Le Corbusier Found Alive and Well in Hamilton

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 05, 2009

A well-meaning op-ed in today's Spectator falls victim to the same old utopian thinking that has plagued downtown revitalization for decades.

In an article recommending a new design charette - a kind of mini-conference where architects, planners, developers and so on get together and brainstorm solutions - Thomas A Beckett insists that progress in Hamilton's downtown core requires a break from "what we have been doing for the past 50 years" - but then turns around to advocate "radical surgery".

On this page in the past few years, I have suggested the creation of a grand and elegant central park, the hallmark of most great livable cities. My proposal was for a redevelopment area that might include several city blocks, east of James to perhaps Mary Street and north of King to Cannon. This would entail a massive razing and redevelopment of the downtown area.

This kind of thinking, of course, is precisely what we have been doing for the past 50 years.

It's the thinking behind the disastrous Jackson Square conglomeration, for which the city undertook "a massive razing and redevelopment of the downtown area" to, in the words of Pardon My Lunch Bucket author David Proulx, "cut away the rot of the Victorian age."

Beckett goes on:

[W]e need to immediately implement a process to create an ambitious new vision that will drive the rebirth of Hamilton's downtown core. Rebranding the city from one of smokestacks and polluted waters to a city of natural beauty, abundant waterfalls, open spaces and science would be good start.

So are we building a city or a national park? Open spaces are absolutely devastating to urban revitalization. They're the impetus behind Le Corbusier's infamous "Tower in a Park", which degraded inevitably into the shitty vertical sprawl that have characterized most postwar urban building in North America: utilitarian highrise apartment buildings and housing projects set far back from the street on useless patches of "open space" that no one would dream of using, connected by expressways since destinations are no longer within walking distance.

Above all, what Beckett seems to have missed is that parts of the downtown core are actually recovering nicely and doing quite well. The successful parts of downtown are those patches of dense, coherent, life-sized urban form that survived the "radical renewal" of the postwar period and provide precisely those benefits of urban living - density, diversity, proximity, interaction - that draw people to cities in the first place.

Incidentally, Hamilton has already played host to a Downtown Renewal Charette, sponsored by Architecture Hamilton back in 1997. The architects and planners came out of the charette with one firm recommendation: convert the downtown streets back to two-way.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted November 05, 2009 at 12:34:59

If you hope to have a productive work day today DO NOT log onto the spectator's website. This plus the letter against a waterfront stadium make for the most gag-inducing mouthful of stupid I've inaverdently swallowed while trying to wake up to the local news. Although I do support the idea of a charrette - in part, so those with a clue can weed out the ridiculous ideas like this one.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted November 05, 2009 at 14:46:33

The vast majority of large urban parks fit into one of two categories 1) they are built around terrain that would be difficult/expensive to build on (Boston common, or Parque de la Montana in Spain) 2) they are remnants of monarchy (Hyde Park in London or the parks surrounding the Temple of Heaven in Beijing). The one weird example I can think of is Central Park, which was bequeathed to the city on the condition that it never be developed. The cities grew organically around these spaces over hundreds of years.
More importantly, it's an especially ridiculous suggestion for a downtown that is less than a thirty minute walk, or a 5 minute bus ride, to either the waterfront or the natural green space of the escarpment.

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By LL (registered) - website | Posted November 05, 2009 at 16:08:15

I would be in favour of a park closer to the core. But the way to do it is to buy out one or more of the parking lots and turn that into a park. In fairness, that's the general area that the article mentions. In behind King William, most of the core is already "razed".

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By michaelcumming (registered) - website | Posted November 05, 2009 at 16:26:01

Radical surgery is obviously not the answer; Corb has much to answer for. I weep when I see old photographs of what was where Jackson Square is today. Halifax suffered a similar fate with its Scotia Square complex downtown. I think the rot of the Victorian age is one of Hamilton's rare competitive advantages (assuming the rot is alleviated but the building forms remain intact). I would like to see an urban farm in a couple of the completely vacant blocks of the Beasley. At least this way people will get some fresh produce in the bargain.

