Hamilton's Future: Forget About It

A myopic employment study prepared for City Council by Hemson Consulting imagines a dreary, low-skilled future of air transport and goods warehousing.

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published February 09, 2007

Mid-winter can be a bit depressing, so I decided to cheer myself up by attending my first Planning Committee meeting at 9:30 am on February 1 at City Hall.

This was no ordinary meeting: the committee was to hear Hemson Consulting Ltd. present their comprehensive employment study Meeting long range employment land requirements in the city of Hamilton [PDF link].

I was looking forward to creative long-term thinking involving brownfield redevelopment, adaptive re-use of existing industrial buildings and ways of attracting a variety of high quality jobs to Hamilton. I also figured the report would build on Richard Gilbert's report (read the full report here - PDF link) on how Hamilton can adapt to peak oil and more expensive energy.

Hemson's answer (drum roll, please): Hamilton should focus entirely on logistics. In plain language, 1,000 ha of farmland should be turned over to warehousing and truck distribution.

Magna Park, UK. Is this Hamilton's future? (Image Credit: Transport Intelligence)
Magna Park, UK. Is this Hamilton's future? (Image Credit: Transport Intelligence)

Brownfield re-development? Forget about it. Hemson's Ray Simpson commented (rather ungrammatically), "Employment lands is what occurs in business parks". More specifically, these would be suburban greenfield business parks. Besides, new industry doesn't want to locate next to old industry.

Simpson didn't really have an explanation as to why Hamilton needs another 1,000 ha of greenfield land when it already has hundreds of ha of vacant business park land (except that the available land is too small for giant warehouses, and too far from 400 series highways).

A variety of high quality jobs? Forget about it. Bet everything on logistics. Burlington generates 55 jobs per ha, but Hemson claims that the best we can hope for is 30 (after all, warehouses don't create many jobs per ha). We can't hope to emulate our neighbour's job density because of Hamilton's location "on the edge of the GTA".

What about rail and water transport? Forget about it. A port will never create many jobs, and rail moves commodities (something Hamilton shouldn't be interested in). Full steam ahead on the Aerotropolis!

Protecting the environment? Forget about it. The consultants didn't know why there was an annoying greenbelt running through their proposed 850 ha Aerotropolis. City staff helpfully informed them that this was to protect the headwaters of 50 Creek.

Peak oil? Forget about it. Hemson can only deal with current conditions, they can't speculate about the future. (But isn't this precisely what a 20-year plan is supposed to do?)

All in all, this turned out to be not such a great way to kick off February! Back to the mid-winter blahs.

The whole discussion reminded me of a Ward 2 election debate I attended a few years ago. Ron Corsini (former Ward 2 councilor) was asked what could be done to revive the shops and other businesses on James St. N. His response: "Forget about it. Shops and businesses are never going to return to James North. They're gone forever."

Needless to say, Ron was wrong (he also lost the election).

This story shows the problem with much of Hamilton's long-range planning: a lack of imagination, ambition and creative problem solving. As reported in RTH, James St. N is being brought back to life by the sorts of creative people Hemson seems to think are in such short supply in the Hammer.

Luckily for Hamiltonians, the Mayor and councilors simply weren't buying the Hemson story. Mayor Eisenberger and Councilors Bratina and Ferguson noted that Hemson didn't provide any data or analysis of why brownfield re-development wouldn't work. It was simply their opinion.

There was only one option presented, and it puts all Hamilton's eggs in the Aerotropolis basket (much like GRIDS). In fact, it must have been pretty obvious to everyone in the room that the Hemson report was commissioned by the previous council to provide much-needed justification for the Aerotropolis project.

The Hemson report was supposed to form the basis of a series of information sessions inviting public comment. As the Mayor noted, it is impossible for the public to give informed input if only one option is presented.

Staff were instructed to prepare a detailed analysis of the costs and benefits of brownfield re-development, which will appear as an addendum to the Hemson report.

Perhaps the saddest thing about the whole presentation was the assumption that Hamilton can't hope to be anything more than a sort of giant warehouse for the GTA.

