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Yesterday, Peter Mercanti gave his presentation to council, pledging a $200 million casino/hotel/entertainment complex for the downtown core. RockHammer Inc., formed by the Carmen’s Group and LIUNA for the purpose of bringing a Hard Rock-franchised casino to Hamilton, is pledging to bring a Canadian Rock Museum/venue, a 280-room hotel and 1200 slot machines, as well as promising 1200 full-time, living wage jobs and a jointly sponsored gambling addiction treatment program with Mission Services.

426147_10152521572785554_548516252_nIf this deal does go through, I sincerely hope Council gets the jobs figure in writing. After decades of growth in precarious employment, particularly in the service sector, claims like that require a certain ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. Seriously – a $200 million investment being planned without part-time employees or wages much under $15/hour? In this labour market, where people line up to apply at $10.25? Harder to believe is that these conditions would last if they were implemented, instead of facing cutbacks at the first sign of hard times, or simply firing workers en-mass and re-hiring them at a much lower wage (as happened at the Sheraton). As much as I’d love to see 1200 new well-paying service sector jobs in the core, we’ve all heard promises like this before.

As for the treatment program, word at the moment (hopefully confirmed Thursday) is that Mission Services was somewhat surprised by this announcement.

These pledges, of course, are coming right after this weekend’s statement from the Rountable for Poverty Reduction opposing a downtown casino, focused largely around concerns of low wages and addictions. They’re the latest of many influential groups and individuals to sign onto the NO! campaign, including everyone from the Hamilton Arts Council to Redeemer University and the Pan-Orthodox Association. I’ve honestly never seen downtown so united over any issue, and frankly, only two people I know from the lower city have dared say otherwise (one is the mayor).

Mercanti, of course, took the opportunity to respond to criticism. Within hours, his quote had created yet another avalanche of social media mockery (see pictures). The elitist tone of his statement was amazingly telling: “they get almost all the same weight as the people who really count”. It shows the blatant hostility for civic engagement which has long been a part of our political process. If the Poverty Roundtable, Arts Council, Orthodox Church, Redeemer College and Sam Merulla don’t “count”, who does?

This is, again, a reminder that classist caricatures of dissent are usually bullshit. Who are these people? The Poverty Roundtable, among a lot of amazing community activists, includes on it’s board names such as Terry Cooke, Howard Elliot and Mark Chamberlain. Architect David Premi (who redesigned the Library/Farmers Market and is currently attempting to redevelop a block along King St.) is the current President of the Arts Council Board. Were I to make a list of “elites” in our city, they’d all make the cut.

What this suggests is that the usual in-crowd/old-boys stereotype of power in this city is a bit simplistic. Rather than one big conspiracy meeting around a table, our elites (like most) are comprised of many competing groups with their own spheres of influence. Mercanti and Mancinelli are very notable members from one of the most established of these groups, but they’re starting to learn that the economic and cultural revitalization which is sweeping downtown has changed the political terrain as well. Coupled with the rise of social media, this is severely complicating a proposal which likely would have sailed through council a decade ago.

When it comes to Hamilton’s political culture, I’d have to say that’s a positive development (pun intended).

The casino proposal struck a nerve downtown, and it’s provoking quite the reaction. Behind the (no longer) presumed consensus, we’re getting a startling look at how insular, indifferent and utterly cold-hearted Hamilton’s development process really is. While this is hardly the first proposal with life-shattering implications for people in the core (evictions, expropriations, etc), we don’t often have experts stating directly that deaths will result| from a business endeavor. Even if it’s defeated, it still points toward a glaring need to change the way these decisions are made. One need only look around the many concrete moonscapes of Main, King and Wilson to see the legacy of decisions made by “people who count”, and it doesn’t take a three-fingered four-year-old to count the number of successful downtown megaprojects so far. Instead, how about listening (for once) to those of us who actually live, work and spend our time downtown?

