Urban Hopes

By Mahesh P. Butani
Published February 04, 2010

Can Hamilton create new jobs while it continues to operate with approaches based on path dependencies?

Two articles from yesterday's Hamilton Spectator remind us that the hope for new markets to evolve in our city out of its Education/Medical Complex is simply that - a hope.

The first article, a rush-to-feel-good tech story titled Mac aims to shine with solar power research network, underscores the near-impossible challenges we are facing in developing new markets locally. Eric McGuinness is only five years late in filing this story.

Just like a story that was thankfully never filed: Reinventing our steel industry to become leaders in Wind power manufacturing - a story which would have been almost two years too late today.

We seem to have made a fetish of showing up for the party just a tad too fashionably late!

Having completely missed the first-movers market making phase in this sector, we may still not be too late in developing local job growth in this sub-sector of the green/clean-tech market segment - if our focus is in design / management / sales / service / warehousing / logistics of cheaper clean-tech imports to the consumer sector across North America, instead of now trying to supply our manufacturers with tools to compete with the first-movers who have already established beachheads and own the price and tooling advantage over us.

Now, accepting our role as a value-added service provider instead of a market maker/leader could create local jobs in this sector. But that would require some humility and a lot of swift and adept thinking.

Bringing large currency cheques to universities is no doubt sexy, but the state of our job market outside of the Education/Medical Complex speaks for its effectiveness.

If only $1 million out of the $5 million in the above story could have been used to seed our community with private sector innovation nodes across all neighborhoods: this could have directly harnessed the brains of hundreds of our overeducated unemployed across the city - our wasted intellectual brownfields sector that knows more than a thing or two about such things.

A sector that knows and understands market-timing and possesses the urgency required to create real jobs and economic growth via a Made-in-Hamilton green / clean-tech market.

The second article is about a sheer stroke of genius in Urban Development which can turn our un-productive urban land (which is soon going to be in short supply in our core) - into productive urban land with zero assessment - but which still qualifies as a downtown growth story: $5M mosque planned for downtown.

Our path dependencies in the the Religious Sector, just like our Education sector, will bring more people into our core on certain days and time of the week, but will also ensure that urban development projects in these two sectors will continue to provide zero assessment revenue!

Is this a direct result of our planning approach - an election-year stunt - or are we really a highly educated and religious community?

Better planning decisions will enable us to look our residential ratepayers in the eyes - if only to convince them that we are doing our best to make a worse situation better, and at least looking for land uses that will increase our commercial/green-industrial assessment.

Let us learn to treat our disposable assets - our fallow lands and our people - with a bit more respect. For they are our only chance left to jump start our economy. The rest is about hope!

Mahesh P. Butani is a non-architect, and a developer by default. He is involved in re-developing properties in downtown Hamilton; and has an MA in Arts Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, NYC (1986), and bachelors in Architecture from Bombay, India (1982). Currently he is not an architect in Ontario on account of not having enough Canadian Experience; and does not qualify to teach as he carries too much baggage to fit into the Canadian education system. He refuses to be re-trained to fit in, on a matter of principle, and is a passionate disbeliever of icons and self-regulation of professions in Canada - but still maintains his belief in collective self-organizing behavior; and feels that the large swath of intellectual brownfields across Ontario are far more harmful to the economy than the brownfields left over from deindustrialization - and in response has set up a social network called Metropolitan Hamilton.


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By John Neary (registered) | Posted February 04, 2010 at 11:37:58

See this video for more details on the mosque. (And note the first few seconds of footage of beautiful Wilson Street!)

It's hard to fathom that the city would not want to do everything possible to encourage development of housing, a school, and a mosque on this publicly owned land, which currently is fenced in, covered with garbage, and prime fodder for bylaw crawl. It's not like there are lots of other groups queuing up to build such projects downtown.

Couldn't the police use the ruins of the Century Theatre as a site for their proposed storage building? Oh wait, it's probably earmarked for a parking lot.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 05, 2010 at 10:36:10

how about we put storage bins and water pumping stations in industrial areas, not in the middle of downtown. The city should be utterly embarrassed by this video and the footage looking out across the surrounding properties. Did we just have a war???

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted February 05, 2010 at 14:27:51

Could Gore North become our version of SoHo?

Go-No? Unlike SoHo where opportunities were enthusiastically seized to reinvent Urban living - in our GoNo, we have taking great pains to level the playing field over decades, and now are deferring taking advantage of the opportunities that offers us a fresh start.

