Hume Tells Hamilton to Start Thinking Like a City

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.

Raise the Hammer has long advocated an architectural review board, and former Mayor Fred Eisenberger talked about establishing one) in a 2007 interview, but the project has never materialized.

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)
24 and 28 King Street East, the two buildings on the left side, are slated for demolition (RTH file photo)

There are excellent reasons to designate these buildings under the Ontario Heritage Act, but there is no political support in Hamilton for heritage preservation.

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.

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 premi's a fraud (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2013 at 08:42:35

Premi is working for Blanchard on this demo, yet RTH keeps on celebrating him. He's also responsible for the farmer market reno, which is a mess and an uninviting wasteland on York. The way a building works should be the judge of the architect, not a design panel constituted by a bunch of gladhanders to inflate each others' resumes.

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By randomguy (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2013 at 11:27:06 in reply to Comment 89432

I think the fact that Premi is mentioned with regards to the design review and then not mentioned with regards to Blanchard's project in the article is a bit obfuscatory. I think Raise the Hammer can do better.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted June 10, 2013 at 10:11:24 in reply to Comment 89432

Agreed. I was a regular weekly visitor at the market prior to the reno and when it was in the temporary space. I can count the number of times I've been there since the reno on one hand.

Not a fan.

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By Bilbo (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2013 at 09:33:47

We went to Bilbao, the Guggenheim is hideous. Looks great on a postcard but awful to have to walk around. Hamilton needs less white elephant, more good government.

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2013 at 11:32:16

Correlation/causation. Any economic benefits analysis needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Guggenheim's claims to economic stimulus, which would obviously be helpful in leveraging investments in franchises around the globe, is no different.

Yes, there's state-sponsored starchitecture, but it's not merely the Guggenheim Bilbao. The last 20 years of investment in Bilbao is part of a cultural shift intent on rescuing a city that was suffering socioeconomic collapse (its industrial base apparently caved in during the 1980s) and recharging the built heritage of a city founded some 500 years prior to Confederation.

Along with Gehry, two other Pritzker-winning architects are on deck in Bilbao: Foster & Partners designed the station entrances to the city's 44km LRT network, which launched in 1995, and Rafael Moneo designed the Library of the University of Deusto, opened in 2010.

Other high-profile names are also found in the city: Santiago Calatrava designed the airport's main terminal, opened in 2000, along with the Zubizuri Bridge (1997). Philippe Starck renovated the former Alhóndiga wine cellar to create the AlhóndigaBilbao cultural center, opened in 2010.

And on, and on...

Here in Hamilton we're giving design awards to power centres and still trying to formulate a new building that doesn't involve stucco.

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2013 at 11:39:39 in reply to Comment 89441

FWIW, I agree with Hume that Hamilton needs to better value its architectural heritage, and to trade on the unique advantages that the city has.

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By Gored (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2013 at 11:36:07 in reply to Comment 89441

"Here in Hamilton we're giving design awards to power centres and still trying to formulate a new building that doesn't involve stucco."

I read this and burst out laughing.

And then I cried.

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By Jay Robb (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2013 at 12:01:39

Actually, the getting anywhere in 20 minutes is a godsend for parents who are ending their workday, putting dinner on the table and then taking their kids to classes, lessons, practices and games.

Our family spends 2 nights a week and pretty much all of Saturday downtown (this has been our routine for many years now). These are always hassle-free, stress-free trips.

And every single day, I'm extremely grateful for my 8 min commute to work.

Hamilton has proven to be a great place to raise kids, have rewarding careers and enjoy a very good quality of life.

Yes, there are always things that could be improved in Hamilton. Yet, on the whole, there's a lot that works well and goes right in our city for working parents with young children.

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By bikehounds (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2013 at 18:07:59 in reply to Comment 89449

that 8 minute commute comes at a cost of an infrastructure deficit of OVER A BILLION DOLLARS - not to mention the cost in lost taxes of creating a city that fails to attract new residents and businesses. We currently budget only half of what we need to in order to maintain our roads, so every year the deficit number rises. If we budgeted the correct amount for road maintenance, taxes would increase by 40%. If we had to pay the real cost of maintaining this system, would you still love it so much? Can you afford a 40% increase in taxes (rent)? I can't...

