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The battle for Hamilton's beach front: Locals vs. Toronto developers

For years, living on the beach strip meant swimming with raw sewage and nearly being razed to build a park. Now property values are skyrocketing, and driving out some of the working class folk who have kept the place alive.

The city is trying to fend off developments that cram as many units as possible onto single-family lots

"It was cheaper than carpet. It was two bucks a foot," says Bill Smith of when he bought his beachfront property. Since then, his taxes have quadrupled. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Standing in his lush backyard on Beach Boulevard, Bill Smith tells his favourite story about growing up on the beach strip.

A neighbour kept chickens, and all the birds ganged up on one chicken in particular, pecking it until it was bald and bloodied. Smith rescued the chicken and they kept it as a pet. They named it Jigs.

There were condoms floating by and we didn't care.- Bill Smith, on swimming in the harbour as a child

By day, Jigs strutted around the neighbourhood. People fed him sandwiches. To call Jigs home, his mom hollered his name, and the chicken would "come running like the Road Runner."

These days, Hamilton's storied beach community is Jigs. The other chickens are Toronto developers hungry to gobble up precious land there. And it has people like Smith fighting – sometimes in vain – to protect the neighbourhood's eclectic, blue-collar spirit.

Hamilton's beach neighbourhood is a narrow strip of land in the shadow of the Skyway bridge. It had its own government from 1907 to 1958. (Google Maps)

The city just fended off one such developer, but likely not for long. Last week, city council turned down a proposal from Coastal Land Development Corp. to put four new condo units onto the same lot as an old single family home at 271 Beach Blvd. 

But the city is already planning to spend more than $300,000 on an Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) appeal. And it might not win.

It was cheaper than carpet. It was two bucks a foot.- Bill Smith, on buying beachfront land in 2002

"That's just jamming them in for the sake of profit," Smith said.

"Nobody wants to see that happen to this old beach strip. It's too beautiful a place."

The gold rush is just the latest chapter for a community the city nearly bulldozed once to build a park.

The beach strip is a narrow stretch of land on the shore of Lake Ontario, a small community of eclectic homes in the shadow of the Skyway bridge. One side looks out at an across-the-lake silhouette of Toronto, the other Hamilton Harbour and the city's industrial area.

There are old brick houses alongside new bungalows and farmhouse-style homes. For years, the city has pushed for development in the area, but of late, has become a victim of its own success.

When Smith grew up there in the 1940s, steelworkers populated the neighbourhood. (Smith, too, worked for Stelco before he retired.) The beach community was its own municipality, complete with a three-member police force. Everyone went to dances at the old fire hall. When Smith was 16, he met the girl who would become his wife.

Real estate signs dot the beach strip, partly to cash in on increasing property values. But Smith says long-time residents also can't afford to live there anymore. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)
"The vast majority of people have been there for decades," says Chad Collins of beach strip residents. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The area was polluted, and everyone knew it. Smith remembers spearing cod amid the raw sewage.

"There were condoms floating by," he said, "and we didn't care."

They call and say 'Chad, I see these three lots are up for sale. If I purchase these, will you support a townhouse complex?'- Chad Collins, Ward 5 councillor

In 1958, the community of roughly 1,200 residents became part of Hamilton. Then from 1976 to 1985, flooding issues caused the Hamilton conservation authority to spend $4 million to buy up 174 properties. (Smith's mother sold.) The plan? To raze the whole neighbourhood and put a park there. 

By 1985, between the city, province and conservation authority, 269 properties were in public ownership, while 416 remained in private hands. And the community began fighting back.

People wanted to stay, said Coun. Chad Collins of Ward 5. So the city halted its plan, and in 1992, developed a neighbourhood strategy. The city aimed to sell 159 properties, and added a condition: they had to be for single-family homes.

"My taxes went up one year 63 per cent," says Bill Smith. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Incredibly, the lots were a hard sell. In 2001, for example, the city advertised 11 properties. The lot at 990 Beach Blvd. had a price tag of just $28,000. And the city had to advertise it twice.

Smith bought half of one of those small parcels to add to his property. It was the lot where he grew up, and it was right next door to his house.

I don't want to leave. This is paradise.- Bill Smith

"It was cheaper than carpet," he said. "It was two bucks a foot."

Over the years, the city has improved infrastructure there. In 2000, it created the wildly popular waterfront trail. Water quality in Hamilton Harbour is slowly improving. Now the city only has 30 properties left to sell.

Beach real estate increased 100 per cent from 2003 to 2012 – and likely more since then. There's a steady stream of interest, most of it from out-of-town buyers who realize there's cheap beach front land. And they want to cram as many units as possible onto it.

The city opened the waterfront trail in 2000. It was built, in part, by revenue from property sales, Chad Collins says. It's helped make the neighbourhood more attractive to residents, but also contributed to some of Hamilton's most intense gentrification. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"I probably receive 15 to 20 unsolicited proposals a year," Collins said. "They call and say 'Chad, I see these three lots are up for sale. If I purchase these, will you support a townhouse complex?'"

The neighbourhood's opposition isn't NIMBY-ism, Collins said. Such rapid gentrification is making it harder and harder to live there.

"The beach has been hit hard by skyrocketing real estate prices," he said.

"There are generations of people who have lived on the beach. Those same generations are now finding it very difficult to afford to live there."

Smith bought his property in 2002, and since then, his taxes have quadrupled. He knows he could sell his property for about $500,000 more than he paid for it, but there's nowhere else he wants to live. So he's speaking up against high-density condo projects there, and trying to pay his taxes.

"I don't want to leave," he said. "This is paradise."

A developer wants to keep the single-family home at 271 Beach Blvd., but build four condo units on the property too. The city has denied it, but expects an OMB challenge. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)
More development has brought more traffic, says Bill Smith. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)


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