Our Xanadu has been right here all along, beneath our noses. Our tabula rasa for new beginnings!

Instead we have been searching for our identity in collaboratives and round-tables.

When we do get around to self-directing our energies - especially during an election year, - votes drive our thoughts, rather than ideas with which to rebuild our city wisely, block by block:

Out of the seven or eight large parcel of land between King Street East & Wilson Street; and James & Mary - the three large undeveloped blocks bounded by Wilson, Rebecca, Hughson N, and Mary - have the greatest potential to make our core come alive again.

In many ways it is the only tangible assets left in the core - for our NEXT generation. Can we rise to the challenge?

It is these three large and compelling development sites, in conjunction with the other vacant lots surrounding it - which offer our downtown core an opportunity to create innovative HIGH-DENSITY mixed-use development that WILL bring economic growth back to the core - while increasing the commercial/residential/green-industrial assessment revenues for the city.

Using these prime vacant lands which are in extreme short supply - for public funded educational or privately developed religious use, will basically remove these properties from the assessment roll forever - right at the time when we need higher urban assessment revenues. Besides forsaking for ever, the potential of achieving much higher densities and inspiring new urban job growth with innovative building type and mixed-uses.

GoNo is an acronym which tells it, like it is!

Let us drive our inspiration for Gore North from the Hamilton Bay Area instead - and turn the northern part of the Core into a BaySouth - an area that can be full of hope and good decision making - and a cost-effective bridge between the Core and the Bay.

If we can think and design high or even super-high in our new BaySouth District - we may even begin to enjoy our beautiful Bay from heights of our mixed-use towers of living, working and playing - right here on Wilson and King William in our core.

View Larger Map

As I had mentioned earlier: "We ...need to be extra vigilant about the remaining few large land parcels on the east-west axis, and the larger lands to the north of the core. It is from the quality of development of these parcels that the true potential of our core will be extracted or destroyed forever."

“I try to open up our spatial imaginaries to ways of thinking and acting politically that respond to all binarisms, to any attempt to confine thought and political action to only two alternatives, by interpreting an-Other set of choices. In this critical thirding, the original binary choice is not dismissed entirely but is subjected to a creative process of restructuring that draws selectively and strategically from two opposing categories to open new alternatives.” – Edward Soja, Thirdspace.

Our NEXT Urban Identity demands new ways of seeing - new ways of thinking. Our new alternatives can only spring from this:

Comment edited by Mahesh_P_Butani on 2010-02-05 13:28:57

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted February 05, 2010 at 16:46:59


While I respect your vision for the downtown, I would argue that in this case you are making the perfect the enemy of the good. The immediate choice isn't between a high-density, tax-paying development and a mosque/school. It's between a vacant lot (or perhaps a parking lot or police storage facility) and a mosque/school.

It is entirely conceivable that this part of the city may become a desirable, high-value, high-density commercial district some decades hence. But that outcome is not inevitable, and it's hard to read recent events as arguing that it's probable. Almost every project of significance in this area in recent years has either involved public money (CityPlaces, Spallacci Building, Gore Building), demolition (Century Theatre), or construction of a parking lot.

The block bounded by Catherine, Mary, Rebecca, and Wilson is not a very large space. A mosque, school, and housing complex would give it a much greater built density than many nearby blocks, and there will be a great deal of nearby empty space left over for future projects.

Beasley, even more than many other areas of Hamilton, has been hurt by monolithic, large-scale development thinking in the past. By contrast, real renewal in this city has always come from small decentralized projects. Think James North, Locke South, or Ottawa Street. As an aside, one of the great assets of James North is the Anglican Cathedral, which is used as a community space for Art Crawl, Maker's Market, and other events. Perhaps a larger mosque on Wilson could serve a similar role.

As a last note, who else would be in that beautiful old commercial building on Wilson right now if not the mosque? And who else in that part of Wilson keeps up their property to the same standard as the mosque? By contrast, the vacant lot behind the mosque is a disgrace to the city and a blight on the neighbourhood. The mosque deserves praise from the community for trying to create something good on a space that no one else would use for anything more than pavement and yellow lines.


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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted February 05, 2010 at 22:19:55


If you can convince me that religion will bring economic growth in our core - I'll say lets have even more places of worship and education from all religious faiths and orders - on all our remaining vacant lands.