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 05, 2009 at 16:39:41

here's a radical thought (in this city where we like to demolish, demolish, demolish) - why don't we build a large park like the one suggested on the MEGA parking district in the NE part of the downtown core. Think John/King William all the way over to Mary/Cannon area.

Like NYC and Boston, Hamilton's core DID develop organically around a park. It's called Gore Park. Current projects underway to recalaim the south leg of the Gore and make more functional use out of the eastern part of the Gore will go a long way to enhance this city centre park.

If the letter writer is looking for somewhere for downtown dwellers to walk their dogs, my above suggestion would suffice. Along with Corktown Park, Beasley Park, Victoria Park, a new park in the King William/John area would be a lot more productive in producing the desired effect of the letter writer than demolishing our only remaining downtown streetscape and historic stock of Gore Park buildings.

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 05, 2009 at 16:41:29

Michael Cumming, I wonder if farming would be a possible use for some of the Jackson Sq rooftop? It would be really cool to grow food up there (as opposed to doing nothing up there).

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted November 05, 2009 at 17:34:09

Thomas A Beckett >> "east of James to perhaps Mary Street and north of King to Cannon"

Jason >> "Think John/King William all the way over to Mary/Cannon area"

No disrespect meant, but those of us who actually live in this neighbourhood might not be very happy about having our houses expropriated for someone's utopian scheme. And the "mega parking lot district" is entirely south of Wilson, save for the single block bounded by Wilson, Cannon, Hughson, and John. Mary and Catharine Streets north of Wilson retain most of their original housing stock.

Check the google map of this area if you don't believe me.

I also suspect that Tregunno Seeds (Catharine St.), Townsview Lifecare (Mary), the Good Shepherd Centre (Mary), and the Downtown Mosque (Wilson) -- among others -- wouldn't be impressed by this plan.

I imagine that Jason just didn't choose his words very carefully. As for Thomas A Beckett: I'm not planning to tear down your house, and I'd appreciate it if you would show me the same courtesy.

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By C. Erl (registered) - website | Posted November 05, 2009 at 22:27:15

Whereas I think the idea put forward is very unique and would help to rebrand this city to some extent, we need much more than a simple park to help us. Green space is an essential component of city living, but we need people here to enjoy it...and not just people stopping by, waiting for a bus. People from offices, homes and shops in the downtown would be required to enjoy these parks, so first, we need these offices, homes and shops. Bringing sustainable jobs into downtown, coupled with expansion of green-space, protection and retooling of heritage buildings and upgrading of our public transit system would rebrand this city.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted November 05, 2009 at 22:42:26

What do people think of this?

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 05, 2009 at 22:51:42

my mistake. I meant to say Wilson. I'm referring to that huge area NE of John and King William. The only affected buildings would be LuLu Shawarma and possibly Club 77, although the park could still be built without affecting that building...or even both buildings perhaps.

That stretch of homes north of Wilson is fabulous. I love the row homes on Catharine North and love the brick buildings in the Tregina Seeds area too. I don't see the need to demolish any more of our downtown. When will we ever learn???

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By Faile (anonymous) | Posted November 05, 2009 at 23:32:43

Raze Jackson

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted November 06, 2009 at 08:49:38

No!!! Not a park. Buildings.

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By Mahesh P. Butani -- http://metrohamilton (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2009 at 11:01:16

The Other Mr. Beckett:

Where does radical thinking spring from?

The kind of -radical- that attempts to elevate the "destitution of modern man" through ideas and form – and not the kind which picks discredited actions from history to develop solutions for perceived problems which persistently defy resolution.
The Other Mr. Beckett - a quintessential Modern, gave us "Waiting for Godot". His radical thinking showed us - that for things to really happen, nothing really needs to happen.

Centuries before the ‘Radiant City’ was conceived by Le Corbusier and slammed onto the harsh Indian landscape in the name of L'Esprit Nouveau – the Old Walled City of Shibam from the 16th century had already established that highly dense tall structures could result in sustainable urban settlements that coexisted with an imperfect environment in harmony. A near parallel of how nature itself has lived on the Socotra Archipelago since life evolved on this planet.