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The wrecking ball is set to return to downtown once again, so soon after it’s last appearance blocks away at Main and Bay, this time to menace the buildings just south of Gore Park (18-28 King St. E.), between Hughson and James. Wilson Blanchard Property Management, the current owner, has filed a surprise demolition permit that doesn’t look likely to be stopped unless city councillors return early from their Christmas vacations. In their place, Blanchard plans to replace the block (which he owns) with a large condominium/parking/retail complex.

The buildings in questions date back to around 1840 (18-22 King St. E.) and the 1870s (24, 28). Despite this, they lack a “heritage” designation. There was another building in the row, at 30 King St. E., but it was demolished last May, leaving Gore’s infamous “missing tooth”. Rumour has it that current ground-floor retail tenants have until the spring when their leases end. The upper floors are currently “sealed off”, other than the offices of architect David Premi who’s been working with Blanchard on redevelopment plans.

Years ago, when I first started spending a lot of time downtown, these buildings were one of the first places I came to know. Whether in the lofts upstairs, (former) Infusions cafe and Mahal or the old Downstairs club, I’ve got a lot of good memories. It’s been years now, though, since I’ve been in any of them. Most of the old tenants are now long gone, and though some left many years ago, I haven’t forgotten the reasoning they gave at the time: “Blanchard”.

Speaking to some old tenants once again, I got a clearer picture. Virtually as soon as Blanchard got a hold of their building, they were told point blank that they could expect no more repairs. Some got evicted, others held on as long as possible, but “by the end, chunks of the ceiling were coming down”. This is what “Demolition by Neglect” looks like, and it seems pretty damn obvious that it was the plan all along.

The wave of destruction now picking up steam across downtown is something we should all be deeply suspicious of. It signals a shifting of gears in the revitalization process, from buildings and streets to blocks and districts. This is a process Hamilton knows well, it explains why so little of our original buildings are intact (or occupied, if they are) and why the rest were replaced by malls, towers and an endless sea of parking lots.

One has to wonder, with another new supermarket already on its way into Jackson Square, a serious oversupply of office space and myriad other hotel and condominium plans in process around downtown, where they expect customers to come from for this new block? Any ultimate profitability for this project and others like it relies on a wholesale transformation of downtown into a high-end retail and residential hub. What does that mean for those of us already who live, work and spend time there?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m pretty critical of the commercialization of public/community spaces, the destruction of built heritage and gentrification, all of which are obvious goals here. I won’t spend too much time dwelling on the subject, though, as I’m not sure how likely they are to come about. It’s just as likely that the property will spend the next decade as a(nother) parking lot. Hamilton has tried this before, and though Jackson Square is the usual example given, this project sounds a lot more like a certain other block-sized development downtown: Effort Square.

You’ve heard of Effort Square, right? The massive, multi-tower office/apartment/hotel/parking/retail complex between Main and King at Catherine? Featuring two floors of (mostly unused) indoor mall space, a nightclub and several floors of above-ground parking? Put up decades ago by Effort Trust, it’s a big, grey, boring monument to the ambitions of planners past. If it now seems almost invisible, that’s not because it’s empty, just devoid of emotion or imagination.

Behind every big, decaying boondoggle in our core lies some bureaucrat with the solemn belief that “if we build it, they will come”. With this faith, planning starts to drift away from the realities of the land, building and community in question toward pipe dreams about what our downtown “could” and “should” be.

The visions these planners, both public and private, seek to implement tend to reflect the values of their institutions. The big glass towers convey power and status, even though a wider, shorter building would give just as much floorspace. Their grandiose features, though often quite costly, are cheap and short-lived so that they may be replaced with regular shifts in upper-class fashions and never lead to pesky heritage designations (ie glass or styrofoam/stucco exteriors). Their target markets are almost always “high-end”, since they make for the easiest, largest returns on investment, no matter how unrealistic given the area’s demographics. In short order, the buildings look dated and tacky, but that doesn’t matter since it only leaves the door open for even more redevelopments down the road.

