Paul Wilson: That rail yard on the waterfront - maybe it's not situation hopeless

For decades Hamilton has hoped CN would surrender its railyard on our precious waterfront. Along comes a man in the know who says it just could happen.
The Stuart Street rail yards sit due south of Bayfront Park. There's hope that one day Hamilton can fill this picture with more parkland and new homes. (Google Earth)

The Stuart Street rail yard, down at the water's edge, is as old as Hamilton itself. For a long time, the city was pleased and proud to have it there. The railroad was progress.

But for decades now, many in Hamilton have wished the railroad would go away. Not the GO trains. And freights flying through are generally OK too. But that marshalling yard on Stuart, a dozen tracks or more, has laid claim to the West Harbour long enough.

This week, in an architect's office downtown, a small band of citizens heard from a man who said there's fresh hope for Hamilton to get those lands by the water back.

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Drama on waterfront lands

There's no rail yard in this design, just CN's main-line tracks. Condos, houses, shops and green space would take over the waterfront. (Courtesy Thier + Curran Architects Inc.)

Host for the night was well-known city architect Bill Curran. He lives in the North End.

He and others who live there have been watching the drama unfold on the lands north of Barton, between Bay and Queen. It began a couple of years ago, when the city started buying up land there, with the idea of erecting a Pan Am stadium.

But in midstream, the Ticats announced they would never, ever play there. So the city was left with three big, empty city blocks, for which it had paid $10 million. What to do with it?

As always, the CN rail yard looms large. The city is not allowed to put housing near it.

So now commercial uses are under study. Zoning allows for structures up to some 60,000 square feet. That's the size of the big Sobey's at Meadowlands.

What a waste

But it's unlikely retail would locate there. Perhaps it would be something with office space out front and a big warehouse out back. The view of Curran and friends on that - what a waste of waterfront.

At the meeting this week, Curran scored an interesting guest. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

This businessman has been well-acquainted with aspects of CN operations for many years. Indeed, he was helpful a dozen or so years ago in bringing CN and the city together on an agreement for the Waterfront Trail along the edge of the rail lands.

The CN yard is now leased to a large Florida-based outfit called RailAmerica, operating here as Southern Ontario Railway. That lease, says the man, expires in 2018. And he believes CN would be quite willing to talk to the city about what happens after that.

All that's gone

Intermodal transportation, where freight can be switched between trucks and trains, is important today. Hamilton is not that kind of yard. In fact, it's been steadily downsized. At one time, it included maintenance facilities, warehouses, offices. All that's gone now.

Your hair must be silver to have gathered as much experience as the man who spoke to the small group. But he said he expects to be alive to witness houses and condos and shops on those railway lands.

"My God, if that's true, we'd have to rethink the whole concept." —Jason Farr, city councillor

The CN main line, of course, would continue to run through Hamilton. Architect Curran doesn't see that as a problem at all. He and his staff have donated time worth about $10,000 on thematic plans for the waterfront area.

The important thing, he says, is to hold onto that precious land. Don't be selling it off right now to commercial developers. "We have here an essential part of Hamilton's identity that could be squandered."

CN confirms in an e-mail that it has leased the Stuart yard to RailAmerica, but won't say for how long.

Once the lease does expire, whenever that may be, would CN entertain an offer from the city to purchase that waterfront land?

The company's written response: "The Stuart Street Yard is, and will continue to be an essential part of a rail network which supports service to local Hamilton area customers. The needs of these customers will remain and may grow over the next several years."

So that CN's official stance. Doesn't sound very promising.

Farr wants to talk

But Jason Farr, councillor for the ward, was interested to hear about the man who stepped forward. "My God, if that's true, we'd have to rethink the whole concept... 2018 is just around the corner."

Farr says he's never spoken to CN. He thinks the feeling around City Hall is that CN is generally "not willing to budge and difficult to work with. But I'd want to start from square one."

Farr asked if the man in the know would be willing to make contact with him. He is, and they will talk soon.

Paul.Wilson@CBC.ca   @PaulWilsonCBC

You can read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.