Albert Mayer ("The Urgent Future", 1967) - left a primed canvas in India for Le Corbusier to act out his grand gestural designs for society. Radiance to Corbusier was a marketing tool to sell efficiencies for the perceived machine age. He too was a Modern. At the level of a chair, a house and even a building his works were iconic. On the much larger city size canvas, his ideas failed to scale appropriately nor live up to the test of time. He was attempting to be the author of a new Shibam - Shibam like Socotra, abhors authorship.

Hamilton continue to experience shiny Corbusier moments instead of real Modern - of the quintessential kind, such as this latest one –- as some in our city continue to worship grand gestures on a near primed canvas, and only feel empowered by the dust and din of "massive razing" or programmed rebuilding schemes. Progress to them is more about their influence than impact. Growth for them can only be achieved by the throwing or kicking any kind of a can between two posts. Without this enacting there is no empowerment, no game for them - no event, no charm in life, no city - They just see desolation and ruins in between sprawling suburban ideals - instead of opportunities to built up from that which already exists in our centre.

>>> The Life and Times of a Man Made Park in a City:
"The annual operating budget of Central Park in NYC is $27 million. In the mid-1800s, 500,000 people were living in New York City, with most city dwellers housed in crowded, cramped quarters below 38th Street..." <<<
more at:

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2009 at 14:29:25

- Start converting some of dtowns major roads to two-way;
- Ship all the lepers, bums, welfare cases, druggies, and general lowlifes out of town; Result?

Watch the core come back to life.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2009 at 16:30:20

Downtown Hamilton is run down because the people that live there are more focused on what they can get from government (other people), rather than on what they can give.

Matthew 6:3,4

3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Did you get that? God REWARDS those who GIVE. Therefore, rather than worrying about whether or not you're getting your fair share of government money, you should be more worried about whether or not you are giving enough. If anyone keeps their focus on GIVING, God will take care of the rewards for you.

Think about the kind of world it would be if everyone acted this way, focusing on giving rather than taking.

Matthew 6:33

33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Is it righteous to fight over money? Or is it righteous to trust that God will provide for us, thus freeing ourselves to give freely to others. The first scenario produces anger, violence and worry. The second scenario produces friendship, love and peace.

God wants to provide richly for all of us, but in order to do this we need to play by his rules. His rules are simple, love him and your neighbour. Do people that love one another focus on taking each others money, or do they focus on sharing with each other?

If your focus on is on taking, rather than giving, you're NOT focusing on what God wants. Be smart, focus on giving/sharing and God will provide for all of your needs.

Matthew 6:24 "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

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By Peter (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2009 at 23:53:23

This is one of the first time I have hear people get upset about a proposal for new park, it almost always it the exact opposite, too much development people complain about. Reading some of these comment also greatly disturbs me as I see such a high level of ignorance about well established and tested urban design principles around the world.

As some who was a participant in the 1997 design Charette and as an architect and urban planner, I can attest that far more was suggested than merely convert the roads to two lanes, to which we are still fighting for. One of the recommendations was to eliminate the disaster that is surface parking lots. We have far too many parking lots in the downtown core. There are several notable studies that have shown that large parking lots help to contribute to increase crime and violence in the immediate area. Also as an owner of several buildings in the downtown core I would very much appreciate a park down there. Does it require to bulldoze all the buildings surround the parking lost, NO. It would actually be quite nice to keep them, but that will take creative well though out planing and leadership. Something that has always been lacking in Hamilton.

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted November 07, 2009 at 09:02:45

Peter >> "This is one of the first time I have hear people get upset about a proposal for new park, it almost always it the exact opposite, too much development people complain about."

I don't think people are upset about a proposal for a new park per se. I'm upset about the monolithic approach to urban development that has already given us five-lane highways and inhuman megablocks throughout the downtown. Thomas Beckett's proposal essentially comes down to razing sixteen city blocks. Last time that happened we got Jackson Square. I think the precautionary principle applies here.

