residential, the fine details of the site plan have not been ironed out.
They paint the preliminary proposal as a number of mixed commercial stores, all fronting on the proposed Frid St. extension to Longwood, with pedestrian and cycling friendly street parking and wide (by Hamilton standards) sidewalks.
They insist, however, on two "small" big box anchor stores (40,000 sq. ft. each, to put that number in perspective it is half the area of the Canadian Tire on Upper James, or two of the Dundas Canadian Tire stores), the rationale being the area would be dead after 5:00 PM without them.
About 1,300 parking spaces are proposed, not all on ground level.
Next we had the City's take on this, which was significantly supportive of the development concept, but not willing to change the zoning as it wishes only to promote uses that complement the McMaster Innovation Park.
Audience members turned out in force with standing room only. My observation was that at least three quarters of those present felt Trinity's was not a good idea as presented, voicing concerns about too much traffic and wasting an opportunity to expand MIP compatible uses.
The Kirkendall Neighbourhood Association, Westdale and Locke BIA's, and Ainslie-Wood Westdale Community Association voiced opposition to the proposal. A few audience members were vocal in supporting the project, one arguing that people shop at big boxes anyway, so why not build them closer to the neighbourhood, which would save car trips.
What happens next with this conflict is an appeal to that Kremlin of democracy, the Ontario Municipal Board. It was made clear that individuals embarking on political approaches such as petitions will be ignored by the process.
Parties have to register and trudge through the process, which I can imagine is a good dose of torture in itself. The KNA and Westdale BIA reps both announced they would register to oppose the zoning revision.
Then came a kind of sheepish admission from the MIP representative, and a gasp from the audience, that MIP would be opting out of the OMB process, as there was some kind of tit-for-tat deal between MIP and Trinity that was conditional on MIP withholding any objections against Trinity's plan. An audience member tried to explain this, but I didn't get the gist of it.
I can't comment on all the points made, but here are my impressions.
Trinity played the card of benefit accruing to Hamilton from economic development, new taxes, fully funded development charges and remediation of a contaminated Brownfield. On that last point I have to take issue, since what they didn't mention is the increase in vehicle trip generation and the consequent traffic congestion and air pollution that necessarily follow big box commercial areas. Forget about numbers of parking spaces for a second and think of how those spaces are used. People working at the MIP or some other light industry will park for the day. People shopping at big boxes park for half an hour and then are replaced by someone else doing the same, all day long.
The latter use is an order of magnitude more demanding on road congestion and pollution. No mention whatsoever was made of these consequences by Trinity. That tactic is dishonest and I made this clear to the representative after the meeting. A traffic engineering analysis needs to be done before any quantitative conclusions can be made about whether Aberdeen and Longwood can handle this extra demand, over and above that already forecast from MIP. Not having a clue about these numbers, it is more than bold to market the project while ignoring these critical consequences.
Moreover, my understanding of toxicological research is that the main environmental risk to human health is air pollution, not soil contamination. Every year, the relative contribution to poor air quality from industry falls, while the contribution from traffic rises.
In this area of West Hamilton, the toxic risk is all about your proximity to a major road like the 403. Still, Trinity's rep told me privately that they would love to put mixed residential in with the commercial, but federal regulations prohibit this use entirely unless the site is cleaned to a pristine state.
That's too bad, since there is a massive difference between a detached residential house and an apartment above a store in terms of possible exposure to contaminated soil.
Now there is a positive side to this proposal. Trinity says it wants to make the development bicycle and pedestrian friendly. With their current plan, I am skeptical that this is possible, but it is critical to the success of the WHID / MIP revitalization project.
This is because the 403 divided the natural connection between Kirkendall and Westdale / Ainslie, to the detriment of potential cyclists and pedestrians ever since, not to mention community health.
Anyone who thinks that traveling on Aberdeen and Longwood in rush hours in anything other than a car is acceptably safe and comfortable is seriously delusional. Fixing this severed connection is a major quality of life issue that must be addressed before the MIP and WHID can provide all that they promise to our city.
We have growing evidence that walkable communities are healthier than those that are car-dependent. That is statistically true. I would add the personal observation that my quality of life is impaired by car-centric design and enhanced by human-scale areas.
Trinity's land is exactly in the area that can repair or further sever these critical human scale connections, and all the consequences to the economic and social health of McMaster University, MIP, and the Kirkendall and Westdale communities. I'd like nothing more than to bike to work at the MIP someday, crossing the tracks at Herkimer and Macdonald and stopping for coffee at one of Trinity's lessee establishments, and pick up some grub from another one on the way home. This scenario is entirely compatible with robust economic activity in the WHID, if the zoning and built environment is done properly.
Screw this opportunity up, and I for one will be looking for another research park in another city. My career and family are too important to waste on a City that trades short term economic sure bets for community health and quality of life. Those things cannot be bought at any price.
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