We should look to the opportunities presented by midrise four to six storey buildings and the positive benefits they can bring to our neighbourhood.
By Dan Botham
Published July 24, 2015
The West Harbour GO station is expensive. $50 million is a large investment. To get the best return on a public transit system investment, it is generally agreed that dense urban development around stations is required. However, it is not nearly as clear just how much density is required.
One analysis [PDF] of American urban heavy rail systems suggests that the top 25% of cost-effective urban heavy rail investments are associated with surrounding densities of at least 11000 people per km2. That's more dense than most areas of Hamilton.
Hamilton, including its vast rural areas, has an average density of 465 people per km2. The density within an 800 meter radius of Hamilton Centre GO station is 8,500 people per km2, putting it just below the densities of the most cost-efficient American urban heavy rail systems.
I suspect that the density of the same area around the West Harbour GO station is lower. Clearly, there is room for increased density if we're to make the best of our investment in the West Harbour GO station.
There is some fear in the North End that "tall buildings" are a threat to the neighbourhood. In speaking of tall buildings in the North End, a recent article by the North End Neighbours, a local neighbourhood association, described efforts their members are taking to "mitigate their impact".
That is not an overwhelmingly positive attitude toward "tall buildings".
If we don't want "tall buildings" in the North End, shorter buildings standing four to six storeys tall are an alternative.
Recently, I visited friends in Norway and had a chance to experience two neighbourhoods in Oslo. Both were within walking distance of heavy rail stations, where four to six story buildings were used extensively.
Midrise buildings in Oslo
Not a single "tall building" exists in these two neighbourhoods yet they are both well served by heavy rail.
Buildings four to six stories tall can fit with the existing homes of the North End. In the past, some buildings over seven stories have been placed next to one- to two-and-a-half storey homes, especially in the Durand neighbourhood. This has an awkward effect as seen in these developments on Duke Street and Queen Street South.
Tall building next to houses on Duke Street
Tall buildings across from houses on Queen Street South
With examples like this close to home, I can understand the fear of densification in the North End.
However, many four to six storey buildings have recently been built which have integrated well into the mostly residential neighbourhood such as this development on Murray Street West.
Midrise building integrated well on Murray Street West
It is a common refrain for developers to request increased height as a means of increasing profitability of their projects. However, four to six storey buildings don't appear to be inherently poor investments for developers.
The fear that developers may advocate for more height to increase their profitability isn't a reason to abandon efforts to increase density sensibly.
Buildings over seven storeys have been used throughout the city to add density without fitting the existing form, but tall buildings are not the only way to add density. Four to six storey midrise buildings can provide the required density to bring value to our investment in the West Harbour GO station without exposing ourselves and our new neighbours to the potentially negative effects of "tall buildings".
Instead of worrying about mitigating the negative effects of tall buildings in our search to obtain value from our transit investments, perhaps we should look to the opportunities presented by midrise buildings and the positive benefits they can bring to our neighbourhood.
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