Urban Renewal Then and Now: LRT and the Rental Housing Crisis: Part Two

By Shawn Selway for King Street Tenants United

York Street after widening. Source: Hamilton Spectator, November 1976, Hamilton Public Library Special Collections

Margaret Rockwell’s 2004 M.A. thesis, “Modernist Destruction for the Ambitious City”, recounts the hopes and disappointments of the urban renewal episode in Hamilton.

As early as 1957, the Hamilton Downtown Association recognized the potential which federal urban renewal dollars could offer a city wanting drastic change. Hamilton’s businessmen began to lobby for an urban renewal study to be carried out as required under the National Housing Act. They believed that the money Hamilton spent on urban renewal would be regained through increased tax revenues due to the modern buildings’ higher assessments and the fact that the services for development were already in place. They were convinced that they could fight the allure of the malls of suburbia by bringing pedestrian shopping centres into the urban inner core. (Rockwell, 104)

Over the next decade, this appetite for drastic change led to the destruction of houses in the North End and elsewhere, a vast downtown demolition and reconstruction programme that crashed twice, put half of the long established concerns out of business and left large empty lots for years. (Rockwell, 110). It also entailed the total reconstruction of York Street.

The reason that the city needed to destroy the street, the planner Murray V. Jones told the Ontario Municipal Board at its hearings in April 1974, was “to meet traffic demands of the future.” He told the board that he had originally chosen to widen York St. back in 1964 because “of its historic and functional role as an exit and entry to and from the city.’ The street was going to have to succumb because the modernist need to create efficient transportation corridors was considered more important than the citizens who lived along the streets. The Barton Street freeway which had seemed so essential in 1964 was cancelled in 1970 because of the cut backs in federal urban renewal funds and the realization that the city couldn’t destroy hundreds of homes. The perimeter road along Strachan Avenue in the North End [100 houses removed ] was still expected to be built and would be linked to the York street freeway. [This road stayed on the books until 2012; even then, the Chamber of Commerce objected to its removal from the area’s plan.]

The opposing voices had their say during the eight days of OMB hearings in April 1974. . . An NDP brief suggested that the city wanted to build the expressway “to woo commercial development to the civic square” and didn’t want low income people living along the route to their prestigious development. . . However the city’s decision to make York St. into an essential western link in the cross-town street system prevailed. The Ontario cabinet upheld the OMB decision and the Spectator wrote that it was too late for the city to turn back. . .  

The city expected to destroy 249 properties and relocate approximately 500 families. Some people refused to move. Harry Mitsui who operated an upholstery business and lived above his store had to be physically removed by police. They handcuffed him and carried him out of his house in red boxer shorts with a blanket over his head to the police cruiser. His house was destroyed in 1976. “I went to jail for five days on a matter of principle,” remembered Mitsui, “because I was fighting to stay in a home I lived and worked in for 28 years.”  (Rockwell, 131)

The urban renewal campaigns, particularly in the downtown, have left the city centre looking very bare today, especially when one considers how old Hamilton is and how prosperous it was for so many decades. The central city should be a dense, varied and layered landscape – and indeed it was; but much of the core was simply bulldozed during the sixties and seventies.

Ten years after the widening of York Street, there were new buildings in the corridor. Forty-five years later there are a few more, but nothing at all comparable to the historical density of the mid-twentieth century has appeared and the “pedestrian realm” remains very underpopulated. The obvious comparison is with James North, which in 1975 very much resembled York Street before its destruction.  Because James was “left behind” its commercial life continued to evolve and the ebb and flow of investment was on a much smaller scale. Particularly in the last ten years, those flows and the turnovers that result have become more rapid. But they occur one or two buildings at a time, that is, in small increments within a more stable context, without the wholesale destruction wrought by grand plans imposed by experts enacting the ideology of the day. This does not mean that the outcome of incremental change is necessarily the most desirable. Personally I find James North’s steady conversion to restaurant row regrettable, but perhaps the new condo dwellers on the street would not agree. 