Hamilton is a diverse city of half a million people, and is home to one of the top research-intensive universities in Canada. I am certain that the residents of Hamilton are more ambitious and creative than Hemson Consulting Ltd.!

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.


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By jason (registered) | Posted February 09, 2007 at 13:07:58

I'm sure kids in the local elementary school in your neighbourhood would offer up far more creative and livable plans for our city than this. What a waste of money.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 09, 2007 at 13:30:05

My question is how much money? What did taxpayers have to fork over for this shoddy, politically motivated 'report'? Can we send the bill to Di Ianni?

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By Hammerhead (registered) | Posted February 09, 2007 at 13:35:29

It should come as no surprise that the predominant image on Hemsons web page is the CN Tower....

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By Hemson Halton Report Similar (anonymous) | Posted February 09, 2007 at 14:11:54

Halton Region Used Hemson for 401 Corridor Reports

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By mark (registered) | Posted February 09, 2007 at 15:04:07

On a slightly related matter, the City of Hamilton's Mayor's Office has posted a questionnaire on the city's website. I think everyone who reads RTH is concerned about this city's direction. Take a moment to fill out the questionnaire. Watch out for teh landmine of leading questions in the economic development section. Looks like it was designed to validate aerotropolis-like greenfield development. Also, pay particular attention the the section devoted to public transit.

Perhaps RTH can pick this up and promote a drive to get teh questionnaire filled out by as many RTH readers as possible.

Please go to the city's website and follow the link from the front page. I tried posting the URL here directly, but the anti-spam software marks the posting as spam and refuses to post it.


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By mark (registered) | Posted February 09, 2007 at 16:52:06

sorry I must have inadvertently double-posted my comments on teh questionnaire.

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By Concerned Observer (anonymous) | Posted February 09, 2007 at 22:33:56

I have generally agreed with many of the posts and articles on this site. Jason's articles on downtown revitalization are very good.

I must comment though on these messages and article. I have read the report by Hemson, and they are not claiming to abandon brownfield developments, but in order to meet future employment growth the City needs to have more employment lands. And the type of land business is looking for is not necessarily down by the Waterfront or in brownfield areas. People need to realize that the type of growth they are projecting is relatively low cost in the long term for municipal infrastructure costs, and gives a tax return and does not demand alot of municipal services. I think if Hamilton wishes to remain competitve and ensure that it's citizens stay working in the City as opposed to commuting to other cities, it should consider this.

Unfortunately the market dictates what and where developers build, and you can't force them to build in areas where they do not deem it suitable. Unless the City feels it can afford to pay developers huge incentives to locate in these areas.

Thank you

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By steeltown (registered) | Posted February 09, 2007 at 22:41:26

Are we suppose to relocate the airport to the East Harbour to keep all the future airport related businesses to locate by the waterfront now? Jeez

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By R (anonymous) | Posted February 09, 2007 at 23:52:21

. I personally think that the city should be actively pushing both projects. They need to stop studying Brownfield lands and vacant port lands and start selling them. They need to clear the land, put in new roads and street lighting to make them attractive. Even throw some grass seed on them to make them look greener and more attractive. The land along the waterfront should have a few slips put in them so the rich company owners can put their boats in them as a selling point. You have to have both types of lands and the older land should be cheaper as they are already serviced and ready now.
Offering several areas for industry and commerce is important. Just like people with housing. Some like single-family dwellings some like town homes and some like low or high-rise apartment living. Some like to rent and some like to own. You will never get everyone to agree. You need a balance approach to development and not let one side hijack the way development is done as it has been in the past. This way we should have lands available for every need.
From downtown to waterfront to virgin lands, there should be no one going anywhere else but Hamilton to build a business. If they inquire, there should be no reason to go anywhere else. We have everything here from roads, to air to rail to ports. There is housing for their employees that goes from some of the most inexpensive around to the most expensive anywhere.
Mayor Eisenberger should be looking at getting both projects on line as soon as possible. We should not have to hear Economic and Development state that they turn down companies because we don’t have any land available.
Here is the article:

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By Community (anonymous) | Posted February 10, 2007 at 01:19:32

The posts from Concerned Observer and Steel Town definitely add balance to this discussion.

