City planners to be choosier in evolving downtown Hamilton

Times are good in real estate and as downtown Hamilton prepares for hundreds of new condos, city planners are asking what can they require from developers to meet broader city goals?

Developers say the market in the core is too touchy to create extra city hoops to jump through

An artist rendering shows plans for The Connolly, a proposed 30-storey condo tower on at 98 James St. S. (Stanton Renaissance)

When it comes to development in Hamilton's downtown core, the city is no longer in a mindset of beggars can't be choosers.

While planners want to keep the new development spigot flowing, they are also beginning to explore what leverage they have with developers to push for some broader public benefits.

It's important to have that framework in place so we're not saying we missed the opportunity. We're trying to be proactive as opposed to reactive.- Steve Robichaud, Hamilton director of planning

Better heritage preservation for extra floors? Making room for families with some three-bedroom units in condo projects? Including some affordable units in those projects?

These questions and more are on the table as Hamilton finds itself years into an extended housing boom as demand continues and drives up prices.

"We're past the point of just 'be grateful to be building anything," said Jason Thorne, Hamilton's general manager of planning and economic development. "We're not there anymore."

But developers warn that despite the rosy appearances, the market in Hamilton is too touchy to create extra city hoops to jump through.

"Even though it looks like there's a lot of activity, it's still a pretty fragile market," said architect Rick Lintack, who's designed a number of urban renewal projects like 150 Main and the Witton Lofts. "It's still risky for a developer to build. This is almost like one big experiment."

The mix of housing prices and sizes aren't the only considerations in the balance — neighbourhood character is another. City planners weighed in on a proposed condo development on James Street North on the site of the Tivoli Theatre would be out of character for the neighbourhood — its 22 storeys making the project too tall and too dense. The city planning committee will discuss that proposal Tuesday.

Will there be room in downtown for families?

In some cities, developers must set aside a certain number of condos at prices accessible for low or moderate incomes, or build a certain number of units with multiple bedrooms geared for families.

Developers at the Royal Connaught plan to build 697 condos in the historic hotel. (John Rieti/CBC)
But in Hamilton
, colourful signs announcing new condo developments like the Tivoli are relatively new. Still, those signs symbolize an influx of thousands of new homes coming to the downtown core. 

But most of the 2,000 condos coming to downtown Hamilton are one bedroom. Two-bedrooms are much less common, and often only the cushy penthouses are bigger than that.

Though often the least expensive option, a one-bedroom is not a feasible size for many households.

"It's not all about 500 square-foot bachelor apartments," said Steve Robichaud, the city's director of planning. "We don't normally get that specific but it's part of what's going to be in the mix."

Mixing up the number of bedrooms in a high-rise building is the urban equivalent of a suburban neighbourhood including both townhouses and single-family detached homes. In the suburbs, developers may build that mix in part to attract different segments of the market, in part to make more money per acre and in part to conform to provincial density rules.

Compared to parts of Toronto's waterfront, not previously a residential neighbourhood before its condo boom, Hamilton's downtown and North End neighbourhoods already have a well-established mix of housing types, Thorne said. As long as the city doesn't allow all of its single-family homes to be torn down in favour of building high-rises, it's not just up to the new housing developers to create the diverse neighbourhood.

"Not every project has to be stratified," Thorne said. "They just have to contribute to that mix." 

Developers say the calculations for building housing projects at all are much less certain downtown. 

'There wasn't a lot of activity downtown'

The discussion marks an evolution in the way the city thinks about the development coming to its downtown especially. The city's urban renewal division is still offering incentives like reduced property taxes and development fees, and loans to help round out financing to get projects underway.

Now with cranes in the air and ground being broken on some of those projects, the city wants to be proactive about its growth.

"There was a period where there wasn't a lot of activity downtown," Robichaud said. "How do you put the framework and the opportunities in place to capture the opportunities as they present themselves in the downtown?"

The planned public meeting on March 3 on the Tivoli condos was delayed so that ward councillor Jason Farr could undertake community consultation. He will bring back a compromise Tuesday. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)
Requiring builders to set aside lower-priced units is called inclusionary zoning. That would require a change in provincial law, which is expected to be discussed this year. Meanwhile, the city is also setting the stage to revise its downtown building plan, the blueprint for tall buildings, dense housing and the benefits developers will be asked to provide in exchange for building homes for sale.

'You can mandate all you want'

Some of those benefits may look similar to the deals struck when developers build outside of the core: Investments in parks or community facilities. But when a developer comes forward asking to build an extra-tall or large building, the city wants to formalize what it asks for from developers. For that, they're considering more downtown-specific needs: Historic preservation, affordable housing or larger family-oriented units. 

"It's important to have that framework in place so we're not saying we missed the opportunity," said Robichaud. "We're trying to be proactive as opposed to reactive."

The conversation about anything besides pure market dynamics must involve the government, homebuilders say.

“It's difficult to suggest that a private market would automatically be able to take care of (mandated affordable housing),” said Suzanne Mammel, executive officer of the Hamilton Halton Homebuilders Association, which trains local homebuilders how to comply with city planning policies. “You can mandate all you want but the there has to be some mechanism that's done by some form of government.”

Harry Stinson is a developer who moved to Hamilton in 2008 after building condos in Toronto. Some developers in that city in recent years have agreed to conditions to build a certain number of three-bedroom condos, with mixed success. Stinson worries a similar requirement would leave developers with a white elephant on their hands.

"Yes, the land is cheaper in Hamilton, yes there's incentives, but it's extremely difficult to build an apartment to that scale," Stinson said. "i think it's a good thing to try to ask for. But it's not an easy thing to simply say here's the requirement and expect everything to work out according to plan."

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett


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