God knows we need more religion in these corrupt times that we are living in!

What we as a city cannot financially afford - is a silly season where deviant politics begins to drive our planning process and our religions.

Experiences from across the world has shown us repeatedly - that whenever politicians have used religion to garner votes or push agendas - entire communities and often nations too, on all sides of the religious belief spectrum - are the ones who have lost in the end. Except in the rare case of John Tory!

Land-use planning on our vacant (and presently ugly to look at lands) in our downtown core - will make or break Hamilton's economic sustainability in the coming years. Are you willing to take a risk on this - in the hope that somehow religion or religious education will bring the jobs and economic growth in our core?

The reason we have such a poor local urban job market, is because we have failed to build one as yet. That does not stop us from starting to build one up next year in our core.

There is no doubt that the proposed new mosque could uplift the block from its present physical condition. But then, are you willing to satisfy the many other religious faiths that may soon come calling for help to set up their places of worship too - on other vacant public lands in the core?

Although I was born a Hindu, I have been raised to deeply respect all religions, faiths and beliefs on this planet, including the forces of energies that exist in our universe. However, the closest to a religious experience that I have encountered lately - is watching Janine Benyus (in the video above) speak about what really matters in our times.

That is the big picture we need to focus on for our collective survival on this planet. This is also from where new industries and new jobs can be created in our core - if we are indeed believers!

My education in architecture tells me that false positives in planning, or just-in-time planning based on election year exuberance are both extremely difficult to remedy once implemented.

City re-building is never about waiting for desirable outcomes to happen. It has always been about having a desirable plan and taking judicious steps to make it probable.

In spite of the Century theater demolition, there are positive things that are already beginning to happen in the Wilson / King William stretch - which has already set the pace for this areas re-growth. Some that is quite apparent if we are willing to see it - and some not so apparent as yet, but will be in the coming weeks.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 06, 2010 at 09:28:46

please elaborate Mahesh. I see nothing in Wilson/King William stretch but ugly lots and a scene that would fill in nicely for post-bombed out Manchester.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted February 06, 2010 at 18:53:50

Mahesh wrote: If you can convince me that religion will bring economic growth in our core - I'll say lets have even more places of worship and education from all religious faiths and orders - on all our remaining vacant lands.

For an elaboration on how places of worship add to urban revitalization, there's a couple research publications I've read, all put out by Cardus (based on Young Street here)

"Living on the Streets" is Hamilton-specific They also have "Toronto the Good" contains links to download them

I have a copy of their third publication, "Think Different - Urban Religious Communities: Problem Solvers or Trouble Makers?" if you (or anyone else) would like to borrow it, and was at the launch event. I almost wrote an article about it but didn't have the time.

Here's one paragraph from "Living on the Streets"

Presently the City of Hamilton is looking for ways to revitalize its city centre. An important step in this process will include identifying potential places of growth. If churches can 1) grow community, 2) promote community service, 3) attract people to live downtown, 4) draw private investment, and 5) add beauty to the physical appearances of community – five themes emerging consistently from our study – they represent enormous potential for the very kind of growth the City of Hamilton is interested in promoting.

As a microcosm from my own experience, since we moved into our current church building at King and Locke, three vacant storefronts have been filled - within a year. We've been able to extend youth programs and financial groups, and give food out - to and through people that are tenants or neighbours of the businesses nearby. The media production company nearby films in our building. The local community organization uses our basement. Other community organizations use it. We do income taxes for hundreds of people. One of those projects was already underway. We've been quoted by nearby businesses as "being the biggest draw in the neighbourhood" throughout the week as well as on Sundays.

Landscaping and adding beauty is coming slowly. Bike racks are finally in the works and the person who volunteered the landscaping had a bad year with the recession.. but we hope to get that done this year so a parking lot isn't the only thing facing the street.

In discussion on the creation of a BIA in the neighbourhood, we've even discussed paying the BIA levy, although we're exempt from taxes. Why not?

Comment edited by Meredith on 2010-02-06 17:58:01

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted February 06, 2010 at 22:27:41

Mahesh >> If you can convince me that religion will bring economic growth in our core - I'll say lets have even more places of worship and education from all religious faiths and orders

There is simply too much poor quality soil downtown. Unless this changes, it will remain mired in poverty.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted February 07, 2010 at 00:44:33

Many of the churches are involved in social justice, these places are havens for those who struggle as a place of solace and comfort.

