Tuesday, March 6th saw the first public gathering of the People’s Plan for Downtown Hamilton community group. This citizens group (made up of representatives from the art, environment, heritage, immigrant, social justice, music, neighbourhood, small business and tenant advocate groups) is focused on challenging the current City of Hamilton ‘Downtown Secondary Plan’ as it is proposed.
Background: (from the city of Hamilton website)
The Downtown Secondary Plan, “Putting People First: The New Land Use Plan for Downtown Hamilton” was the first formal plan for the Downtown core, approved in 2001. The Secondary Plan contains the goals, actions, policies and implementation of the direction for Downtown Hamilton.
The Plan area is bounded by Cannon Street to the north, Wellington Street to the east, Hunter Street to the South and Queen Street to the west. It contains parts of four downtown neighbourhoods: Beasley, Central, Corktown and Durand. (this includes almost the entire area between James and Queen St.)
What’s the problem?
The Secondary Plan as it currently stands offers, what people are calling, ‘a blank cheque’ to developers. The plan proposes pre-approving much of the downtown for 30 storey buildings. Currently that limit is set to 12 storeys. There are fears that this plan will result in massive hikes in property tax for the affected neighbourhoods; current homeowners who are older, or are on limited fixed incomes, would be hurt by the increased property taxes. The new 30 storey developments would most likely be primarily residential units (condos, apartments) which would be priced well above what the average downtown resident could afford. There is also concern that this would incentivize the owners of smaller residential buildings, retail buildings, and other spaces to push tenants out with the goal of re-building taller structures that would be more profitable for the owners. This concern extends to above retail rental units as well as any other low-rise rental spaces. The common thread is that this plan is great for developers and investors and not so great for average people. There are fears of displacement of the poor, elderly, and immigrant populations that currently live downtown. There are also concerns about shrinking green spaces, destruction of heritage builds, loss of the arts and culture scene, and more.
What happened at the community meeting?
The speakers started the event by laying out their philosophy on development: development is not bad, tall buildings are not bad, growth is not bad. The concern is over the direction of growth and the lack of balance in the plan. The overwhelming sense at this community meeting was that the current plan does not do enough to ensure that developers have to include more than a small percentage (5%-10%) of affordable rental units in each build. (In fact this small percentage need not be in the building in question and may be located in a separate structure which leads to bad optics about ‘separating the rich from the poor’). There was great concern over the issue of condo developers gearing their builds towards bachelor or 1 bedroom units and leaving out affordable multi-bedroom family units which are already at a shortage in downtown Hamilton.
The large group split up into smaller issue-focused groups to brainstorm what they would like to see included in the plan and to list concerns with the current plan. The music / arts group, for example, was concerned about the lack of live music venues and what this Secondary Plan means for potential new venues. There was concern about noise bylaws pushing the music scene out of the downtown. (There are already issues surrounding new residential builds and pre-existing live music venues in Hamilton). Others suggested that affordable rehearsal spaces, and fair access to grants and incentives would do a lot to nurture the arts scene in Hamilton. There is a notion that a lot of the momentum Hamilton has seen in growth and development resulted from our vibrant and thriving music scene and that it would be unacceptable for this same music and arts scene to be stifled and shut out by massive residential development.
What are the proposed solutions?
The People’s Plan for Downtown Hamilton group seems to believe that there is room in Section 37 of the planning act to include citizen-lead concerns and ideas for appropriate development. You can find more information about s.37 here and here. The speakers cited Chicago’s development plan specifically as one that honors a lot of citizen concerns and includes controls and stipulations for developers. For example: there is a stipulation that all new builds must include 20-30% affordable rental units and for each unit that is not included the developer must pay $100,000 that will go towards social housing in Chicago.
The Hamilton room at the Hamilton Public Library (central) was at standing-room-only capacity during this event. There was a lot of interest and enthusiasm and plenty of suggestions and ideas. It remains to be seen what will happen from here but the vibe in the room was energetic and optimistic.