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Hamilton is coming back
August 27, 2012
They’ll zip by it (if they go that way at all) on the Burlington Bridge over its harbour, and never give the city a look.
Hamilton was once a centre of heavy industry: its waterfront filled with active steel mills. Divided by the Niagara escarpment into a upper and a lower town, upper was good; lower was for the poor who’d have to live with the smells, the sounds and the soot of earning a living.
Hamilton’s city fathers, in turn, fell into a common trap in the 1960s and 1970s: redevelopment of the downtown core with megablock structures. Jackson Square, for instance: a shopping mall, office towers and lots of parking underground, the type of structure that kills the streets outside (and indeed the historic centre of Hamilton, King St. and James St.) by its foreboding, inward-facing structure.
Oriented toward cars and driving in and out, there was little reason to drive to downtown Hamilton. Malls in upper Hamilton would do just fine. The stores, after all, were all chains, and therefore one outlet was as good as another.
But Hamilton is coming back.
Artists looking for cheap space for studios, galleries and the like have revitalized James St. north of the square. Old building stock that dates back to the 1890s-1920s is being reused. Those streets are filled with people, walking, stopping for coffees and dinners, out and about.
Its people – on the streets – that makes a community vibrant, not driving in, shopping, and driving out.
Admittedly, far too many plots of land remain as parking lots (where old structures were torn down) or `left derelict. But there is a lot of renovation going on, and soon the parking lots will be headed for redevelopment as the number of remaining buildings that can be repurposed starts to fall off.
More people are moving – by choice – into the lower part of the city. Much of the industry is gone. There are solid houses, ready for renovation, at very affordable prices, and with more and more amenities within walking distance.
Hamilton had been headed toward being a part of the commuter culture (there certainly are no shortage of Hamiltonians who head toward Toronto for work daily). These people, though, are rebuilding their city.
Hamilton is regaining its place as a centre in its own right. GO Transit buses fan out of the downtown Hamilton transit centre to the Niagara peninsula, to Kitchener-Waterloo, and other southwestern Ontario centres, as well as connecting back to Toronto. (Trains come into Hamilton for rush hour, but otherwise stop at Aldershot and connect by bus.) This allows an increasing number of options beyond driving yourself to connect to universities and colleges, and employers, outside of the city, making locating in Hamilton plausible for start ups and consultants.
There are still many changes required to finish the job of revitalizing this city.
Hamilton depends – as do many mid-sized communities – on a one-way street grid to keep traffic flowing. As Vancouver learned with its Yaletown neighbourhood, where one-way streets were converted back to two-way, you don’t pick up a lot of traffic issues with the conversion, and the neighbourhood becomes far more liveable.
Two-way streets make it easier to run a better transit network, make for safer sidewalks, increase the opportunities to discover new things by increasing the number of routes. The slight slowdown in traffic pace actually increases business.
Given that Hamilton is now served by expressways, and the province no longer considers Highway 8 through downtown Hamilton a provincial route, it’s time for Hamilton to consider changing its one-way streets too.
Hamilton might want to consider copying Portland, Oregon, with its ‘free downtown transit zone’, to connect different places in the core for people who do come into the city. For many years to come, the central area will be ‘pockets’ – some blocks worth coming to, but passing others that haven’t yet redeveloped. A free loop bus downtown would encourage people to come and make multiple stops (and, as Portland learned, it keeps cars off the streets, making it a place people want to be).
No discussion of Hamilton would be complete without mentioning the vital role the Hamilton Public Library plays in the life of the city, especially the main branch located next to Jackson Square and the farmers’ market. This library system goes beyond a traditional library and tries to play its part in helping the city’s prosperity. It’s getting results.
Hamilton still has a long way to go – but it’s no longer the Steeltown we thought we knew.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Stewart, a Toronto-based management consultant, will be keeping an Eye on Ontario each Monday.
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