A West Harbour concept neighbourhood plan for Hamilton

This feature is courtesy Raise the Hammer.

This feature comes to us courtesy www.raisethehammer.org

Could the West Harbour be reimagined? (Roger Gillespie/CBC)

A group of citizens has prepared a vision for how the West Harbour could look if the current CN rail yard is turned over for redevelpment.

This initiative was started by Bob and Maggie Carr, and represents the work of many concerned citizens from across the city, including: Tim Carr, Kathy Renwald, Bob Finlay, Betty Muggah, Henry Muggah, Sue Greene, Bill Armstrong, Frank Kane, Matt Jelly, Elizabeth Ward and Thier + Curran Architects contributors Bill Curran, Kyle Slote and Agata Mancini.

The following concept plan was prepared by the citizens group and is published here with permission.

Our Vision

Our vision for the Barton-Tiffany area of the West Harbour is an extension and an intensification of our urban neighbourhoods comprised of small pedestrian-scaled blocks with new and reinforced connections to our downtown and waterfront.

While CN's main rail line will remain as a vital regional linkage, it is becoming more and more evident that the removal of the rail yard from these lands is a reality that will happen sooner rather than later.

When this happens, we believe that this is the best use for this land with the greatest city-building benefits for our city and our future.

The Big Ideas

As an extension to the well established Central and North End neighbourhoods, we have designed the neighbourhood to be a place for everyone. A variety of housing units / tenancies fosters a diversity of family types, income levels, and lifestyles.

New places for leisure, recreation, and shopping provide valuable amenities for all Hamiltonians and will be an attractor for out-of-town visitors, showcasing the beauty of our city and the truly unique waterfront.

As stated by Jane Jacobs, "You can't rely on bringing people downtown; you have to put them there." This vision does just that, potentially housing approximately 13,000 people. That's 13,000 new residents patronizing downtown businesses and supporting cultural activities; a significant influx.

We have followed good and proven urban design principles throughout the design of the neighbourhood. From ensuring provisions are made for pedestrians and cyclists to encouraging intrinsic safety with eyes on the street, our vision is not just a reinvention of the urban neighbourhood, but a thoughtful interpretation of what we know already works. It is an extension of existing neighbourhood fabric to the water's edge.

It embraces and upholds principles outlined time and time again in Hamilton's own planning documents such as Vision 2020, The Downtown Transportation Master Plan, Downtown Secondary Plan, and the original Setting Sail Secondary Plan. This quote in particular from Putting People First: Downtown Land Use and Transportation speaks strongly of what we are trying to achieve with our vision:

The Downtown Hamilton of the future will be a vibrant focus of attraction where all our diverse people can live, work and play. The future Downtown must be built on a human scale, with streetscapes offering comfort, access and safety for pedestrians. The future Downtown will combine the best of our heritage with new commercial and domestic architecture and use. The future Downtown will redirect our gaze from the urban core to the surrounding neighbourhoods, the waterfront, and the escarpment, seamlessly linking commerce, housing and recreation. (p. 4)

Major Moves

Expanding public access to the waterfront and providing an increased number of diverse public spaces is a critical element of our vision. The waterfront trail has been doubled in width and a separate bike trail added. As well, over 10 acres of new public parks with varying characters and uses have been proposed - all with access to the water's edge.

As identified in Setting Sail, linkages between the waterfront and the city are essential. To achieve this, several new streets and pedestrian / bicycle paths have been extended or added.

Caroline Street has been re-envisioned as a linear park that runs from downtown to the water's edge, serving as an active spine for the Central neighbourhood as it accommodates vehicular, pedestrian, and bicycle traffic.

Along this new connective park, Central Park has been re-designed as a more accessible and engaged neighbourhood park. Streets surrounding the park have been extended and reconnected to the city grid with new mixed residential uses providing security and ensuring vibrant park use.

The southern termination of the Caroline Street linear park is at the soon to be closed Sir John A. MacDonald high school. In anticipation of this closure, we have proposed that these lands be redeveloped as a strong urban block of mixed use housing and commercial uses with the linear park extending through the site, providing a strong connection to downtown at Bay Street and York Boulevard. The existing utility plant and theatre would remain.

The perceived challenge of crossing the main CN rail line has been solved in the simplest and most cost-effective way with several at-grade vehicular and pedestrian railway crossings. Equipped with lights and gates, such crossings are typical of other urban neighbourhoods both within Hamilton and elsewhere. Sound walls and landscaped berms would further buffer the rail line.

The OMB-Approved Current Plan

Though the final OMB decision on the West Harbour and the Setting Sail Secondary Plan is still being drafted by an OMB board member, enough details have been released to give a clear picture of what can (or more accurately, what cannot) happen in the West Harbour.

Essentially, CN will not allow any residential development within 150 metres of the rail yard. The only exception to this is an eight storey building on Bay Street North at Murray Street West proposed by the Whitestar Group. This leaves a sliver of residential development opportunity along the North side of Barton Street.

North of that, commercial uses of up to 6,000 square metres are permitted. While a Hamilton Spectator article from February 10, 2012 entitled Harbour Neighbours Fear Commercial Development stated that "it won't include big-box stores" and that the maximum size is equivalent to "the size of a Shoppers Drug Mart or a small grocery store", the reality is that with the exception of Costco, Zellers, and Home Depot, every big-box store in Ancaster's Meadowlands Power Centre would be permitted on these blocks.

In fact, the Meadowlands Sobey's (which is by no means a small grocery store) is about the maximum allowable size.

That said, most agree that there is not a business case for such retail developments in this area. Instead, it will likely end up as office / industrial spaces, perhaps with large warehouse components and a sea of surface parking.

We do not feel these are acceptable uses for such a prime piece of land within close proximity to the waterfront.

So How Do We Get There?

We know that what we have proposed won't happen overnight - especially while much of the site is still occupied by an active rail yard. That said, both sides of Barton and everything south of that could be built today within the limitations of the pending OMB decision.

This includes the linear park along an extended Caroline Street and the redevelopment of Central Park. In fact, the linear park could be extended north all the way to Stuart Street, just south of the existing rail yards.

The rest will have to wait until the rail yard is removed and relocated. We believe that it is worth waiting for and that this will happen within the next 10 years.

With a long and protracted OMB decision finally completed, the rest of the Setting Sail Master Plan can be carried out with the development of Pier 7 and 8 into real neighbourhoods that hopefully uphold the principles we have set out in this vision.

In the meantime, it is imperative that citizens across Hamilton let our elected officials know that the current OMB-settled plan is not good enough. Hamilton deserves better, even if it takes a little longer to get there.

A Once-In-A-Lifetime Opportunity

If followed through, we believe that our vision for the West Harbour would create a once in a lifetime opportunity to reinvigorate our city and create a district that will positively transform the perceptions and realities of Hamilton. It is an opportunity that cannot be squandered or compromised by shortsightedness.