Hamilton approves new rule saying buildings can't be higher than the escarpment

New city rules say high-rise buildings downtown can't be any taller than the Niagara Escarpment. But one 15-year-old city hall watcher says Hamilton should broaden its mind and start thinking like a big city.

New downtown plan also includes protection for heritage buildings and areas

Hamilton's city council planning committee approved a new plan for the downtown on Tuesday. (Terry Asma/CBC)

New city rules say high-rise buildings downtown can't be any taller than the Niagara Escarpment. 

The new downtown secondary plan, approved by city council's planning committee Tuesday, says the escarpment is the limit in terms of building heights. That means at the lowest elevations designated for taller buildings, high rises can only be about 30 stories tall.

Hamilton has no current rule around this. In fact, three downtown buildings standing right now — Landmark Place, the Stelco tower and the Olympia apartments building — would be too tall to fit that criteria.

"We heard loud and clear from Hamiltonians that the escarpment was the height limit they perceived to be appropriate," said Alissa Mahood, senior program manager.

Limiting buildings to escarpment height keeps lake views intact, she said. And the city can meet its targets for building up the downtown without taller buildings.

It's also not unusual to use a natural feature in this way, Mahood said. In Halifax, planning rules prevent buildings from blocking views of the harbour. Montreal uses Mount Royal as a height limit.

This image shows Hamilton's current tall buildings and how they line up with the escarpment. (City of Hamilton)
(City of Hamilton)

City council still has to ratify the plan on April 25. If approved, the new rules will be in effect in June, said city planning head Steve Robichaud.

But one 15-year-old city hall watcher says Hamilton should broaden its mind and start thinking like a big city. Lachlan Holmes, a city hall watcher and Westdale Secondary School student, urged councillors to reconsider the height limit Tuesday. There's nothing wrong with building up Hamilton's skyline, he said.

Holmes recently founded Hamilton Forward, a citizens group devoted to progressive urban development. He says the city should consider tall building applications on a case-by-case basis.

"When you look at the current buildings that define our skyline, our tallest buildings are all from the 70s and 80s," he said.

"Height solves many problems, in my opinion. It solves problems around being pedestrian friendly, transit accessibility, bikeability and providing people from different income levels the opportunity to invest."

As for the notion of blocking people's lake view, he said, two 30-storey buildings will block more views than one 60-storey building. And it isn't bad to have the shade of a tall building on a streetscape. Shadows give people resting places in hot weather.

"I was disappointed that shadows in particular were considered to be a universal bad," he said.

Here are some other highlights from the plan:

  • New surface parking lots are not permitted.
  • New development near live music venues will have to provide appropriate noise reduction measures.
  • The plan identifies cultural heritage landscapes such as the Gore and limits building heights to six stories. To build higher, the developer has to submit the necessary heritage studies.

The area covered by the plan is bordered by Cannon Street to the north, Wellington Street to the east, Hunter Street to the South and Queen Street to the west.

Jason Thorne, the city's general manager of planning and economic development, tweeted some of the other highlights last month.

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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