Pull up a current house-for-sale listing in the North End.
Among all the photographs of backyards and bedrooms, you'll probably see a photo of a sign behind a chain-link fence on a construction site:
"GO Train service is on its way!"
There's a lot of talk about the James Street North/"West Harbour" GO train station, promised to be ready next month, as a magnet and driver for development and revitalization of the city's North End.
It comes up at breakfast forums and evening town halls. It's listed on condo brochures. Its effects are pondered on the front lawns of residents who fear the big changes promised for the neighbourhoods, and cheered by others who anticipate an infusion of new activity and investment.
But Hamilton already has a GO station at Hunter St. Does what happened there give us any indication about whether the hype will last?
James was already a different animal than Hunter: It's near the waterfront, there's more undeveloped land nearby, the zoning is different and this station is expected to one day have full-day service to and from Toronto, unlike Hunter.
And then May's LRT announcement changed the game even further.
A spur from the east-west LRT promises to connect the James North station to the rest of the rapid transit line, making the new station even more important as a part of the city's hopes for urban renewal.
- James Street North's LRT surprise: What will it mean for street's revival?
- Pace of North End change is stressing people out, residents say
- How can a low-income neighbourhood survive a housing boom?
The real estate market was 'very, very different'
Hunter GO was redeveloped in 1996 "when the real estate market was very, very different" than today's, said Jason Thorne, the city's general manager of economic development and planning.
Today, homes around the city, and especially in certain pockets like the North End, are selling for tens of thousands of dollars over their asking price. And the number of homes sold is setting records every month.
"It's crazy; it's unbelievable," said Steve Kulakowsky, a developer who built the Witton Lofts on Murray Street a few years ago and tied the project to the eventual GO service. A semi-detached house across the street from those lofts that wouldn't have garnered $200,000 just sold for $475,000, he said.
For more reasons than just that James coincided with a hot market, Hunter could never have spurred the kind of development the city hopes will come from James.
But it did spur some.
The biggest impact was Chateau Royale, once an office building built in the 1960s that was sitting vacant and rundown when the GO station open in 1996. Tapping into demand from commuters and workers in nearby St. Joseph's hospital, developers converted the tower into a residential project that opened in 2006.
"This is one more big oar rowing in the same direction we've been going for a long time."
- Jason Thorne, general manager, Planning and Economic Development, City of Hamilton
When the Hunter station was redeveloped from an old THB station to facilitate GO service in 1996, the area was under old city zoning that mostly permitted mixed use and commercial uses, with a few pockets of existing residential, said Joe Muto, a planner who works on the economic development department's Urban Renewal team.
The new GO station on James North is currently zoned for low-to-medium density residential uses, some mixed-use and industry.
The city is working on an update to its downtown blueprint, which will include the "spine" from the new GO station along James to St. Joe's on James St. South. A recent forum on tall building placement discussed how they might be integrated along the James corridor.
'Now might be the time to do something with your property'
The city has a bigger package of incentives to offer developers downtown than it did when Hunter opened.
The city passed a loan program a few years after Hunter station opened to help developers get around the hurdles with traditional banks for urban residential projects. And it discounts the fees for developers to attract more projects.
"It is the combination of transit infrastructure investment and supportive land use policy that generates [transit-oriented development]," said Ryan McGreal, editor of Raise the Hammer blog.
Thorne said the economic development staff has been in frequent touch with landowners in the area: "Hey, you know what? Now might be the time to do something with your property," he said.
"Sometimes people oversimplify. Yeah, a GO station is a huge boon," Thorne said. "But it takes doing a lot of other things well at the same time. We're not waiting for the GO station to get built and then kind of react with some of our planning initiatives. This is one more big oar rowing in the same direction we've been going for a long time."
'Not just getting on the train to go out'
And you can't discount the difference the all-day service compared to the morning and evening trains out of Hunter, Kulakowsy said. All-day bus option just doesn't have the same appeal to people, he said.
Plus, all-day service connects Hamilton not just as a commuter town but as a destination, he said.
"You want people from Toronto to come to Hamilton, too," he said. "It shouldn't just be a one-way track."
One hope for development in that Barton-Tiffany neighbourhood is office space that would keep the condo developments from becoming bedroom community towers for Toronto commuters, Thorne said.
The area the province considers in its plans for "mobility hubs" is 800 metres around the station, which includes city-owned land originally set aside for a new Tiger-Cats stadium.
The Witton Lofts was the first project to capitalize on the announcement that GO was coming to James North. Projects that have been in the works for a while see the station as a chance to take advantage of new interest in North End, like the Tiffany Square project at Bay and Murray streets, as well as Barton Tiffany on the waterfront.
Even though the GO station won't feature all-day service at the outset, Thorne said that won't deter many developers.
"Developers work on a pretty long-term timeline," he said. "For now it might not be the best transit service, but it's good and in a few years it'll be great."