Our Downtown’s Future is for Everyone
From the Nest, Issue 13
by Chris Ritsma
Hamilton saw a record-breaking $2 billion in construction permits in 2021. This is the first time after many years of breaking the $1 billion mark. Whether you live downtown, make a trip down, or just pass through it, it’s obvious much of this is happening in the core.
Where there were seas of asphalt parking lots, now towers rise, like the recently completed Marquee Residence, a condo-like rental apartment building at 20 George Street and the under-construction McMaster Graduate Student Residence due to be complete in late 2023.
There have been questions raised about what this boom in construction means for downtown Hamilton and both its existing and new residents.
The recent census completed in 2021 provides some context to these changes. According to the 2016 census Hamilton grew by 3.3% while downtown shrunk by approximately 1.5%. Compare this with 2021 and there is a drastic reversal with the population downtown increasing by approximately 9% compared with Hamilton’s growth of 6%, showing that much of the growth is situated downtown, specifically in Ward 2.
Based on public information, this trend is likely to continue or increase. In the past 10 years, there have been a few thousand units built downtown, while the number of units under construction in 2022 easily reaches above 2,500.
This is all while over 12,000 units are proposed for downtown (based on development applications and proposals shared with the City). A simple way to summarize the changes is that there will be a large number of people moving downtown, likely doubling the population of the central city within the next decade if not sooner.
Clearly, people want to move to Hamilton. Demand is outstripping the supply of homes, in part leading to increased home prices and rents. The rising prices have led to Hamilton being one of the most unaffordable places to live in North America, beating out major American cities like New York and Los Angeles based on cost of living compared to local average wages. This effect is felt by working class blue-collar workers, and white collar workers alike, that have called Hamilton home for generations.
Lower-income individuals and families are the ones that bear the brunt of these increasing costs, often displacing them from the city completely. Of the development proposals downtown, very few include “affordable units”, defined by CMHC as “less than 30% of a household’s before-tax income”. Notable inclusions are the redevelopment of the Jamesville social housing property, and the Pier 8 redevelopment.
There are studies that show that some market-rate housing can fight displacement, as that housing can give people looking to move to an area a place to live, but this must be done in conjunction with affordable, and social housing development, otherwise, the lowest income earners will be pushed out.
Nearby cities like Toronto have increased their expectations of affordable housing units as the city continues to reel from a decades-long explosion in housing prices. Hamilton lacks a policy that has any actual bite to tackle this issue.
Many options to handle infrastructure and housing issues exist. Toronto, for instance, chose to abolish parking minimums after seeing years of development where much of the parking that was built went unused.
Building a single parking spot is estimated to cost up to $100,000, adding to the price tag of much-needed housing. These policy changes come following the recognition that parking garages are less desirable in areas with adequate transit and walkability.
The results have led to some developments not being built and others not needing to be built as tall as originally planned, in order for them to be profitable.
This is all within the context of cities, like Hamilton, declaring a climate emergency and signing on to build transit improvements like LRT without major policy changes to show a serious commitment to move away from personal automobile dependence (despite it being a goal of the Transportation Master Plan).
While many downtown roads are overbuilt, adding thousands of new units with drivers will eventually fill up the roads if there is no investment in active transportation like cycling, walking, and transit.
Hamilton already struggles with a growing infrastructure deficit reaching above $3 billion. What this means is that citizens need to discuss how the city’s downtown grows and how those new residents will get around. These residents will also need services like schools, hospitals, and parks.
Residents living near downtown also have to contend with dizzying 45 storey towers like the proposal at Pier 8, while residents in other areas fight four storey buildings.
While downtown residents can easily be dismissed as NIMBYs, residents have to contend with the fairness of receiving all the density in the city to protect suburban neighbourhoods from multi-unit dwellings. The proposal at Pier 8 has the aim of providing more family-sized units, which is a good thing, and a deficit in many other new proposals.
The last concern with the increase in developments in Hamilton is the lack of information or transparency with which they occur.
Developments like the ones occurring downtown can sometimes take 5 to 10 years from start to finish, and the City only maintains a handful of documents online for 12 months.
Presentations like those seen at the Design Review Panel are taken down from YouTube after a short time. Often, this is the only place to see plans for a specific development.
This means that it is often up to residents and websites like Reddit and SkyScraper Forum that must maintain a record of documents. What this means is volunteers are needed to maintain and organize documentation that cities like Toronto pay staff to maintain for the duration of the development.
If citizens are to comment on, and be informed about, developments like the Corktown Plaza redevelopment that has been taking years to get started, they need reliable and barrier-free access to the basic information
Hamilton’s future is bright, but developers, citizens, and the city must work together to ensure its future is for everyone.
The Downtown Sparrow has recently relaunched its Map of Ward 2 Development Sites, which contains basic information, including files where they’re available, on an easy to access public map.
Chris Ritsma is a Ward 2 resident living in the Central neighbourhood; he cares deeply about his community, and his neighbours; he advocates for and aims to discuss policies that encourage improvements to the urban environment for cyclists, pedestrians and transit users