45-storey tower proposal is newest chapter in the city's quest for a developed waterfront

Hamilton city council has until late 2020 or early 2021 to decide if it wants a 45-storey "signature" tower on the city's waterfront.

The city wants to have public meetings, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed that

A proposed 45-storey tower on Pier 8 is the last mile in the city's quest to see the land developed. (KPMB)

Hamilton city council has until later this year or early 2021 to decide if it wants a 45-storey "signature" tower on the city's waterfront — presumably the last round in a battle it's been fighting for 20 years.

Architect Bruce Kuwabara of KPMB, the designer of the upcoming Waterfront Shores development on Piers 7 and 8, has designed a sleek condo tower that would go where the parking lot for Williams Fresh Cafe and the Discovery Centre is now. In planning terms, the area is known as Block 16.

Right now, no one can build anything taller than eight storeys in the new development, which will include nine blocks of condos and a splashy, eye-catching boardwalk. But thanks to an agreement that came out of an Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) challenge in 2017, council will also consider the tower.

Originally, council would have voted this fall whether to amend the city's official plan to allow the tower, said Chris Phillips, the city's lead on the waterfront development project. But the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed that — including the much-needed public meetings. 

The 45-storey tower would sit where the parking lot for Williams Fresh Cafe, the Discovery Centre and the outdoor skating rink is now. (KPMB)

Chad Collins, Ward 5 (Centennial) councillor, said it's early in the process, but a 45-storey tower isn't what the city had in mind when it comes to developing the waterfront. The vision, he said, was more Halifax, with medium-density development that ties in with the nearby downtown, than Toronto and its rows of condo towers.

"If you're asking me for my opinion at this point, it's not a concept or a proposal that I can support," he said. 

"It runs completely contrary to everything we've talked about Pier 8 being. It goes against council's entire vision."

The plan to develop the waterfront dates back to 2000. That's when the city acquired Piers 7 and 8 as the result of a court battle with the federal government. But that settlement dictated the land stay in the hands of the Hamilton Port Authority.

The city tried for years to get its hands on the land, and approved the Setting Sail secondary plan. In 2013, the port authority agreed to terminate the leases early and give the city control of the piers, which were mostly sitting empty. 

This shows what the tower would look like from the McQuesten bridge. (KPMB)

The city spent years laying the groundwork, including an urban design study, which will guide the look and feel of the space. Waterfront Shores will develop 1,292 condos, retail space, public parks and a promenade. Block 16 is currently zoned institutional.

The North End Neighbours Association (NENA) has met with the city twice over the proposed tower, including a meeting with the developer this week via video conference. That annoys Bill Curran, who heads up the Progressive North End Residents Association.

It seems, Curran said, like there are "secret meetings with a small group of citizens" over a skyline-changing project. 

"I don't know why they would be having at least two meetings with the NENA group without anyone else in the neighbourhood."

Phillips said NENA reached out to the city first to meet, and the city plans to meet with Curran's group too. There will be more public meetings once the province's emergency order is lifted.

The future deliberations impact only Block 16, not the rest of the planned development. (City of Hamilton)

The city is "working on a strategy on how to reach the wider community," staff said in a report distributed to councillors Friday afternoon.

A report from NENA's planning committee shows the group has questions about the proposed tower, but is intrigued. According to the OMB settlement, a building with more than 31 storeys means the developer has to build more 150 more family-friendly units on the pier.

"The goal of the city and the developer is to ensure that the building becomes a signature building for the harbour with excellent design," the committee said in a May 12 report. 

Collins said this is just another chapter in a decades-long project.

"It's hard to believe we're still talking about what's next for the waterfront," he said.

"But I'm still supportive of the plan we've had in place, and the vision we've had for almost 20 years now, and that is medium density."


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca