How do you bring Kenilworth Avenue back to life?

Bike lanes. Benches. Flower pots. Grant programs worth millions. The city is trying them all in an effort to make Kenilworth bustling again.

From bike lanes to looking at expropriating problem buildings, the city is digging in to revive the street

Omid Ghiassi, owner of the Food Box on Kenilworth, says he's optimistic about the street's future. It just needs more foot traffic. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

If Omid Ghiassi's restaurant were on James Street, or in Westdale, it would probably be packed with customers.

But it's not. The Food Box, home to gluten-free fish and chips and five kinds of poutine, is on Kenilworth Avenue North. And after six years there, watching cars race by without stopping, Ghiassi still isn't giving up hope.

Ghiassi envisions a steady stream of foot traffic on the street, and plenty of people to come into his restaurant. He's renovated it. The tables are there, but they're often empty. Eighty per cent of his business is delivery.

He envisions benches, and new businesses moving into the vacant buildings that dot the stretch. 

I think it's going to be good. It's coming along.- Omid Ghiassi, owner of the Food Box

In the meantime, the store space next to him sits vacant and boarded up with a realtor's sign in the window. Across the street, a school sits empty.

"We have no benches. No sidewalks. We have a lot of empty buildings," Ghiassi said. 

But they do have optimism. Lots and lots of optimism.

"I think it's going to be good. It's coming along."

The city hopes so too. In recent months, it's thrown nearly everything in its toolbox at Kenilworth.

It's a once-bustling street that Hamilton's renaissance seems to have skipped so far, but that Coun. Sam Merulla sees as "the next Ottawa Street." And increasingly, Merulla and the city are banking on it.

Kenilworth Avenue North facing north. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

In March, for example, the city modified its raft of development incentive programs, and in doing so, added Kenilworth to some of them.

The downtown Hamilton multi-residential property incentive program, for example, now includes Barton and Kenilworth in recognition of the area's "development challenges."

That means developers who want to build multi-residential projects can get a loan of up to $4 million that's interest free for five years. 

'Those who are not investing presently are going to be the ones who turn back and say, "Damn, if only I had thought of that...'"- Sam Merulla, Ward 4 councillor

Merulla has also successfully pushed for the street to have all the benefits of a BIA area, even though it doesn't have a BIA.

That includes facade improvement grants for commercial properties.

The goal, Merulla said, is to show developers that they're missing a good thing.

'The most understated land value in all of Ontario'

"The land value on Kenilworth is the most understated land value in all of Ontario," the Ward 4 councillor said.

"It's ready to turn around, and when it does, those who are not investing presently are going to be the ones who turn back and say, 'Damn, if only I had thought of that at that time.'"

The street suffers from a plague similar to that of Barton Street East of people living in what are supposed to be commercial spaces. The city's been cracking down on that too. It even laid a charge in October, Merulla said, and there have been few complaints since.

Kenilworth Avenue North, facing south toward the escarpment. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Still, Merulla said he's "in discussions" to potentially expropriate a long-time problem property. 

The talks are to "initiate expropriation to allow for an exciting mixed-use residential and commercial development," he said.

He promised in 2014 to pursue expropriation on some problem buildings in the Barton-Kenilworth corridor, and "I plan to make good on that promise."

The history of Kenilworth Avenue North, in many ways, echoes the history of much of old Hamilton. The once-bustling street was filled with thriving businesses, but as urban sprawl took people away from the lower city, and the job rate fell in the nearby industrial area, so too did action on Kenilworth.

Today, Kenilworth is a mixed bag. It's a street of mostly two-storey buildings designed to have businesses on the bottom floor and apartments on top. The stalwart businesses have an international flavour, such as a Chinese restaurant on the corner and a Caribbean grocery down the street.

Some storefronts are vacant, some in disrepair, some with the same businesses in them for years. There are a couple of local bars, the odd two-level home, and the Kenilworth branch of the Hamilton Public Library, renovated in 2011 and another part of the ongoing attempt to lift up the street.

Bike lanes, flower planters and a new parkette

Here are some other recent or upcoming efforts around Kenilworth:

  • Including the street in the Barton Street-Kenilworth Avenue Commercial Corridors study. The study aims at boosting business along Barton Street and Kenilworth Avenue. Suggestions include more complete streets, free parking and encouraging banks to more easily loan money to people who want to develop there.
  • The city plans to put 20 benches along Barton and Kenilworth this year.
  • A Barton-Kenilworth Crawl planned for June 25. Volunteers will take professionals, including mortgage brokers and real estate firms, to key spots along the stretch to highlight opportunities.
  • A new Kenilworth Parkette at Roxborough, connecting to the Pipeline Trail.
  • The street is getting a new design that will include traffic signals, bike lanes, and other complete streets elements. Dillon Consultants is working on it now.
  • Kenilworth will get 24 planters and 21 hanging baskets this year through the city's horticulture budget.
  • The city installed new LED lights last year.
  • Local businesses are also meeting regularly as the Kenilworth Business Association.
  • The street will be exempt from increased municipal parking rates this year after Merulla quietly tossed it in with a list of other areas being considered for an exemption.
A Kenilworth sign stands in front of a closed school across from the Food Box. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

For those who care about the street, these improvements don't come a moment too soon. Since late 2014, local filmmaker Alex Djordjevic has been working on a documentary called Kenilworth, which details the rise and fall of the street. He was motivated by a 2013 shooting of a former Hells Angels member outside his girlfriend's salon.

Ghiassi has seen no such problems on Kenilworth. The street is fine, he said. It just needs more pedestrians. 

When he started the Food Box, he said, "Every day, we had a chance to close it. We had hope, but no traffic."

"When there is walking traffic, there's going to be lots of business because they have a lot of empty buildings. It (just) needs more people."

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca | @SamCraggsCBC


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