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A downtown of skyscrapers


Feb 12, 2018


Opposition is building to city plans that would pre-approve much of downtown Hamilton for 30 storey buildings and leave almost nothing under six storeys. And despite the significant population increase that would result, public park space remains extremely limited in the draft plans.

Neighbourhood, tenant, environmental and other organizations have called a March 6 meeting about the draft Downtown Hamilton Secondary Plan that has been under development for over five years and is expected to be finalized by council this spring. The public meeting is set for the downtown central library at 6:30 pm.

Some fear the proposed plan could result in skyrocketing property values that force out existing residents and businesses and accelerate an already evident trend of population movement to lower rent areas on the mountain or the east end of the city. Others call it a blank cheque for developers and ask why their city’s future should be determined by market forces rather than citizens.

The draft plan applies to the area bounded by Victoria Avenue, Hunter Street, Queen Street and Cannon Street, as well as to properties fronting onto James Street from St Joseph’s Hospital to the CN Rail line. The current proposal calls for virtually all properties within that area to be pre-zoned to at least six storey building heights and more than half to be granted the right to climb to thirty storeys (see map). Only a tiny segment on the south-east corner of Jackson and Caroline would be less than six storeys.

Nearly everything between James and Queen would be permitted to go to 30 storeys, along with a large block further east to Mary Street on the north side of King William. Most properties fronting on Main Street from Wellington to James would receive 20 to 30 storey designations.

In comparison, First Place is 25 storeys, and the student residence being built by LIUNA on James North is 21 storeys, while the twin towers they are proposing at Hughson and King on the old Kresge and Woolworth’s site are to be 25 to 35 storeys.

The downtown draft plan mapping shows no significant increase in green space or parkland. Indeed the City Hall property is shown as the largest designated “parks/open space” area.

The new height allowances could greatly increase population density in downtown Hamilton and may reduce pressure for similar changes in other parts of the city. But the impact could be severe for existing downtown residents and businesses.

Tenants could be especially hard hit as property owners demolish existing buildings in favour of much larger ones, or alternatively put off upkeep expenditures in anticipation of being able to sell to developers. The plan’s approval could also make it very difficult or impossible for residents or even city council to block any skyscraper that stays within the height limits.

Pricing lower-income residents out of the downtown would be particularly ironic along the LRT route because it has been chosen partly guided by provincial objectives to improve transit for people who can’t afford cars. Affordable units in new towers would be a way to keep those residents in the downtown, but so far the city has not taken any measures to ensure that new residential towers include housing for lower-income tenants.

That might be accomplished directly where the city is the property owner – as it is for numerous downtown parking lots. Another available option is on the west harbour lands scheduled for a massive residential and commercial complex, but so far city council hasn’t included any affordable housing requirements in that development.

Some cities use lower height limits as a bargaining tool to get developers to provide affordable units or other community benefits in return for allowing extra storeys to be built. These so-called “section 37” deals are permitted under provincial legislation but so far have not been utilized in downtown Hamilton. If 30 storeys are allowed as a matter of right, then this bargaining approach could only be utilized for even taller skyscrapers. 

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