Developer buys houses next to McMaster, wants to build student residence

A developer is buying a row of houses in the residential neighbourhood to the east of McMaster University, with plans to build a mixed-use, multi-storey student residence.

'For once it's the kind of student housing we like being proposed': Coun. Aidan Johnson

A developer is assembling houses on the south side of Traymore Avenue to build a multi-storey student residence. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

A developer is buying up a row of houses in the leafy, residential neighbourhood to the east of McMaster University, with plans to build a mixed-use, multi-storey student residence.

According to emails obtained by CBC News under a freedom of information request, the developer started talking with the city more than a year ago about the project and a plan to request rezoning for as many as 15 "contiguous lots" at the corner of Main Street West and Forsyth Avenue South.

The developer, Tyler Ross, told CBC News this week the project is in "very early in the planning process".

But he said he and his partners have either already purchased or have contracts to buy 14 homes on Forsyth, Traymore and Dalewood – the length of the city block between the eastern edge of McMaster's campus and Dalewood Recreation Centre.

Behind the houses is a strip of grass owned by McMaster that abuts Main Street West. 

The university's director of communications, Gord Arbeau, said the university is in "preliminary conversations" with the owners of student rentals on Traymore Avenue about a student residence development that would involve that strip of land and that could potentially house several hundred students.

"The pressing need we have is for increased student residence space, because we think it leads to greater outcomes for students and allows the university to meet demand," he said.

"Without being on campus proper, it is close — very close — to campus."

'I know there's a tricky path ahead of me'

Any project that proposes knocking down single-family detached homes and proposes higher density in its place is almost certain to meet scrutiny and resistance.

But the neighbourhood's single-family homes already house dozens of students, sometimes five or more to a house. The project would put students within a stone's throw of an LRT stop.

And Ross said he's committed to listening to any concerns that come up and is already thinking about things like shadows, neighbourhood fit and height with possible skeptics in mind.

"I know there's a tricky path ahead of me to balance everybody's wants, but it's a challenge that I'm impassioned about," he said.

'Full of noise pollution and hygiene problems'

Aidan Johnson, the city councillor for Ward 1, which encompasses the neighbourhoods around McMaster, said the idea could meet some long-established goals for the neighbourhood.

The university's surroundings have become "full of noise pollution and hygiene problems" as the houses in the interior neighbourhoods have been split up into sort-of mini-dorms, Johnson said.

"For years and years, non-students in Westdale and Ainslie Wood have been arguing that the appropriate place for new student housing is Main Street West," he said.

"For once it's the kind of student housing we like being proposed."

Many of the houses on Traymore Avenue already have student tenants living in them. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Ira Rosen, president of the Ainslie Wood/Westdale Community Association, one of two neighbourhood groups, said he has had a meeting with a developer to talk "briefly about a possible plan", but said he has not seen any drawings.

He said the association would likely want to see a developer propose something for multiple uses, not just student-oriented, in case McMaster changes its enrolment model in the future.

The association board "would have many questions before we could make any recommendation," he said.

Getting paperwork in order

Until a couple of years ago, Ross mowed the lawn himself at a handful of individual parcels, including a couple on Forsyth and Traymore he owned near the university.

While mowing, he'd chat with neighbours about his houses, any concerns they had about his tenants.

He has run afoul of city bylaw on a few houses his company had bought and converted, eventually filing retroactive paperwork and paying fees to bring the homes into compliance. 

"I learned from my mistakes," he said.

'An insufficiency of good planning around where students are to live'

Johnson said the difference from when he was growing up in Westdale in the 1980s to now is marked.

The McMaster Children's Hospital towers over the end of Traymore Avenue, where a developer plans to build a multi-storey development. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

An increase in McMaster's student population has meant a shift from "graduate students quietly living in basements here and there" to an influx of students living in specially split-up homes.

"It's been great for the Hamilton economy but there's been an insufficiency of good planning around where students are to live, and where to park," he said. 

Johnson said he hasn't talked yet with the neighbours directly on Traymore.

"It wouldn't surprise me if some of them have concerns or questions," he said.

'I guess the time is just right'

Brian Shanlin bought his house on Traymore Avenue when he was a McMaster student in 1989. He rented it out for years after he graduated, then moved his family back in.

Shanlin just agreed two weeks ago to sell the house to Ross, after two neighbours who he thought would never move surprised him and sold.

After that, he said, "there was nothing left here for us."

When Ross first came to his doorstep, Shanlin laughed him off. He thought for sure he wouldn't be able to get the buy-in from the neighbours. But Shanlin has been surprised at how little opposition he's heard to the idea.

Plus, the neighbourhood has changed since Shanlin was a student -- his was one of only two student houses on the street back then, he said. Now, the makeup looks much different.

"I guess the time is just right for the development," he said. "I'm excited about what lies ahead, to be honest."

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett