Hamilton Mayor Bob Bratina presented his final State of the City address of this term of council. The event – presented by the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce and held on the 21st floor of the Stelco Tower in downtown Hamilton – took place on January 8 and drew a large audience of community leaders.
The Mayor spent considerable time during his speech and the Q&A session talking about downtown Hamilton and adjacent neighbourhoods – the geography of The Renew Hamilton Project. Below, for example, are a number of standout comments:
Downtown Vision: Asked to paint a picture (vision) of what Hamilton in general will look like ten years out, the Mayor chose to talk about a revitalized downtown where more families and children live in the core of our city supported by neighbourhood schools and amenities. “That’s the best bellwether for how your city has grown,” he said. This aspiration appears to reinforce the priority role that a healthy downtown plays in creating a complete city for all Hamiltonians.
Urban Transformation: The Mayor called current day downtown Hamilton “the middle of what is arguably one of the most dynamic urban transformations in Canada.” He went on to recite a litany of downtown revitalization initiatives, including many of the projects we are following through Renew Hamilton. The Mayor credited Hamilton’s downtown loans and grants program for helping to advance urban regeneration, particularly new condo developments.
Existing Infrastructure: The Mayor shared his personal economic policy: “Live within your means, make the most of what you have, do as much as you can for yourself.” He referenced this homespun outlook when stressing the need for our municipal government to limit future debt by, in part, capitalizing on existing infrastructure – hard and soft – that currently exists in our downtown and adjacent neighbourhoods. He also referenced examples of a similar approach in the industrial north end along Burlington Street.
Urban Intensification: The Mayor offered evidence that higher density infill projects in our core deliver much higher municipal tax revenues per acre than conventional townhouse style developments on suburban land – e.g., when built out, the one acre (approximately) Vrancor development on Main Street between Caroline and Bay is expected to generate approximately $1.5 million in annual city taxes compared to approximately $40,000 from ten townhouses that occupy a one acre suburban site.
Neighbourhood Renewal: The Mayor highlighted the success of the City’s Neighbourhood Development Strategy in engaging residents in the work of urban regeneration – an example of direct citizen involvement to energize local communities and reduce poverty.
Complete Streets and LRT: The Mayor acknowledged the sensibility of complete streets and their increased presence worldwide. He then stated that he remains cautious to make the required investments for several reasons, including: the cost-benefit value, a long payback horizon, perceived preferential treatment for certain parts of the city, and the growing competition for scarce resources needed for infrastructure renewal. “I’m always concerned about where the money’s coming from,” he said. The Mayor urged us to be reasonable, “live within our means” and concluded that “Hamilton’s time will come.” He was similarly reserved about investing in new transit projects, including light rail transit in downtown Hamilton. “It’s kind of a buzzy thing right now,” said the Mayor about the LRT trend, calling for the need to be “rational.” He said the first step is to demonstrate greater road congestion and generate higher transit ridership. The Mayor said, “We’ll have LRT in Hamilton … at the right point in time in our history, and I’ll leave it at that.”
High Wage Jobs: The Mayor referenced a fall 2013 article in the The Atlantic magazine written by urbanist Richard Florida that reports that 50% of net new positions in Hamilton since 2009 pay more than $30 an hour. “So it’s not all about replacing good jobs with low-paying service jobs.” Based on Florida’s research on the new economy, one would anticipate that many of these high-skill/high-pay jobs would gravitate to Hamilton’s more densely populated downtown core. An assumption worth investigating.
Downtown Parking: The Mayor called for additional vehicle parking in downtown Hamilton (while paradoxically insisting that our downtown parking is “too cheap”). He said: “The Board of Education, their big deal in leaving (downtown) was they needed parking.” In addition, he commented, “Parking is not evil, it just needs to be done in the right way.” He suggested that raising the price of municipal parking could be a tool to generate money to build structured parking facilities in the core. Absent were remarks on how improved public transit, cycling lanes and urban pathways could help reduce car traffic in our downtown.
Built Heritage: The Mayor said that “although we have lost so many valuable pieces” of our built heritage, we “still have time” to conserve what remains. He went on to applaud examples of adaptive reuse projects in Montreal that have been spearheaded by the principals of Yale Properties, owners of Jackson Square and other landmark properties in downtown Hamilton. “… 1840s, 1850s, pre-confederation buildings, rubble foundations, it’s no problem, you prop ‘em up, you fix ‘em up,” said the Mayor in reference to the Montreal experience. He concluded by saying, “To me, there’s a great future, and an important future, in the preservation of our heritage.”
Be Confident: Regarding Hamilton’s “new reality,” the Mayor encouraged community leaders to differentiate “constructive criticism from pure negativity.” He stated, “Our biggest problem is tweets and negativity,” adding “there’s nothing wrong with our city.”
In addition to urban regeneration, the Mayor also talked about how top-down provincial planning has undermined local governance (citing the example of municipal amalgamation), the need for improved highway links between Hamilton and the U.S. border, and investments in innovative policing. He did not reference certain hot button issues related to our downtown, including a potential casino operation, the completion of the Gore Park Master Plan, greening of urban landscapes, and support for arts and culture.