LRT plan for International Village 'scares the hell out of me': new business owner

Nikola Bulajic doesn't want to rain on the LRT parade. He wants the city to modernize and change. But as a downtown businessman, he's afraid.

Supporters say the plan makes sense, while detractors say it looks like 'a Snakes and Ladders board game'

"Personally, I’m stoked about Hamilton changing," says Nikola Bulajic, owner of Vintagesoulgeek in the International Village, of LRT. But the unknown "kind of stresses me out a little bit." (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Nikola Bulajic doesn't want to rain on the LRT parade. He really doesn't.

He's exactly the type of "new Hamilton" resident who'd embrace such a project. He's 37. For one year, he's owned a vintage clothing store, Vintagesoulgeek, in the International Village. It's adorned with taffeta gowns, and beaded antique jewelry, and vintage posters of Jean Harlow. 

It's hip. It's progressive. 

But when Bulajic hears that the LRT design plan released Wednesday will whittle King Street down to one lane in the International Village, he admits it. He gets scared.

"Personally, I'm stoked about Hamilton changing. I'm very excited," he said. "Business wise, it scares the hell out of me."

Anything to advance Hamilton, I'm always for it. But this is going to affect me personally.- Nikola Bulajic

Bulajic isn't alone. More than one International Village business owner on Wednesday admitted to having reservations about the plan. Is the International Village enough of a destination to survive only one lane of car traffic? Will people know where to go, or will it turn the area into, as Coun. Chad Collins calls it, a Snakes and Ladders game?

Bulajic admits he doesn't know. Born and raised in Hamilton, he likes the idea of progress. The city needs to move forward, he said. Change is good.

But so far, what he hears gives him pause. He's heard suggestions of businesses using their back doors as front doors during LRT's planned five years of construction, from 2019 to 2024. That won't work for him. He leases space in an 1860 building formerly known as The Mansion, and its structure doesn't allow it.

And monetarily, he and wife Connie have a lot at stake. They have a mortgage on their east-end home. They have a five-year-old daughter, Lola. Bulajic left his career in the optical industry to open this store.

I firmly believe that International Village, once this LRT line is complete and in full operation, will be the go-to destination in the city of Hamilton.- Coun. Jason Farr

He plans to spend the time between now and 2019 building up as much of a customer base as possible. He's staying hopeful.

"Anything to advance Hamilton, I'm always for it," he said. "But this is going to affect me personally."

John Szalai, owner of The Den Hairstyling for Men, worries too.

The needs of the few

Szalai says many of his customers drive there from elsewhere in the city. He doesn't believe they'll come via LRT, and the street changes will be a deterrent.

He's 71, he says, so he'll likely be retired by 2019. But "it'll definitely hurt businesses," he predicted on Wednesday.

The International Village is the tightest spot when it comes to traffic on King Street East, and one LRT designers will have to navigate. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Christopher Godwaldt, owner of Café Oranje, is selling his International Village coffee shop. But he supported LRT even before he knew he'd sell, and he still supports it now.

Under the current plan, traffic will still flow through International Village, he said. Any adjustment period will be worth the long-term progress.

"My feeling is that if we made all of our decisions in the city around if it might hurt a small number of businesses, or a specific area in the city, and therefore that trumped the rights or benefits of change for the rest of the city, it's not worth it to me."

'The go-to destination'

Jason Farr, Ward 2 councillor, says the area is enough of a destination to draw people, even with one less lane of traffic.

"I firmly believe that International Village, once this LRT line is complete and in full operation, will be the go-to destination in the city of Hamilton," he said. "I firmly believe that."

Chad Collins, a Ward 5 councillor, is skeptical of the route. And he says he still hasn't seen solid evidence of the economic benefits of LRT to make it worth it.

"You're going to need a map to make it through the core," he said. "It makes the core look like a Snakes and Ladders board game."

"If you make it difficult for people to get there, with one or more modes of transportation, you're making it more difficult for people to survive."


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