I agree, the Hemson report did not say to abandon brownfield redevelopment. It simply stated that the absorption rate is typically quite low. This is true, brownfields are overlooked by many companys for a myriad of reasons including: land ownership fragmentation, environmental liability, potential for significant clean up costs if possible at all. Some properties are contaminated from off site sources making it pointless to clean-up until the source is cleaned up. Some companies hold on to their now defunct lands to control liability and unfortunately have no interest in remediation or sale.

R&D firms who employ "the creative class" are definitely not looking at lands down in North Hamilton to set up shop beside a steel mill.

I believe in a more balanced approach to allow the City to move forward and prosper. We shouldn't abandon brownfields and infill but we do need to open up additional employment lands with large parcel sizes and good transportation access.

We're missing a huge opportunity around the Airport which is owned by the City. The Province acknowledges it in their international award winning plan "Places to Grow" they even built a highway to it for direct access.

Look to our neighbours in Waterloo region, they established a 10,000 acre study area around their airport to study it for employment purposes in months not years. We can't let this pass us by.

A multi-faceted strategy is required, brownfield, intensification and new lands. The city's economic development department was the author of the first brownfield redevelopment plan in Canada (ERASE). We've seen great results, we need to keep working at it as well as opening up other lands to capture the market the new economy. Let's work together as one community.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted February 10, 2007 at 12:20:09

In response to Concerned Observer's post, I should say that this article was more about what Hemson said at their presentation than what they wrote in their report.

They may have been slightly more diplomatic in their report, but under questioning it was clear that they had completely discounted brownfield redevelopment. In fact, the report does not allow for any job creation on brownfield lands (which is just as unrealistic as thinking that all job creation should occur on brownfields).

It was also clear from the presentation that the one industry Hemson was encourage Hamilton to pursue is logistics (which has a very low job density). No other industry was considered 'realistic' for Hamilton.

Hamilton needs to offer some greenfield land, but the question is why we should be re-zoning another 1000 ha when we have had vacant greenfield business park land for decades.

Finally, I was thinking of 'creative class' type businesses moving in downtown. There is a lot of urban 'greyfield' land (e.g. surface parking and one-storey stripmalls) that could be re-developed.

Thanks for all the comments.

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By Sharchy (anonymous) | Posted February 10, 2007 at 12:38:45

Its seems that there is a lot of nostalgia around developing greenfield sites for various environmental reasons. However not all greenfield development needs to cause environmental damage and not all airports need to be unsustainable. Bristol airport in the UK has converted its airport vehicles to biodiesel and has developed various energy efficient facility buildings and has even developed a program of ‘offsetting’ (offsetting is a program that funds the planting of trees to offset the carbon created by air travel). If Hamilton airport had an offsetting program it could use it to fund tree planting on downtown sidewalks, between residential neighborhoods and industrial buildings in the east end, and in city parks).

Airports will be around for many years to come; although peak oil is a concern it is necessary to develop the airport as a sustainable service that does not fluctuate so much by changing market conditions. Other technological services will come online within the next 20 years that will allow this to happen. It would be nice just to have an airport developed that can maintain a reasonable level of service. The Ancaster business park has some high-end companies that develop sustainable technology such as wind turbines etcetera. It would be great create to se more of this type of ‘high tech’ development around the airport. It would really diversify the range of manufacturing services the city can offer.

Although the east harbor lands have driven a huge amount of Hamilton’s economic activity over the last 30 years. The area in general is in very poor condition environmentally. The city would benefit more from regenerating the bay area in terms of its environmental conditions then trying to cram in more of the same types of employment facilities (conventional manufacturing in K-zoned industrial lands). A recent report stated that Hamilton could generate about 1 billion dollars of economic activity by being delisted as an area of concern by the International Joint Commission's list of Great Lakes pollution hot spots. The Hemson report is correct in that firms generally don’t want to locate in areas where there is heavy industrial pollution. Over time if the port area is cleaned up significantly it may be able attract higher end business. This will take many years and is an extremely important investment for the city.