That being said, I would be very happy to see either parkland or redevelopment on the surface parking between King William and Wilson.

"Reading some of these comment also greatly disturbs me as I see such a high level of ignorance about well established and tested urban design principles around the world."

What specific principles do you refer to?

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By Mahesh P. Butani -- http://metrohamilt (anonymous) | Posted November 07, 2009 at 13:17:20

Hello Peter,

While it is a pleasant surprise to finally see one more Architect and Urban Planner on this forum - I too do not think that anyone here is upset about Mr. Beckett's proposal for new park!

If anything - it is with the manner in which it is being suggested, that I presume most are shocked at.

In fact, the King William Street development plan already has a well conceived proposal for an urban park on the vacant lot which is bounded by John, Catharine and Wilson streets.

Within a five minute walk from this proposed urban park to the south - there is the Gore Park under redevelopment; there is the Beasely park just three blocks to the north east; and just two blocks west and fifteen feet up, there is the largest under-utilized roof-top garden over Jackson Square.

This plan for the new urban park on King William has been on display on the city website for a while now. What has also been on public display for the last five years is the slow but very steady re-development of many old and run down properties - which has resulted in the restoration of a large percentage of buildings in the core.

The many privately owned undeveloped lots to the north and east of the King and James are currently being used as parking lots - but it is highly unlikely that they will remain parking lots for long, in light of development pressures that will soon be coming into play by the oncoming growth cycle of the city.

Dressing these lots up in the interim may be a quaint solution for those who get offended too easily with urban chaos, but they should remember that market driven revitalization is always a work in-progress that is stretched in time.

Surely a green edge to these interim parking lots would soften their harsh impact - but what has an even harsher and almost devastating impact on our lives - are the public utterance such as: "We have a desperately sick inner core that is not going to be turned around by continuing to do what we have been doing for the past 50 years. Downtown Hamilton requires radical surgery" ---- which then goes on to suggest some very un-radical ideas.

Our urban landscape bears the bruises of the first botched up radical surgery in the core four decades ago --- a surgery which too was proposed by "a prestigious panel of leading citizens, planners, economists, thinkers, architects, developers and, yes, dreamers" - in an era that reveled in top-down thinking - and which naively cut bold boulevards and slammed concrete silos in the heart of the city.

The surviving proponents of this debacle blame this sorry escapade on the prevailing architectural style of that period - when in fact it was not just the architectural style that did this city in for decades - it was their self-serving heavy handed enclave-bred approach to development – with its infamous - "I have a vision", and "I belong to the prestigious panel of leading citizens...." which in fact ended up carving out our city's heart and proudly displaying it on a pedestal in our core for decades for the benefit of the oncoming generation.

What is radical in our times is suggesting many small ‘urban farms’ in the core.

What is radical in our times is giving an ultimatum to the Board of Governors and the Presidents of the three educational institutions in our city - to step up to their moral responsibilities to this city's core - or bear the consequences of decades of neglect and apathy - by facing intense completion from new locally and internationally funded top-lean educational institutions in our core.

What is radical in our times is morphing our EcDev into an i-Dev -- and turning this new Innovation Development department of our city into a powerhouse of progressive ideas and actions.

What is radical in our times is developing a new green and clean-energy industrial base in the downtown core that will offer our city's many young residents a fair shot at starting their own businesses in the core, and who in turn would be able to offer a decent livelihood to the many struggling residents of our city.

What is radical in our times is developing self-employment opportunities for our many active-seniors in the core and the surrounding suburbs - to enable them to share their deep experiences and offer guidance to those who are establishing the new manufacturing and industrial base in our core.

What is radical in our times is developing a new definition of the Arts and tying it with the new manufacturing and industrial base to create a sustainable future for the struggling creative residents of our city.