If there’s one reason we’re finally seeing the bulldozers roll in and work begin on so many properties which had been quietly held for years, it’s the stunning success of James North. Burgeoning art districts are one of the signs investors look for when searching for cities “on the cusp” of renewal and transformation, and it seems we’re now one of “those” cities. It’s important, though, to look at how and why James succeeded when so many prior attempts failed. Unlike blockbusting redevelopment attempts, artists and small-time property owners simply bought existing buildings and repaired them with their own money and/or skills. I’m not going to pretend this was a totally “grassroots” endeavour, but it was relatively decentralized and happened with a tiny fraction of the budget anyone imagined was needed to bring people back downtown. Say what you want about the art scene, but nobody can argue this was a project orchestrated by LIUNA, Vrancor, Blanchard or the city – if anything their neglect made it all possible. If only they could do the same for King and Main…

The question, now, is how much we can grow before we hit the inevitable wall. Nationally speaking, we’re a lot closer to the end of a real-estate bubble than the beginning, especially in condo-saturated markets like Toronto and Vancouver. Locally, we’ve got a half-century legacy of failures to contend with, and frighteningly few which aged well. How long until the blatant disregard for current tenants and residents starts taking a serious toll on the area’s new-found cultural vibrancy? How long until we’ve squandered too many resources on generic and poorly-constructed towers to build anything of real value?

How long until none of downtown’s original buildings are left?

They say the only thing that stays the same is change. When it comes to North American cityscapes, that’s certainly true. These pictures were taken at Bay & Main today, as the former Public Board of Education was torn apart in front of gathering crowds. Across Bay St., cranes swing wildly, erecting new towers for hotels and condominiums in a frenzy of construction and demolition extending almost all the way to Hess. Looking westward from City Hall, one can see “progress” in all its glory, a microcosm of the conflicting forces which have defined our downtown for the past half a century.

Within all change lies both creation and destruction. Every act of creation takes a toll on the space and materials used, while every act of destruction contains within it a whole new world of possibilities. Production, construction and development are all destructive processes, consuming space, nature, built heritage and raw materials an an incredible rate. While this doesn’t necessarily make them “bad”, it does imply a cost. None of these shiny new glass towers come without a price and that can’t be calculated in dollars alone.

Both of these projects have been controversial, like so many others downtown. Moving public school board administration to the south mountain wasn’t a popular choice, and neither was the choice to tear down the existing structure in favour of a new (only slightly larger) one. The public health centre which will replace it comes at huge expense to taxpayers, and much of it only amounts to moving civic offices a few blocks west from their current home in The Wright House (King & Hughson), another keystone downtown building kept afloat by renting space to government offices. Across Bay St, these new towers have similarly been criticized for knocking down half of the old Revenue Canada Building, turning the old Hamilton Motor Products property into a parking lot for years, going ahead without permits and some very shady dealings between Vrancor and city officials.

When the rubble clears and the new towers begin to shine, I have little doubt that most of this will be forgotten. The sordid saga of the Lister Block is already fading from our memory, even as the building itself returns to life. Who still remembers the blocks of homes and shops demolished for Jackson Square, York Boulevard, endless surface parking lots or new public buildings? There’s no small amount of irony in the demise of 100 Main St. W, it was one of the first components of the decades-long “Civic Square” project which transformed (ie: destroyed) the core between the 50s and 80s. One has to wonder how long these new towers will stand until they, too, would be “cheaper to replace than repair”.

This cycle is utterly cannibalistic, and it shows in the way buildings are now being produced. Since frequent renovations if not demolitions are now the norm, there’s little point to building things to last. More than a century ago, major construction projects were meant to be permanent – I’ve visited enough thousand-year-old stone buildings to know this can work. Comparing major buildings downtown erected early in the last century (Lister Block, Pigott Building), mid-century (City Hall and the School Board) and late (Eaton’s Centre, Copps Colosseum etc), there’s a few obvious trends. Aside from getting uglier, they also get far more fragile. City Hall just required a major rebuild, and the school board is now in pieces. As for those built late, it’s hard to imagine they’ll last much longer or be any cheaper to deal with, and harder to imagine any local heritage activists putting much effort into them.

