Queen West and King East: A Tale of Two City Streets

By Ryan McGreal
Published August 20, 2007

Yesterday after finding ourselves in Toronto, my wife and I walked along Queen West around the Spadina/Bathurst area to enjoy some sidewalk shopping on a pleasant Sunday afternoon.

Today, I took a walk along King East to check out Reg Beaudry's new Three16 Lounge (alas, closed on Mondays).

I was surprised at how very similar the two stretches looked and felt, even down to the scale and density of the streets themselves. Notwithstanding the weekday, the biggest difference I saw was the number of people.

Whereas the streets around Queen West are full of tall, narrow Victorians, row houses, lofts, apartments and new condo towers (especially along Spadina - more on that below), the streets around Hamilton's King East are mostly filled with empty lots and surface parking.

Surface parking in downtown Hamilton around John St. and Rebecca St. (Image Credit: Google Maps)
Surface parking in downtown Hamilton around John St. and Rebecca St. (Image Credit: Google Maps)

As for Spadina, a radical simplification of the planning environment there is responsible for much of the growth in density, diversity, and reinvestment (both financial and physical in the form of people returning to live and work). I'll quote extensively from Toronto's mighty John Sewell on what they did:

A more complicated kind of urban form planning has occurred here in Toronto in the King-Spadina area. Ten years ago some of the finest minds concerned with land use planning in Toronto got together to talk about how development should be controlled in the King-Spadina area.

Among those at the table were Ken Greenberg, Jane Jacobs, Margie Zeidler and developer Bob Eisenberg. They decided to get rid of zoning to prohibit uses, and instead to allow any use that a building owner wanted providing it did not cause undue noise, odor or vibration.

The second decision of this committee was to remove all controls on density. This kind of planning obviously turned on its head the experience of the past forth years which dictated that planners had to control use and density.

Instead, the committee decided there were only two important controls that should be exercised in King-Spadina. First there should be a height limit generally the same as existing structures, a height of eight or nine storey structures. Second, they decided that buildings could not be set back from the edge of the sidewalks, but had to come right out to the edge of the sidewalk.

This has proven to be a very powerful way of planning. It provides certainty for developers and for the community and it helps ensure that the city gets the forms that it thinks best for this part of the city. As we have seen, developers have surged into the King-Spadina area, building structures which are a mix of residential, retail, office, light industrial and cultural. [emphasis added]

Sewell notes that some developers managed to wrangle variances that increase the height restriction by another six storeys or so, but this isn't enough to undermine the logic of the planning rules, which have been highly successful at revitalizing the King-Spadina area and raising the population density in a healthy, vibrant, favourable way.

Because there are so many more people living nearby, commercial strips like Queen West can't help but be more successful. The economics are based around adaptive reuse (one shoe store was located in a space so obviously a former restaurant that shoes were displayed on the stainless steel counters and even in the sinks that still ran across one wall) and niche marketing in a population large enough to support quirky, independent businesses.

On Queen West, my wife and I had lunch at a bona fide Crêperie like you would find in Paris (albeit bigger and arguably more hip). I would love a similar establishment in Hamilton, but there just aren't enough people in our downtown to provide a subset of crêpe-lovers big enough to support a commercial business.

The heart of the matter is that abundant cheap and 'free' parking directly and explicitly prevent vibrancy downtown. They displace both residences and commercial destinations, so there are fewer people living withing shopping distance as well as fewer places to shop.

The solution lies not in attracting visitors with cheap parking but in attracting residents with dynamic, affordable homes - loft redevelopmens, condos, row houses, and other medium-density living spaces. The best way to ensure this, as Sewell argues, is through a planning framework that recognizes how urban development works and supports an urban form and density necessary for street life.

As the core revitalizes, intensifies, and fills with people, businesses and employers again, the dynamism and energy will begin to attract visitors to supplement that activity - and they will pay to come downtown because the destinations will be worth paying for.

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 g. (anonymous) | Posted August 20, 2007 at 23:52:10

it's is such a big problem... in order to attract people they must be able to find work and have things to do and decent places to live and be surrounded by their peers. and which comes first? how does hamilton attract small and medium employers who offer stimulating rewarding work for the hordes of young people churned through the citie's several post secondary institutions? countless numbers of my friends whom i attended mcmaster with have moved on to larger cities to look for something better. why is it that so few students form lasting ties with this city during the four years here? could it be that for the most part they see little of the rest of the city past hess street? i don't know. when i think about why hamilton is lacking it usually comes back to density. it's not that there are not all the elements for hamilton to be a more attractive city it is just that they are all too spread out. there is no economic pressure to build anything on those parking lots. and there is no political pressure to control further development past the so called urban boundry that would increase economic pressure. hmmm...

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 21, 2007 at 09:24:25

a FIRM urban boundary is absolutely key. Portland did this and is still reaping the success. Hamilton will never do this. The politicians don't care about the city enough to make proper choices that might affect their campaign funding.

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By peter (anonymous) | Posted August 22, 2007 at 11:25:58

yep, a firm boundary, a change in zoning laws, and a change in property taxes. taxes should be based on the value of the land and not what's on the land. being close to the core, those parking lots would be more valuable and subsequently put up for sale and built upon. as it is, they're not worth much so little is paid in property taxes and these jerks are only too happy to keep them as parking lots.

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By greenie (anonymous) | Posted September 03, 2007 at 16:21:50

The Green Party of Ontario has embraced this 'land based' tax idea.
Google this: 'green party of ontario land taxes' to read more.

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By greenie (anonymous) | Posted September 03, 2007 at 16:35:11

g brings up the killer point: JOBS. Have the RTH folks given this much thought? (Other than the Richard Florida stuff, which I get, but am not sure Hamilton will ever get to!)
After looking around at just who attends the Mustard Fest. yesterday, I'm thinking we need to really think outside the box in Hamilton! Maybe even move away from this JOBS/economic/build infrastructure fixation and create a place that innovativally serves quality of life to who we are NOW...not who we could be! (after all many Hamiltonians don't actually have jobs...and may never fit into a traditional or 'creative' economy...)
What do you think???

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