It is only from this kind of 'radical' - that true body heat will be generated on our streets in the core -- and it will be from the need to get away from this pleasant heat - that people will start to show up in the many acres of urban parks - to relax, mingle, listen to musicians, feed the birds and fishes, shop for locally grown produce in the urban farms and sustain store-front retail in the core.

Election reforms and integrity monitors, much like large empty boulevards and even larger proposed parks, be they innovation parks outside the core - are only soft solutions to the very challenging realities staring back at the Next-Generation.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted November 08, 2009 at 16:57:37

Some people jusy don't get it, and it's unfortunate that it's those individuals who tend to get their pieces published in TheSpec's Op-Ed Section.

Jason is correct; The City is supposed to build a new urban park in the mega-lot at Wilson & John/Hughson. There would be no razing of anything as the lot is currently completely empty. I believe construction was either supposed to start, or finish in 2009?! But this is Hamilton... talk about it talk about it talk about it do nothing move to Burligton.

Rather then getting rid of stuff, maybe we should try something crrrraaazzzy and put things IN???

For example, this bit of land we're referring to (Mega-Lot District aka King William) should be re-rebranded as the Entertainment District. *Put a Big-Box Movie Theatre in the Club 77 empty lot, incorporating 77 into the Theatre as a nightclub --77 actually has 3 clubs. *Parking Garage Structures with street-front retail (more bars, restaurants, cafes) *More Residential (with streetfront retail) *'Central Park', bordered by Wilson-John-Rebecca-Hughson. If A-Line uses Hughson as a Transit Mall, it could stop right infront of this park.

All this, along with a renovated Lister Block, newly streetscaped King William, re-birth of the old Spec Lofts project would definately add excitement to an area that is currently a little scary.

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 09, 2009 at 11:10:32

great ideas, Really?

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By JM (registered) | Posted November 09, 2009 at 13:13:53

We already have a large park in the Urban Core of the City..... GAGE PARK. Its not right downtown, but its not far from it...

And as for charette work yea it has already been done, and the Citys Downtown Secondary Plan already illustrates the vision for everything being talked about above. It just needs to be IMPLEMENTED! That's the tough part....

We just need to stop wasting money on creating more plans - which won't change anything, but rather direct it towards the implementation (i.e. partnerships and such). Again, the City is already doing this.... it takes time, and gets a lot done on the existing fabric. The issue is attracting a single developer to buy a large block, which is seen as a big risk down here.... But it would be a big step!

If only i had the money...

Cheers JM

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By michel (registered) | Posted November 15, 2009 at 20:14:28

i was absolutely overwhelmed when i saw an aerial photograph of the downtown on which parking lots had been made red features, and my promise to myself was to recreate such a map because of its shock value (a work in progress)

but in the immediate, before converting anything, we have to take care of the cars that use those parking lots

i have proposed to Bob Bratina (without any success - rather the opposite) that an immediate doubling of all parking rates be implemented as a City tax (now +/- $3.50/day), with those monies going to public transit and other amenities as described above

in parallel, believing that most parked cars belong to monthly users working downtown, i suggested a study be done of their points of origin/return

we would find that perhaps four, maybe five main routes are used by the majority of these commuters

strategically placed 'kiss-and-ride' stations with express shuttles would adequately serve that travelling population during peak hours, thus freeing the downtown lands for other use

furthermore, if the City was to enforce its tax collection as it should, more of these lands would come into public ownership for non-payment


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By Peter (anonymous) | Posted November 17, 2009 at 17:15:25

Attn Mahesh P. Butani

More people need to see your comments. You comments needs to be published in the op ed section of the Spectator.

As for me I should do my home work before making rash comments in the middle of the night.

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By Mahesh P., Butani - http://metrohamilt (anonymous) | Posted November 18, 2009 at 00:50:10

Hello Peter,

Appreciate your thoughts! You have taken the plunge into owning and fixing buildings in the downtown core - This in my view is a critical aspect of the solution to the core's regeneration issues.

So pls don't be hard on yourself for stating your opinions here - whatever be the responses!

I don't think what you said was rash at all - in fact more frequent comments from someone with your background and experience would only enhance the discussions here.

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