I watched an interesting film today, Poor No More. One of the most interesting thoughts it brought up was that people still remember the great depression, the soup and bread lines. Our parents and grandparents fought hard for changes in our society, the social safety net, so there would be no need for the future generations to suffer like the people did during the 1930s.

But what are we seeing today, soup lines, bread lines, people sleeping in the streets, jobs are gone, what is being replaced for jobs that paid good wages, benefits , for those of the working class are considered precarious work, which keeps people in poverty. The amounts people receive from the social safety net are not sustainable.

We are not moving forward, we are moving backwards. Who is leading this drive, those who are the BUSINESS CLASS, THE ELITES.

And it is this same business class, that pushed for de-regualtion, free trade, which exploits other people across the globe, just so a few can gain greater wealth, while the majority go further down. It is these same elites that push Mother Nature to the brink of destruction and for what, so some person can be a billionaire, to have more money then they know what to do with, while others have basically nothing.

If we do not change this political climate, that allows for those, who are the elite, to continue on their path, well, it is not going to be pretty. Many more will suffer. The business class, the capitalists, did not give the people things such as living wages, benefits, pensions, the people had to fight for them, some people even died. Why is it today, that so many fail to stand up.

Here is the link to the film, it is something that everyone should watch.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted February 08, 2010 at 22:22:10

The belief systems that we subscribe to may be different - but our faith is the same.

It is our sameness which will ensures that our downtown survive its worst moments, in spite of our fears.

But mere survival never bring us satisfaction. Our deeper concerns continue to push us for a revival that transcends our diverse beliefs.

A revival can only be a revival when it is economically sustainable and generates equal opportunities in real-terms for all. Not just for those who are already in our community – but also for those we have attracted and hope to retain.

The Wilson-King William area had many different kinds of beliefs working for its survival since the eighties – resulting in a public park; community support services; sanctuaries for diverse beliefs; to the most recent school and community centre – and this area is blessed for all of this, in spite of the sea of parking lots, and our collective failure to prevent the most recent loss of a piece of our history.

On King William and Catherine a different kind of belief is at work – a belief which is shaping the first -privately financed- fifty-unit condominium building. Re-branded as the FilmWork Lofts { ... }, the old building that gave us our first newspaper – has been quietly stripped of its ugly past through the winter, and is almost redeveloped and ready to bring in around fifty to a hundred of Florida’s Creative Class, starting this spring – to start living and working in the heart of Hamilton’s Theater district.

Our new believers many who are from Toronto will very soon be taking ownership of the deeply scarred area of our collective psyche – and begin to share the burdens of nurturing the re-emergence of our core.

This belief – essentially a very private leap of faith has created living wage work through this winter of a terrible economy for over fifty Hamiltonians. A leap of faith which will jump-start the Hamilton Theatre District and the King William ArtWalk project – a leap which will ensure the start of new urban assessment revenues from this area, to our City for decades to come. Revenues, which could continue supporting our many belief systems.

And if planned wisely, this area/district could also offer a clear path to reducing our city's residential assessment burden, while triggering a revival in our core – that is economically sustainable through private investments.

Both, our belief systems that facilitate survival; and personal leaps of faith such as above which are laying the foundation for a sustainable revival – are critical to making our core successful once again.

However for a strong and believable Live & Work, Theatre and Entertainment District identity / brand to evolve, which reflects the hopes and aspirations of all Hamiltonians, urban and suburban – it is imperative that our diverse beliefs and our faith not make false claims of their strengths, nor overlook their limitations.

(Two other very exciting mixed-use/commercial developments are in the works in this area also, which I cannot mention presently.)

This is why I choose to see – our new SoHo, our BaySouth District – in a sea of parking lots, and not a bombed out Birmingham. It is just plain sad to use such references, as it strips the respect and dignity from all the efforts that have been at work in this area since the eighties – to prevent exactly that.

Meredith – Thank you for the link to Cardus. I started reading "Living on the Streets" and almost choked on reading that: “The Church is the most sophisticated Institution in existence capable of delivering the visions laid out by city leaders for urban renewal.”

Thirty years of architecture, urban design and planning knowledge, and a lifetime of faith in the virtues of multi-culture flashed in front of my eyes in a split second!! :-))

I suspended my belief system and trudged along, telling myself that this is a misprint, until I finally stopped on page 18.

I apologize for this - but I simply could not continue any further after reading this: “That is the way it should be done.”!!!

