By Ryan McGreal
Published June 10, 2013
this blog entry has been updated
I've been saying for years that the Hamilton Spectator needs a regular columnist in the vein of Chris Hume, an urbanist who analyzes local events and initiatives in the context of how cities actually work (or not). This past Saturday, the Spec got Hume on loan for the day with a guest column on the opportunities and challenges Hamilton faces "on the brink of a renaissance".
There's plenty to debate in Hume's treatise, including his suggestion that Hamilton should borrow a tactic from Bilbao, Spain and invest in an iconic world-class building that will attract a million tourists and transform perceptions of our city.
Of course, Hamilton has suffered more than its fair share of silver bullet megaprojects over the past several decades.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry, was funded by the regional government to revitalize Bilbao's industrial port, which was in serious decline. It cost $250 million (in inflation-adjusted dollars) to complete and costs around $15 million a year to run.
In Hamilton, we can scarcely bring ourselves to invest in something as workaday as a tram system; and what should have been a no-nonsense decision to build a new stadium near the waterfront turned into a yearlong fiasco in which the city eventually decided to rebuild the stadium in its original poor location.
(Sidenote: there was actually talk of a Gehry-designed investment as part of the the West Harbour stadium project, but of course that went out the door once the Hamilton Tiger-Cats threatened to take their toys home and Council let itself get drawn into a snipe hunt for another stadium location.)
Even if we somehow manage to avoid the pitfalls of iconic architecture, how can we possibly expect the three levels of government to collaborate successfully on something as grandiose as the Guggenheim Bilbao?
Of course, Hume understands this well.
Unlike Hamilton, Bilbao benefitted from enlightened "senior" governments that not only recognized the value of excellence but were prepared to pay the price. That's not going to happen here anytime soon. No one expects Queen's Park or Ottawa will suddenly find wake up and start to invest in Canadian cities. In this country, cities are constitutional orphans left to fend for themselves without the legislative or economic means to do so.
Extending his advice, Hume recommends that Hamilton learn to cherish and value the excellent urban architecture it does have, and to ensure that new buildings are designed and constructed to a high quality and a solid urban form.
He warns against making the same mistakes Toronto has made, by allowing gigantic, charmless glass-and-steel towers to sprout everywhere while simultaneously failing to invest in transit improvements to keep the city's transportation network functional.
Hume recommends establishing a design review panel, which Hamilton architect David Premi has been advocating for years. Premi, with collaborator Paul Shaker of the Centre for Community Study urban research company, are principles with RethinkRenewal and have written an occasional series of op-eds for the Spec that go far toward filling the gap of a missing urban affairs columnist.
The Spec editorial board has also taken a stand in support of it, arguing that Hamilton's greatest asset for inmigrants and investors is its own built environment:
[I]t is not just our geography, the escarpment, the harbour, the lake, the arts, the hospitals, the schools, and the employment opportunities that are attractive.
It is the city itself.
Hamilton is an interesting place because of its urban spaces and architecture, and we must work hard to keep it that way and enhance it.
While it's important for new buildings to integrate well into their surroundings and maintain high standards of design, it's equally important that we protect and maintain our old buildings. Hume chastises the short-term, short-sighted thinking that allows a developer to flatten a heritage building rather than incorporating it into a new development.
The irony is that heritage buildings are almost always the ones people – locals and visitors – love the most. The economic opportunity they offer is lost, however, by a city and development industry devoid of imagination.
As he writes this, a row of beautiful 19th century buildings on the south side of Gore Park are threatened with demolition while their owner, property development company Wilson Blanchard, muses about clearing them out to build some kind of new development on the block bounded by King, Hughson, Main and James.
24 and 28 King Street East, the two buildings on the left side, are slated for demolition (RTH file photo)
The Heritage Committee can recommend as many buildings for designation as it wants, but those recommendations spend years collecting dust before being presented to Councillors, who end up rejecting the recommendations anyway.
As Councillor Brian McHattie, a member of the city's Heritage Committee, explained, "The Planning Department knows Council has no interest [in heritage] and therefore do not take any more action than they need to - having been shot down in flames at the Planning Committee many times."
In the case of the Gore buildings, Wilson Blanchard worked out an arrangement with the City in which the developer agreed to save the facades of 18-22 King Street East while demolishing 24 and 28 (30 was already demolished in May 2011). (Note: David Premi Architects is working with Wilson Blanchard on its plan for the block.)
However, the agreement is not binding and there is nothing to stop Wilson Blanchard from demolishing the entire row if they change their minds.
But nor is there anything, aside from a lack of imagination and foresight, to stop Wilson Blanchard from preserving the entire row and incorporating it into a new development that combines the architectural features of these old buildings with the amenities of a new structure behind the facades.
A recent article by Paul Wilson in CBC Hamilton suggests that Wilson Blanchard is hoping to shake down the City or the Province for some public funding to preserve the facades. It still may not be too late to save the row - but doing so would require leadership and political will.
Given the perilous state of the city's heritage assets, it's particularly hard to argue with Hume's closing advice:
Above all, Hamilton must learn to think like a city, not a suburban hybrid where residents drive everywhere. What makes Hamilton interesting is the fact it's a city. The sprawl that surrounds it, which can be found all over North America, is running out of time. Saving it will be a whole lot tougher than rescuing the city. Indeed, the future of suburbia has never looked so bleak. From fuel prices and congestion to green house gas emissions and servicing costs, a variety of factors will eventually render the 'burbs obsolete.
That's why there's such a buzz about Hamilton these days.
It's far past time for Hamilton's own civic and especially political leaders to understand this. Hamilton is not a bedroom community.
According to the most recent census data we have, 70 percent of Hamiltonians work in Hamilton, almost 40,000 people commute into Hamilton to work each day, and the downtown core is the biggest (and certainly the densist) employment cluster in the city.
It absolutely should not be a point of pride for anyone that "you can get anywhere in 20 minutes" in a car, as our Mayor smugly told Steve Paikin on The Agenda in April.
That is not the way successful cities think, plan or act.
Update: updated to note that David Premi Architects is working with Wilson Blanchard on the Gore development.
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