A city functions as a whole most vibrant cites with populations over 500,000 have well developed seaports and well developed airports. Portland, Oregon is an examples of this. Hamilton should look to develop its new strengths and use its new strengths to clean up its old weaknesses. Construct a sustainable airport with a high end manufacturing community and use the revenue from this economic activity to improve the environmental conditions of the port area. Create a port that can offer a healthy environment, recreational activities, and cleaner industrial activity.

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By Community (anonymous) | Posted February 10, 2007 at 15:08:24

Great info Sharchy! I like Kevlahan's "greyfield" idea as well. No only downtown but on Upper James as well. Look at all the one-storey single purpose buildings. What a huge opportunity for community building and residential intensification. I'll write more later!!

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By Concerned Observer (anonymous) | Posted February 12, 2007 at 09:33:48

To, Ryan:

Thanks for the points.

I have heard of this report you mention, can you advise where I can find this report? Or just google it, and find it online?

A lot of good points about alternatives for growth. Sharchy has some very good points, it is all about balance.

Thanks again for the opportunity.

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By bigbri54 (registered) | Posted February 12, 2007 at 20:07:09

I could never understand why we couldn't get our heads around the notion of punching a hole several metres beneath Hamilton Cemetary, to give the north-end brownfields a direct link to Highway 403, via an unused CN Rail right of way. A consultant floated that option many years back. It was very do-able. But I seem to recall some people considering it macabre that we'd put a road under a cemetary. I would suggest some of the long-term residents in that cemetary might think it macabre that we contemplate chewing up more farmland (however substandard some of that farmland may be). Have you driven down the Queen E. lately, though Burlington and Oakville, on through Mississauga? It's butt ugly - and I think that's objective. Take Highway 407 to Oakville one day and you'll get a sense of what it was like not so long ago. I don't doubt that Highway 407 might one day will become another endless strip of tacky industrial parks and parking lots. It would seem that's what you're going to get up Highway 6 to Mount Hope, or across that farmland to Highway 403. Nicholas hit the nail on the head: "This story shows the problem with much of Hamilton's long-range planning: a lack of imagination, ambition and creative problem solving." Sadly, that's old news.

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By Farmer (anonymous) | Posted February 13, 2007 at 14:02:14

This is from the Agricultural Economic and Development Impact Study commissioned by the City last year. It may inform some of you (bigbri54 - it's almost all prime) on how valuable the city's farmland actually is to the economy, the community and to farmers.

"Hamilton is an area with strong agricultural potential. The province, in the Provincial Policy
Statement, defines prime agricultural land as “land that includes specialty crop land and/or Canada
Land Inventory Classes 1, 2 or 3 soils”. Applying this definition, the majority of the 227,000 acres
within the Hamilton boundary qualify as prime agricultural land. Given that only 5% of the Canadian
land mass constitutes prime land, the importance of this Hamilton resource is significant. When other
factors such as climate, proximity to water and access to market and service infrastructure are also
factored in, the agricultural value of the land base in Hamilton becomes even more striking."

Losing this valuable agricultural land to development would be a complete disaster for those of us who are cognizant of the need to secure our ability to feed ourselves sustainably. To those of us who want to continue to make a decent living from producing healthy, sustainable, local food, or to support those who do, the proposal to remove any acreage of this world class soil from food production is unpalatable and we will oppose it. What we need to do is focus on building a stronger, more vibrant rural economy. We need to help make farming more profitable so that we aren't encouraged to convert this invaluable resource into a warehouse. Perhaps some of you should take the time to read the report. You might agree with me.

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By Ricky (anonymous) | Posted February 15, 2007 at 12:53:53

You guys have to keep in consideration that there is a high percentage of poverty in Hamilton and many are not fortunate enough to receive adequate education, possibly leading Hemson to focus on low-skilled labour. Also, there is not much promise in the next generation considering the high drop-out rates and poor educational environment. Unfortunately, the outlook for high-skilled labour in Hamilton seems grim unless the city is able to attract high-skilled workers to call Hamilton home. Those are just my two cents.

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By Information (anonymous) | Posted February 24, 2007 at 06:50:22

Check this:

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By Information (anonymous) | Posted February 24, 2007 at 06:50:45

Check this:

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