The churn on James North. Two new restaurants coming soon. February 2020.

However, council’s love for the Big Fix is a deep and lasting love, as shown most recently by projects like the stadium build, the LRT, and the current proposal to re-raze the core that was already flattened and trucked away fifty years ago – probably because the bigger the project the better the chance of pulling in provincial or federal money to supplement city resources insufficient to do the job. Insufficient also to heal the wounds when the outside funding is withdrawn.

But at least this time the momentum has been interrupted before the demolitions have occurred, so that Metrolinx has been left with a large stock of buildings, and under-developed or vacant lots. However,  the structures are now boarded up and undergoing demolition by dereliction in the time-honoured Hamilton way, which usually leads in short order to a vacant lot that remains so for a very long time. We have seen this at Queen and King, on James and Jackson where the site of the former Baptist church looks like the building was felled by a missile, and others. Some of these desolated areas are quite large – the greater part of the downtown block bounded by James, King, Main and Hughson for example; or the Barton Tiffany precinct which got the bulldozer treatment in the fall of 2011. Thirteen houses were removed from Barton and Tiffany streets, and the premises of seven businesses including relatively new buildings housing a gas station/variety store and an auto-repair shop. An older industrial building in the centre of the Caroline-Hess block was also taken down. Last to be demolished was a large structure with two huge interior volumes which might well be functioning today as a film studio were councillors less dedicated to making rubble and more willing to entertain adaptive reuse. Eight years on, this area is an unofficial construction waste dump. Meanwhile the Tivoli and 18-28 King at the Gore, ostensibly rescued from the wreckers, continue to sit empty, unused and unmaintained while the owners wait for their competitors to increase the land values.

Those small apartment buildings along King and Main are fine examples of the Missing Middle, the term which has become a catch-all for many types of “ground-oriented housing”: row houses, townhouses, apartments in buildings under five storeys, apartments in duplexes, and residential units above commercial. Demolition of these buildings would be doubly wasteful and harmful because it reduces still further the amount of rental housing available outside the high-rises, and those larger multi-residential buildings are now mostly in the hands of REITs dedicated to more or less ruthless programs of repositioning their assets in the market.

Middle range “ground oriented” housing on King.
Mid-range on Wilson in East Central Hamilton.

The Missing Middle has been much discussed over the last couple of years and is the new darling of intensification proponents. It is “gentle density”, so called to distinguish it from tall buildings which can land pretty hard if not subject to strict built-form guidelines that enforce minimum separation and maximum heights, as well as a unit mix ratio that avoids the endless proliferation of monocultural barracks for singles and their canine companions.

And in fact, the city is signalling a preference for the gentle end of the scale with the transit oriented development zoning that has been placed in the LRT corridor.

The transit-oriented development zoning in the eastern LRT corridor.

However, the six-storey (22 metres) height is just as likely to stimulate  negotiations for more permissions than to prompt anyone to proceed “direct to site-plan”, as the phrase is – a point which Vrancor has just illustrated very clearly by asking for 25 storeys on a six storey site at Queen and King already under construction. (“Anger over proposed growth of two core projects”, Spectator, January 27, 2020).

Parking for a six storey building, Vrancor style. Southwest corner King and Queen, February 2020.

A couple of detailed Canadian studies on the desirability of the Missing Middle came out last year, one from Ryerson and another from Evergreen and the Canadian Urban Institute

However, when you read through the Missing Middle reports, it becomes clear that the Evergreen study was prompted partly by the distress of those who find themselves unable to qualify for a mortgage as they enter the family planning years; and partly by an imperative to unlock land value in so-called stable areas zoned for detached and semi-detached dwellings, whose protections threaten to impede the growth machine. The Ryerson study, which focuses on Mississauga, points to that problem, but sets it aside in favour of looking for opportunities for denser infill mostly outside the single detached housing tracts that occupy about thirty percent of the land there. These concerns are coupled with complete reliance for remedies on the private market, whose actors are to receive various encouragements i.e have their profit margins guaranteed. Accordingly, there is nothing in this discussion as currently framed for lower income renters. 