(I must tell you that I stopped as much from these words – as also from recognizing the name of the person being quoted of whom I have had direct experience in a real life situation. – This is Divine irony!!)

Human failings are only to be expected in our age, but for me, this quote underscores the fragility and limitations of institutionalized beliefs.

Sophisticated institutions are the ones that have given us wars in the name of beliefs, it has given us derivatives and unconscionable bonuses, it has given us guilt, it has plundered nature to destroy societies, it has given us genocide – All born from determinism which looks you in the eye and says the same thing: “That is the way it should be done.”

Institutionalizing beliefs to alleviate human sufferings is absolutely valid and in fact the noblest of all human enterprises – but may not be the answer to our economic dilemmas in an age of complexity and dispersed learning.

Using institutionalized beliefs for purposes other than spiritual guidance, continuing the traditions of rituals and prayers, or to alleviating human sufferings and offering solace to the needy and the downtrodden – is when things begin to get complicated.

We simply have to find less sophisticated ways to celebrate and promote our beliefs.

We need to return to the deeper roots of our diverse belief systems to rediscover the simplicity of means and search for answers to our contemporary dilemmas there - and not in publications of think-tanks.

Sophisticated institutions are an antithesis to distributed knowledge. We must remind ourselves that we are living in 2010 and not in 1984 or earlier.

My original post was not about beliefs, nor about faith – it was about hope in our collective abilities to make the right choices in urban design and land-use which would result in enhanced assessment revenues; and it was about new ways of seeing and thinking which would lead to the creation of new industries in our downtown – that can usher in and support an economic revival.

It was also about our foolishness in loosing vital economic opportunities – while we continue to pursue outmoded approaches that have utterly failed to bring jobs and prosperity to our community.

Ant colonies can tell us about Emergence very elegantly – they can also show us how to build cities. For generations we believed in the myth of the ant queen, until Deborah Gordon dispelled it.

Let us learn from nature for once - and allow our common faith to guide the revival of our angst-ridden core.

Our beliefs will only be proud to see that we are in fact a resilient community, which knows how to bounce back.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted February 08, 2010 at 23:45:24

That's certainly fair. I don't claim to supporting everything that's been written there or the particular slant of the author(s). I simply brought it forward as one group asking the same question. I'm well used to taking everything I read with a large grain of salt.

The most specific value I found in the publication were the case studies - Hamilton-tailored examples of what benefits faith groups bring when specifically looking at downtown renewal.

That said, there's faith groups do all of these things poorly, and many more do some of them well and some of them poorly. It's my hope that the use of the land by that mosque turns out to be a good thing and encourage people to live downtown, add beauty to the physical landscape, and much more - in the current design, I think a few things need to change for that to happen.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted February 12, 2010 at 14:03:18

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By M.P.B. (anonymous) | Posted February 12, 2010 at 14:13:24

Thank You Really? - for this link.
The Spec link for this report on their webpage is broken presently.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted February 13, 2010 at 04:46:18

The City of Hamilton needs to improve its balance sheet. We should introduce a sales tax as soon as possible and start building up our cash reserves. As of Dec 31, 2008 Hamilton's debt to equity was 2.82, while in Burlington it was 0.76 and in Oakville it was around 1.

If Hamilton added $600M to its Dec 31, 2008 cash position of $39.1M, our assets would be 1.831B and our debt to equity would be around 1. If we wanted to reach Burlington debt to equity levels, the city would need another $875M in cash on its balance sheet.

If a government allows itself to be taken advantage of by its citizens, the end result is a non functioning city. Detroit is a prime example. It constantly spends more than it brings in, has debt to equity levels of around 9 and the result has been the slow destruction of the city. By lavishing citizens with things they didn't pay for and taking on debt obligations to do it, they City of Detroit has f-ed itself.

Strong, prosperous communities are the result of local governments that act in their own self interest and ensure they have the financial resources to improve themselves. Hamilton is not as bad as Detroit in this regard, but it should strive to be more like Burlington, a community that has seen faster revenue growth than Hamilton, even though they have less green-space than Hamilton.

A sales tax, dedicated to improving the city's finances, would do wonders for Hamilton. It would allow for faster revenue growth, which in turn could be plowed back into the city's aging infrastructure and this would further increase Hamilton's attractiveness as a place to live and work. The trick is for the city to start putting itself first, rather than just wallowing in high levels of debt.

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