If we could reduce that deficit through lane reduction and making the city more attractive to new residents (taxpayers) and (taxpaying) businesses, would you trade your 8 minute commute for a 12 minute one? How about a 16 minute one?

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By Sigma Cub (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2013 at 22:00:47 in reply to Comment 89470

However the City decides to reduce lanes (if it does), there will inevitably be a cost to that policy. The more ambitious the plan, the higher the price tag, both for the initial install and maintenance thereafter. Whether they're travelled by bikes, cars, trucks, buses or trains, Hamilton still has 6,200 lane-kilometres of road, and they'll need to be looked after. It would be helpful to have some clear numbers on a handful of implementable outcomes with credible per-kilometer costs attached. Then we just have to locate the thermal exhaust port on the Public Works budget and loose the proton torpedoes.

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By bikehounds (anonymous) | Posted June 11, 2013 at 08:40:00 in reply to Comment 89474

The point is, Hamilton does not need that many square metres of vehicular travel lanes. We can't afford them. Why do we have to talk about that 6200 number as if it's written in stone? We can eliminate some lanes. The cost to count cars and reduce the lanes on streets that are overbuilt is nothing compared to the ongoing "rehabilitation" costs that are already completely out of control. We built through-streets wider than 400 series highways back when there was real vehicular traffic in this city, with tens of thousands of daily commuters working in the North end, and a dream of even more people and cars. That era is over, but we've maintained a death grip on every possible lane, offering them up to trucking companies and through traffic to wear away at them at our cost. This unsustainable attitude will sink this city.

I don't know the exact cost of shutting lanes down but I'm certain it's cheaper than resurfacing them every 10 years. Imagine giving some of that road right-of-way back to the property owners. Picture Victoria Ave redesigned to accommodate the number of cars it actually carries - with one lane in each direction, a centre turn lane and maybe even a bike lane - and a few feet left over to give back to the front yards of the majestic houses that line that street. The result would be a street that people want to live on. Higher property values. More taxes. And getting around would be easier, because now you have an additional southbound option. Now multiply that effect by every overbuilt street in the city. How much would it cost to do this? Is the payoff worth it?

The problem is, without anyone with guts to ask these questions within the city, we may never find out the costs and benefits of this approach. We just keep repaving them as-is and crossing our fingers that someone or something will rescue us from the suffocating deficit in the roads budget. I'd like to hear the public works and councillors' ideas of how we are ever going to catch up on the rehabilitation backlog. It's basically impossible at this point. This year we are adding another 100 million to the backlog, AND we are building 25 million worth of NEW ROADS, guaranteed to come back and bite us in the ass later. They just announced an $18 million road road atop the RHVP hill, and there are dozens of roads currently on the "future widenings" list. It's insanity.

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 11, 2013 at 23:03:46 in reply to Comment 89479

Here are some ideas that will save tons of money in road maintenance and upkeep. Even if road lanes aren't physically removed, getting car traffic off of them will lengthen their lifespan and lower maintenance costs considerably.

Some examples of what we could do here right now in Hamilton with our abundance of unnecessary lanes:

Wider Sidewalks:

Could someone please explain why we haven't done this on the Claremont Access and Wellington Street from Mohawk College to Burlington Street?? No construction necessary. Just the barricades, paint and bollards, smaller curbs on Wellington instead of the large barricades so driveway access points can remain.

Rest of the NYC tour:

Think of how much money these ideas would save the city annually if implemented city wide? Half of Cannon, half of Wilson, half of Wellington, half of Victoria, half of the Claremont etc.... could be free of car, truck and bus traffic and see dramatically lower upkeep costs.

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By Sigma Cub (anonymous) | Posted June 12, 2013 at 07:53:07 in reply to Comment 89485

Concrete barricades, paint and bollards would approximate the $100/meter ballpark cost of "separated bike lanes". And if you're going to pay that money, why not get a custom job (a la the Main Street bridge into Westdale) rather than a scabby McGyvered workaround?

