West harbour plan has caused years of disagreement in the North End

After years of disagreement in the North End, the west harbour plan for piers 7 and 8 is coming to fruition. And residents are dealing with how to move forward.

North End residents have debated for years over the future of piers 7 and 8

This rendering shows a view from the west of the new neighbourhood development on Pier 7 and 8. The city has worked on the plan in some variation for about 15 years, and some North End neighbours have had differing opinions on how it should move forward. (City of Hamilton)

It was just a small meeting in a dark boardroom near the waterfront, but it illustrated just how far neighbour relations in Hamilton's storied North End have fallen.

Local lawyer Herman Turkstra stood at the front of the room, introducing city councillors to his small group of Harbour West Neighbours, or what he called his "team of experts." Bill Curran, a local architect, shouted from the audience and interrupted him.

"You don't speak for the community, Herman," Curran called before a city councillor intervened. "You don't speak for us."

Planning is very contentious. You're not talking about not some abstract thing. It's where you live.- Rob Fiedler, North End Neighbours

It was a small outburst by city hall standards. But it's just the latest public example of how the city's plan to develop Piers 7 and 8 has pitted neighbour against neighbour in Hamilton's North End.

At issue are the significant impacts the development could have on the neighbourhood —which essentially sits between the waterfront and the rest of the city.

It's caused some groups to splinter and others to form. It's resulted in personality clashes, and heated debates, and outbursts at public meetings. 

Tension and in-fighting

"There's been a lot of tension in the neighbourhood," Carmen Cooper, North End Neighbours (NEN) co-chair told city councillors on May 5. "You hear it. The in-fighting."

It's not "the Hatfields and the McCoys," says Rob Fielder, also a NEN co-chair. But over the years, there's been tension.

"On a day to day basis, if you ask me what it's like (in the North End), it's pretty peaceful," he said. "People aren't at each others throats at all." 

But "when people are talking about planning, planning is very contentious. You're not talking about not some abstract thing. It's where you live." 

There's anxiety for families have lived there for generations. For decades, the neighbourhood has been untouched by wide-scale development.

 Now, the new west harbour plan will bring change, noise and traffic, which has some "not exactly enthused," Fiedler said.

Condos, shopping and public spaces

On Tuesday, councillors approved an urban design plan for Piers 7 and 8. For years, they've dreamed of turning the land into a new neighbourhood with condos, shopping and public waterfront space.

The plan includes buildings up to eight storeys, including 1,600 housing units and about 13,000 square metres of commercial development on a grid of streets.

In 2000, the city started work on a plan for how to do that, called the Setting Sail secondary plan. In 2013, when the Hamilton Port Authority agreed to terminate leases for the pier lands early, the vision moved toward reality.

(City of Hamilton)

But over the years, North End groups have disagreed with the city – and sometimes each other – over how the plan should take shape. There have been smaller points of contention, such as where parking garages will go. One major disagreement was whether to appeal waterfront plans to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), something NEN has done twice.

When Setting Sail work started, there was the North End Neighbourhood Association and Turkstra's Harbour West Neighbours. Around 2006, Fiedler says, those groups merged to form NEN.

Protecting neighbourhood character

In 2014, the Harbour West Neighbours resurfaced specifically to deal with the west harbour plan, which the group's website says "threaten(s) the neighbourhood character." The group wants more resident engagement, and says city staff has refused to meet with its members. 

Curran, meanwhile, says Turkstra's group is wasting time and money. He wants the city to get on with the plan, and last year, started the Progressive North End Residents Association.

NEN is largely content with the urban design plan now, but wants to make sure there's appropriate parking and affordable housing.

This is North End. There are a lot of strong personalities in this neighbourhood and they're not always on the same page.- Jason Farr, Ward 2 councillor

Jason Farr, Ward 2 councillor, says differences are inevitable when you're dealing with major change.

"This is North End," he said. "There are a lot of strong personalities in this neighbourhood and they're not always on the same page. And that's fair enough.

"For the most part, it's been respectful. Not always, but for the most part."

"When I reference the divisiveness, or difficulties, they were early on," he said. "It's much better now."

A northeast view of Pier 8. (City of Hamilton)

There needs to be a base understanding that we are going to move forward with this plan.- Chris Phillips, project lead for the city

In the next two months, city council will likely vote to rezone the west harbour lands, says project lead Chris Phillips. Someone could launch another OMB challenge then.

In the fall, city council will vote on a strategy to lure and select the right developers. By 2018, the land should be shovel ready.

"There needs to be a base understanding that we are going to move forward with this plan," he said.

"Does that mean everybody's happy with the outcome? No. But I think we've certainly provided an opportunity for everyone to have input."

City council will vote to ratify the urban design study on May 25.