Tensions high in Dundas as city lets contractor close and buy part of public laneway

There's been shouting, swearing and fractured friendships. Neighbours have given each other the finger. But in the end, Hamilton city councillors voted to let a local contractor close part of an unassumed alleyway that kids use to walk to school, and buy it for as little as $2.

More than 200 residents signed a petition saying the unassumed alley should remain public space

Residents protested the proposed closure of a portion of a public laneway Monday. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

There's been shouting, swearing and fractured friendships. Neighbours have given each other the finger.

But Monday, Hamilton city councillors voted to let a local contractor close part of an alleyway that kids use to walk to school, and buy it for as little as $2.

City council's public works committee voted unanimously to let Len Medeiros, whose L. M. Enterprises has about $9.2 million in city water and sewer contracts, close and buy part of a public laneway that runs along his Sydenham Road home. The laneway is unassumed, which means the city only maintains it in case of emergency. 

Dozens of supporters of keeping the alleyway public gathered in city council chambers Monday. They say the whole community bikes and walks the route, and that the nominal fee to buy it — $2 — is financially irresponsible.

Medeiros, meanwhile, said it's gotten ugly.

"The way people have been acting in Dundas, I can't believe," said Medeiros, who waved off reporters after the meeting.

"I've been sworn at. Neighbours are giving me the finger. I can't believe all this for an alleyway."

Last year, residents protested a fence that appeared over the public laneway. The fence later disappeared. (David Jones, publiclaneway.ca)

Arlene VanderBeek, Ward 13 councillor who supported letting Medeiros buy part of the laneway, said this has strained friendships for her too.

"It's been suggested that the applicant has some special relationship with me," said VanderBeek. (Medeiros donated to her election campaign.) "It's not true."

The other side feels the same. The issue started last summer when Medeiros paved a portion of the public alley and put a fence across it, effectively making it part of his property.

There was public outcry.

VanderBeek said then that she'd met with Medeiros, and that he was taking down the fence and withdrawing his application to buy the land. Community members even rallied and held a walk in support of public laneways.

Most of the more than 30 speakers Monday were Dundas residents. Nearly all of them disputed a city report recommending selling the land to Medeiros. David Jones, who has led the laneway effort, presented about 650 signatures of people who wanted the laneway to remain public. Given the apparent conflict of interest, he said, "something stinks."

The shaded portion of this map in the city report represents the area that would be closed. (City of Hamilton)

"I am mystified by the city report," said resident Meg Young. "Why would the city recommend that the developer and his two neighbours take precedence over 650 people?"

The laneway runs alongside Medeiros's home at 63 Sydenham Rd. and connects a day care centre to a Catholic elementary school.

The neighbourhood is part of the Cross Melville Heritage District, so paving or putting up a fence required a heritage permit, city staff said. 

Medeiros told councillors he paved it and put up the fence, and it was "an improvement."

VanderBeek said the laneway is a safety issue, and that kids are safer walking along Sydenham Road, where there are crossing guards and safety measures. It's also created a vandalism problem for some abutting landlords — most of whom are indifferent or supportive of it closing, the report says. 

The city's practice is to let an unassumed alley close if the abutting neighbours agree. "While there has been considerable interest from residents, both in support and in opposition to the alleyway sale, the proposed sale is consistent with the city's practice," it says.

This fight is happening at a time when the city is looking at how it treats its local alleyways. Other cities are using alleys as a sort of urban trail system, and some Hamilton councillors have said they want to go that way too. Last year, the city even launched a pilot project to improve and make better use of its downtown alleys, and VanderBeek herself has said the city should modernize how alleys are used. 

City council will vote whether to ratify the decision on June 28. VanderBeek, Lloyd Ferguson (Ward 12), Chad Collins (Ward 5), Tom Jackson (Ward 6) and Doug Conley (Ward 9) voted in favour. 

City staff say the matter doesn't fit the criteria of an Ontario Municipal Board appeal, although Jones says his group is looking into that.

Medeiros also owns the historic former post office, with its iconic clock tower, at 104 King St. W.


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