The Height of Ambition: Do Hamiltonians have a fear of building tall?

The past year was full of events that will significantly impact downtown living in Hamilton for decades to come. Whether it was the municipal election or the continued LRT saga (sometimes we forget these are separate events), 2018 will be remembered as a defining year for future development. The most impactful, yet less covered, event was arguably the City of Hamilton’s update to the Downtown Hamilton Secondary Plan. “The Plan” — which covers an area bounded by Cannon Street to the North, Hunter Street to the South, Victoria Avenue to the East, and Queen Street to the West — is a subsection of the City’s Official Plan and will guide all zoning and by-law decisions within that area. Its goal (full of good intentions as most municipal initiatives are) is to promote objectives such as ‘creating quality neighbourhoods’, ‘respecting design and heritage’, and ‘carving out a distinct economic role’ — just to name a few of the Plan’s seven objectives.

The City felt it necessary to update the Downtown Hamilton Secondary Plan due to the increasing and purportedly overwhelming number of proposed high-rise projects the core has seen over the past 5 years (which, by my count is less than 10). Fearing that the rampant development might get out of control, the City wanted to clearly outline its vision for the future of the downtown core. Beyond the rules it sets for zoning allowances, setbacks, and parking ratios, the most debated and controversial aspect of the plan deals with building heights.

The Plan has become a contentious document, evidenced by its vehement opposition from developers who seek to build denser, taller projects. Such opposition is in stark contrast with support from the vocal neighbourhood associations who appear to resist any project that has a chance to increase traffic, noise, or cast a shadow.

Take, for instance, an 11-storey proposal on the corner of MacNab and Stuart located right beside the new West Harbour GO Station. This is an area perfectly suited for density (by way of increased height) given its proximity to the inter-municipal GO transit line, yet it faces great opposition for being too tall. More noteworthy is Toronto developer Brad Lamb’s multi-year struggle to get his skyline-changing Television City project off the ground, one he’s still battling the City over at the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal (formerly called the Ontario Municipal Board; where land use planning disputes with municipalities are adjudicated).

Both sides of course have their arguments. Developers tout the economics of supply and demand and argue that denser projects will increase the housing supply, thereby mitigating the affordable housing crisis, while at the same time creating more construction jobs, increasing property tax revenues and making use of existing infrastructure. Developers often cite provincial policies (such as the Provincial Policy Statement and the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe) as support for their positions, given the direction within these provincial documents for intensification and increased density within existing urban boundaries.

The arguments against high-rise development are of a more qualitative nature, about how a city should feel and look. Although varied, such arguments include that high-rise development is not suited for the downtown core as taller buildings will block views from the escarpment.

The new and allegedly-improved Downtown Hamilton Secondary Plan has surely pleased the opponents to high-rise development, as it proposes that no new development can exceed 30 storeys in height — preventing buildings from being taller than the escarpment. How fortunate we would be if our escarpment was 80 storeys, or the opposite where it was only 10. I guess my grudge should be with the forces of nature, ice ages, and glacial activity which limited our escarpment to its current height. The sound and well-researched economic arguments of efficient land use, which are supported by provincial policy, seem to have been summarily dismissed without reason as a result of feelings — perhaps held by only a vocal minority of residents — that a skyline with buildings higher than the escarpment would look ugly.

As a result of the City’s adversarial approach to high-rise development, the Ambitious City’s tallest building — dominator of the skyline and symbol of the city — has been and will continue to be the 1974 relic Landmark Place at 43 storeys. This giant concrete structure, seemingly modeled after a cigarette, is a full 13 storeys taller than the maximum height the city wants to allow in the future. The second tallest, located at 150 Charlton, was built two years later and is 33 storeys. In total, Hamilton only has 3 buildings over 30 storeys. So even though the development community wants to bring our downtown into the 21st century, our skyline may unfortunately be stuck in the ‘70s along with our one-way streets and our economic reliance on the steel industry.

To put things in perspective, let’s compare Hamilton to other cities in Southern Ontario and see how Hamilton stacks up. Toronto, which is probably an unfair comparison, currently has 61 buildings over 30 storeys with over forty more under construction and dozens more awaiting approval. Of the 61 currently standing, 50 have been built since the year 2000. Mississauga, which used to be one massive sprawl of suburbia, is now home to 18 buildings over 30 storeys with nine under construction including the ambitious M3 tower which is a staggering 80 storeys tall. Even Niagara Falls, with its population of only fifty thousand, has five buildings over 30 storeys, with the tallest soaring to 53 storeys. Apparently these cities are of a magnitude more ambitious than Hamilton.

I’m not here to argue that a city’s ambition is intrinsically tied to the height of its skyline, but rather that there’s a line of thought that apex of ambition is the pursuit of the superlative and it’s most tangible measurement is size. Words such as biggest, largest, tallest, and any word preceded by “most” come to mind. When China wants to show ambition they build the world’s largest dam: the Three Gorges. When the United Arab Emirates wants to show ambition they build the world’s tallest building: the Burj Khalifa. When Hamilton wants to show ambition we… well, we limit ourselves to 30 storeys. Hamilton has been fortunate to attract the interest of established and well-respected developers aiming to push boundaries and show what they can make of the City. These developers, along with the residents of Hamilton, however, have been unfortunate in that they face a municipality pandering to NIMBY-ism and set on hindering such ambition without valid and thoughtful reason.

There is a famous quote by Landmark Place’s builder Al Frisina who claimed that no other building will be built in Hamilton that’s taller than Landmark Place because, as he put it, “the demand’s not there and nobody’s crazy enough to do it”. In the 45 years since Landmark Place’s completion, we’ve had several opportunities to prove this statement false, yet like some self-fulfilling prophecy, we deliberately choose to either cut ambitious projects down or scrap them altogether. We can’t continue scaring off developers to other cities and living in the shadows of the Golden Horseshoe’s tall buildings. It is time to grow up, Hamilton.

Comments (1)

  1. Caroline Dordolo

    Hamilton is one of those cities I like to visit simply because of its industrial feel. Its by no means a ‘fashion’ city however its a place that remains untouched like stepping back in time. I like some of the improvements its made to its downtown core and I love when history is preserved. I think Hamilton has plenty of room for more improvement, I don’t think they should allow too many skyscrapers to be built…they’ve already flooded Toronto and sooner or later more people will flock to Hamilton when they see for themselves what a beautiful city it truly is and what it has to offer. The city should tread carefully as to only allow certain buildings to go in certain areas or they will create monsters of its residents as they’ve already done to Toronto. Love Hamilton!