I don't know why the city isn't doing the studies/consultations/budgeting exercises that would allow necessary resources to flow. I suspect the rationale would also explain why they've more or less thrown the two-way conversions and bike lane plans in the chipper.

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By Sigma Cub (anonymous) | Posted June 11, 2013 at 21:41:47 in reply to Comment 89479

My point was not that it wasn't worth making changes, but rather that if you reallocate 200 lane km or whatever to cycling infrastructure, you don't stop paying upkeep. Other Canadian cities of similar scale have done conversions and can surely offer measurables of value.

A separated bike lane apparently costs around $100/m to install, and a nominal but cumulative amount to keep clear of debris and snow. The city simply needs to be shown that the lifespan cost of conversions is at least a break-even proposition (at least on par with the cost of typical roads maintenance) and once a majority of councillors are onside, it's just a matter of nailing down the appropriate budget allocations.

Alternately, refocus the participatory budgeting process to bootstrap a starter network. $200K from each of Ward 1/2/3 would create 6km of separated bike lane, arrayed however works best.

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By bikehounds (anonymous) | Posted June 12, 2013 at 08:48:35 in reply to Comment 89483

Despite my occupation (and screen name) it's not all about bike lanes though. It's about taking an honest look at our traffic counts and capacities and eliminating travel lanes that we don't need (in the most efficient way we can find). We basically can't afford not to, unless there's some magic plan that the city has up their sleeves to double the roads budget all of a sudden.

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted June 13, 2013 at 13:01:05 in reply to Comment 89491

Cheapest solution would be to wall off lanes as the city decides to roll out roadwork. That lane will not be resurfaced although others will be, thereby reducing the expense of the infrastructure. Divvy it up however you want afterwards, but reduce the expense and increase the benefits as much as possible. Change behaviours, remake the city.

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By Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted June 12, 2013 at 20:46:32 in reply to Comment 89491

Metrolinx does fantastic fine print.

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 10, 2013 at 12:39:15 in reply to Comment 89449

your lifestyle sounds similar to mine. Would you be willing to add 2-3 minutes of travel time on those trips if it meant economic growth, stimulus and vibrancy along Cannon, King and Main? I sure would. Nothing that has ever been proposed here on RTH would impact car travel times by more than a couple of minutes. But the results in business, growth, safety of other transportation options and revitalization of inner city neighbourhoods would be tremendous.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2013 at 12:24:49 in reply to Comment 89449

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By re Dunphy & Spectator (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2013 at 14:20:14

I see the new Comments style doesn't show net 'score'. Interesting way of getting more 'unbiased' comments. Anyway, Spectator had an excellent city columnist for a while around 2004-2005--but not for long enough. See Spec archive. Bill Dunphy showed there was more to real observation than the small view, often just sneering, often lazy work of of a guy called Dreschel. Dunphy I think is now working with newer Spec writers. Good, but read his columns to see the difference. Spec archive available through Hamilton Public Library. Ask them how.

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By Chris Erskine (anonymous) | Posted June 11, 2013 at 07:53:47

We need more citizen participation with more power to defend their interests. I am not against an architectural review board (particularly if it expands the number of actors involved in the decision-making process) but this can easily evolve into another group of elites dictating to the community.

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted June 11, 2013 at 11:22:49

I'll keep repeating it. This City Council considers bedrooms to be the New Steel.

We keep electing the same politicians, when do we start blaming ourselves for the backward mess this city is. There is an overwhelming amount of selfishness, short sightedness and even dare I say stupidity within Hamilton city limits. We've collectively elected exactly what we deserve.

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By SCRAP (anonymous) | Posted June 11, 2013 at 22:01:35

So the Capitalist stkikes again with his insane comments.

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By Kevin (registered) | Posted June 12, 2013 at 00:23:16

Bedrooms are the new steel... Interesting, I'd heard it was art and Thai food. Ryan, send Paul Berton your resume and writing samples. You'd be perfect.

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