By Ryan McGreal
Published July 11, 2008
In an utterly incomprehensible move, council voted last night to throw out the downtown master plan, which the city has been developing since 2001 with careful study and extensive public consultation. (Council subsequently reversed their decision and deferred the matter until later.)
At issue is the cost to convert downtown streets to two-way. In 2008, some councillors still can't seem to figure out why it's harmful to have an expressway running through your neighbourhood.
Councillors like Terry Whitehead, who's been at the job long enough to know better, still can't see how the investment in two-way conversion will pay for itself in increased vitality. He says the conversion might look better but won't earn the city any money.
The conceptual shift required to see streets as part of the essential public fabric of a community appears to be lost on them - despite the consistent message the city has been receiving from urban planners and architects for at least a decade.
A 1997 downtown ideas charette sponsorred by Architecture Hamilton came out with one unambiguous recommendation: if you do nothing else, convert downtown streets back to two way right away. That report was, of course, ignored.
In 2001, the city started its downtown transportation master plan and began to look at the idea of street conversions. This led ultimately to the hugely successful two-way conversions of James St. N. and John St. N., followed by the conversions of James St. S. and John St. S.
Instead, the master plan recommends converting York Blvd, Wilson Street, Park St., MacNab St, Hughson St, Hess St, King William St and Rebecca St.
Donald Schmitt, the architect designing McMaster Innovation Park, said in a November, 2005 public lecture that the city should convert its streets to two-way "tomorrow".
In a subsequent interview with Raise the Hammer, Schmitt explained:
Two way streets slow cars down. The environment on the sidewalk, particularly if they are widened with parallel parking and street trees becomes more protected from traffic and more conducive to window shopping, outdoor food and sidewalk life.
Pedestrians cross the street more safely and both sides of the street start to work together as a true retail strip.
Councillor Brad Clark said at the meeting that he thinks more research needs to be done to determine whether the James and John conversions have been successful. This is just mindboggling. Does the man ever come downtown?
Such diverse public figures as Chamber of Commerce CEO John Dolbec, who admitted he was wrong to oppose the James and John conversion originally, and Mayor Fred Eisenberger, who said the conversion has "invigorated the businesses and offered a new view on what downtown looks like."
Former regional chair Terry Cooke laid it on the line in a February, 2008 column in the Spectator:
Hamilton council should summon the political courage to simply eliminate our anachronistic system of one-way streets. No more public-policy baby steps and enough already with pilot projects like the now three-year-old conversions of James and John streets.
It's time to simply abandon an idea of the 1950s that serves only as a deterrent to restoring livable neighbourhoods in the heart of Hamilton.
Bravo to Councillor Bratina, who cited the obnoxious double standard that sacrifices downtown neighbourhoods on the altar of expedience:
Councillor Bob Bratina argues businesses won't relocate to the street as long as it is a "freeway."
He noted if one-way streets are such a benefit, he'll request they be installed on the Mountain.
"Let's make Upper James one way."
How come everyone else gets two-way streets? Why are downtown neighbourhoods uniquely expendable patches of the city fabric? With high speed motorists mowing down pedestrians on an excruciatingly regular basis, how can there be any question of the right thing to do?In 2008, why are we even still having this debate? Council simply has no excuse to remain so ignorant of the basis facts of street safety and vitality after all the information they've received over the past decade. For heaven's sake, Jane Jacobs was writing about this close to fifty years ago. This is not groundbreaking stuff.
If council can't get it right on something this basic, is there any hope at all that they can handle the bigger, more controversial issues in a constructive way?
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