Apart from simply giving developers money, or saving them money by reducing oversight, or allowing them more floor area in return for a few below-market priced units i.e. licensing them to do outright harm by building beyond the plan which defines what is best for all, there is not much to be done to achieve affordability in the market. Reduction in unit size is a possibility, and is ongoing. Except in jurisdictions where a minimum size is legislated, nobody knows how small a unit the market can be made to accept, and legislation is changeable. Inclusionary zoning is frequently mentioned, but apart from other problems, it cannot yield very many units. And finally there is filtering, the process by which newer builds presumably drive down the prices that can be charged by the owners of older builds. But filtering is very dependent on local conditions and in any case takes years to moderate values, years which may pass pleasantly for the generally comfortably housed advocates of filtering, but less pleasantly for the poorly housed who are waiting to inherit.

In short, there is no market solution.

The technical route to housing affordability is probably through energy-efficient building on off-market land with ready access to public transit.  I say “probably” because the practicability of any particular solution has not been adequately studied in the local conditions. It has not been a goal to plan for true and lasting housing security, and this is a political, not a technical problem.

The technical route to housing affordability is probably through energy-efficient building on off-market land with ready access to public transit.

The immediate political problem is to ensure that the land which Metrolinx has now aggregated from a large number of small-holdings is kept intact, and to have the parcel transferred to a public body or a trust, rather than breaking it up and selling it off to individual private developers, which will have the effect of worsening the housing crisis. For the sake of variety of course it might be desirable to lease land to a number of proponents, but long-term affordability depends on retaining the entire parcel in public hands and off the market in perpetuity.

The immediate political problem is to ensure that the land which Metrolinx has now aggregated from a large number of small-holdings is kept intact.

The new owner would begin by rehabilitating the existing vacant buildings, completing deep energy retrofits where possible, and then turn to building stacked townhouses or smaller apartment blocks on the vacant lots, in order to make the new units available quickly.

How this could be done would not be hard to find. The literature is extensive and there is local experience of building to meet passive house standards of energy conservation. The technical problem reduces to establishing the minimum initial cash investment that would be required to get started, and identifying a lender or guarantor, probably the federal government. Both the Liberals and the Conservatives would tacitly resist limiting opportunities for the employment of private capital by taking land off the market, no matter what the public rhetoric they might spout, but a discussion of the political task that this entails is a topic for another day.

But why should a stock of affordable housing be developed, and for whom? Or better, why is it more costly in the long run not to develop such a stock?  Who would we want to attract with this housing? Not priced-out young professionals or property speculators from Toronto, nor retired persons looking for a way to stretch their fixed means, though the first and the last should of course be welcomed and not condemned for their inadvertent individual contributions to what are structural problems. But these people are not enough to give us a future as anything other than a dormitory suburb of Toronto really. Surely we still have more self-respect than to settle for that.

 No, we need the housing not only to provide a floor for people already here, those on fixed incomes and the working poor surviving on pay below a living wage, but equally importantly, to attract new immigrants from everywhere, to retain new graduates from Mac and Mohawk, and to draw and keep artists and musicians — all of whom will need a place to live which they can afford.  Without these kinds of people, stagnation and decline are inevitable, no matter how promising it may seem in the short run to import a batch of computech jobs with workies attached from Toronto. The centres of decision will be elsewhere, and the interests of Hamiltonians will be sacrificed.

In the concluding section of this three part series, I want to look in more detail at who Hamilton would be planning for, if the municipality were to begin to take housing affordability seriously by looking for non-market solutions.

This article is the second in a three part series. Read Part One (“Time to Turn”) here and Part Three (“Planning Hamilton for Who?”) here.

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