Does downtown Hamilton have a bright future? Only if our city officials choose to give it one.
By Jason Leach
Published December 14, 2004
The rebirth of Hamilton's core and surrounding neighbourhoods is probably the most talked about issue in our city, and it should be. Even city council, after years of ignoring the core, has recently found some money for residential investment grants and has begun planning some major streetscaping initiatives and changes downtown.
Is this enough? We've all heard of the downtown crack house, with its regular violence and even recent deaths. We read stories of an innocent, hard-working Hamiltonian being stabbed repeatedly by a federal convict while opening her shop for business in Jackson Square.
Innocent pedestrians mugged and beaten for money and possessions; respectable businesses replaced by dollar stores, cheque cashing stores and boarded up windows. Hardly the picture of a fun, vibrant city.
So what's missing? The most important factor: political priority.
I mentioned council's programs to help spur downtown investment (more on this below), but they are a drop in the bucket when compared to money earmarked for the Red Hill Expressway or Hamilton Airport.
Don't get me wrong: the airport has great job potential, and Red Hill is important to other sectors of our economy. But neither has the ability to turn this city on its ear like a renewed, humming, vibrant downtown core. This must be city council's number one priority if we are ever going to see our fine city become a great city.
The local leaders of other cities that have undergone succesful urban transormations (e.g. Portland, Vancouver, Boston) knew that the downtown core was critical to improving their entire city's image and attracting cutting-edge business.
A city's downtown is its face to the world. Nobody leaves Hamilton saying, "Wow! That suburban strip plaza was so neat. What a cool city!" I hope nobody ever will. Visitors are always impressed with our potential, but the time has come to turn potential into reality.
So, what can city council do to lead the charge in changing this city?
Right now, downtown Hamilton sidewalks are no different than the shoulders of the QEW. Five lane, one-way highways downtown do not attract people to our streets. We must replace them with two-way streets that have more bike lanes, transit-only lanes, and wider sidewalks.
The city has some long-term plans for a two-way switch on King Street. The Downtown Renewal section on the City of Hamilton web site features the Downtown Streetscape Master Plans. These great plans would be a welcome change, but the implementation timeline is far too long. This program must be implemented over the next few years, not in ten to fifteen years' time.
Don't get me wrong - these services are needed. But cramming them all into one area leads to problems, and downtown Hamilton is living proof. Our streets should be fun, lively places to walk or hang out, not scary places where people are constantly looking over their shoulder and having to ward off panhandlers.
Sprawl has sucked the life out of our urban core areas over the past 25 years. There were 60,000 fewer residents in Hamilton north of Mohawk Road in 2001 than in 1981. Unless city council begins putting urban renewal at the top of their agenda, we will continue to see more 'applications for subdivisions' throughout this city.
This leads to more urban neglect, reduces public transit efficiency, and congests our roads. It also fosters overall unhealthy lifestyles where people waste hours a day driving, miss out on exercise, and are more likely to make unhealthy eating choices. Further, community life suffers because people rarely come into contact with neighbours.
Sprawl affects much more than our city centre. It affects the very health of our citizens. The point here isn't to halt growth, which will happen whether we want it or not, but rather to develop our city properly with a focus on existing brownfield sites, and intensifying main streets into mixed use corridors served well by transit, rather than strategic outlying pieces of land that are obviously ready for development.
Hamilton CAN have a bright future, but only with proper planning and political will to see it happen. As citizens, we have a role to play in the process. Countless meetings take place every week of the year on these very issues, and citizens would do well to attend and be heard.
Most importantly, we have the power to elect officials who will make a difference in the future of this city. Don't listen to the rhetoric of those who crave your vote. Instead, take a walk downtown... your eyes will tell you how to vote.
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