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Visions clash at OMB

Jan 28, 2013

Two starkly different visions of Hamilton’s future clashed last week at the Ontario Municipal Board hearings into the controversial airport-area urban boundary expansion sought by the city. As of late Thursday evening, the decision is now in the hands of board chair Joyti Zuidema who indicated it will take her some time to issue her verdict after hearing seven full days of evidence and argument.

The city’s lawyer and witnesses contended that Hamilton’s employment future will not be like the past and that growth will increase dramatically on employment land in greenfield business parks where most new jobs will be accommodated. City consultant Antony Lorius anticipates that just over half of new employment in Hamilton in the next twenty years will occur on “well-located greenfield parcels, particularly those that are of a sufficient size and well-served by the road and highway transportation network” and consequently argues for the crucial importance of incorporating the Airport Employment Growth District into the city’s urban boundary.

“From a long-range planning perspective, it is difficult to overstate the importance of employment land employment to the City’s economic future,” Lorius declared in his witness statement submitted to the Board. “In order for the City to accommodate the [provincial] Growth Plan employment forecast to 2031 and achieve its own employment and economic development objectives, employment land employment must grow.”

Witnesses and counsel for the citizen groups Environment Hamilton (EH) and Hamiltonians for Progressive Development (HPD), supported by all 18 citizens who made presentations to the Board, have quite a different viewpoint. They believe the city should put first emphasis on redevelopment of vacant and under-utilized lands in the older bayfront industrial areas, and they point to evidence that the city’s actual growth rate over the last eight years shows it already has more than twice as much land in business parks than it will use up by 2031.

They also cite a 2012 forecast prepared for the province by Lorius’ company that forecasts a very different type of growth for the GTAH (Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton combined) where it expects less than one-third of new jobs will come from industrial growth – almost the same as the major office category. In contrast, in Hamilton nearly twice as many jobs are forecast by the same study to be industrial rather than in large offices.

Joel Farber, the lawyer representing development interests that own land in the aerotropolis, told the Board chair that his clients agree that office jobs will go Halton, Peel, York and Toronto, and that Hamilton’s market advantage is having large greenfield properties available for industrial uses.

There is also stark disagreement on employment intensification. EH and HPD argue that the provincial Growth Plan requires this approach to be the first choice and that there are many opportunities in Hamilton.

They pointed to an inventory of the city’s industrial land prepared by the Hamilton Civic League which showed hundreds of acres of properties receiving a vacancy tax rebate. The city position is that the bayfront is 99 percent occupied and that businesses don’t want to locate there anyways. 

“Intensification sites are generally not capable of satisfying demand from users that normally seek greenfield business park locations with access to the highway transportation network,” stated Mr Lorius is response to evidence presented by EH and HPD. And the city’s lawyer, Nancy Smith, pointed specifically to this statement in her closing arguments on Thursday evening in support of the aerotropolis.

Eric Gillespie, representing HPD and EH, dubbed the latter “the airport business park number two”, noting that the 20-year-old already existing airport business park is 93 percent vacant and has not attracted even companies seeking greenfield sites.

He urged the Board to reject the city proposal and conclude that no boundary expansion is required. Ms Zuidema indicated she’s uncertain how long it will take for her to render a decision.

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