After all this time, it seems downtown is finally seeing some “revitalisation”. James North’s budding “arts community” is apparently getting rave reviews across the country. Isn’t it interesting, how after all this time, the renaissance has sprung from one of the few untouched and neglected streets of largely original buildings? No towers, cranes or bulldozers were required, as individuals bought and renovated buildings one-by-one, turning them into galleries, cafes and restaurants. Locke and Ottawa would also be obvious examples here. These transformations has had their own costs, but at the very least has been far more successful and less destructive than any of the big-budget attempts from the city or development firms. Sadly, rather than learning from this example, the response has been a rapid expansion of “redevelopment” projects around the rest of the core.

Yesterday, developer David Blanchard announced plans to create a new multi-tower development off the south side of Gore Park between James and Hughson. It will be “the largest downtown development since Jackson square was built in the sixties”, if they can manage to demolish the heritage buildings currently on site. This, along with proposals for the (recently razed) West Harbour and others are poised to redefine our downtown, but given the history of such efforts, I’m far from optimistic.

We need to be deeply wary of construction for the sake of construction. Hamilton can demolish and rebuild everything between Queen and Wellington for another five decades if it wishes, but it won’t bring the prosperity we seek. Real “progress” if it means anything at all, can’t be measured by counting cranes from the escarpment, it has to be experienced at street level. Building a legacy takes time, but appreciating one takes even longer. It takes years for buildings to be incorporated into the dense urban fabric that is a city, and it can take years to recover when one crumbles. Councils and corporations have tried and failed for five decades to fix downtown with bulldozers. It’s time to try something else.

If there’s one area of law where the totally disconnected nature of government is painfully clear to every single person involved, it’s Zoning law. Zoning laws dictate what can be build, and where, within cities. They claim high and noble aims of protecting homes and neighbourhoods from destructive and disruptive businesses. But in reality they act more like a big wet blanket everywhere, which prevents any kind of development by the vast majority of the city’s people. The complicated and mind-blowingly expensive maze of regulations, permits, and licenses imposed by laws makes the whole process a little like trying to fill out a year’s worth of tax forms, on acid, at gunpoint, in under an hour.
It goes without saying that most people in this city or others don’t have tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on zoning applications. Even if you could scrape together the cash to buy a building, restore it, and do something interesting with it, you’d likely never be able to get “approval” from the city to start. Those who do have the resources – deep pockets and large legal departments – all tend to be the same type of companies. And that’s why so many of our new developments look exactly the same. Our city has done a great job of building strip malls, condos and suburbs, like most others. But small, independent establishments are dropping like flies, and this is one of the many reasons why.
The justifications for zoning laws usually include things like “protecting neighbours and communities”. But they’re imposed on communities, not by communities. None of these laws have stopped Hamilton from becoming a thoroughly toxic and “dirty” city. Big toxic industries can afford to pay fines (if they even get fined) for covering half the town with soot. And enforcement of existing laws against wealthy development firms has been shown to be extremely lax, whether it’s new building permits in the ‘burbs, or overlooking taxes and bylaw violations for derelict buildings in the inner city.
Worst of all, these Zoning laws don’t get rid of things like toxic industries or nightclubs, they just concentrate them. And that creates “sacrifice zones” when the city designates areas like the North End as “industrial” zones where anything goes. Or the bar district (Hess Villiage) right next to concentrated senior’s housing (along Hunter/Jackson by Caroline and Hess).
Locally, we’re currently watching the demise of the Pearl Company, an old (and formerly empty) industrial building which was being used as an arts and performance space. After a long fight over zoning issues, the owners are giving up. The building is zoned “residential”, though it has never been used for housing, and at this point the rezoning costs are past the $200 000 mark. That’s enough to buy two area homes. And it doesn’t do anything practical for the owners, patrons or neighbours. Just City Hall.
Many people, such as Ward 3 Candidate Mark Dimilo blame the owners of the Pearl Company for trying to go ahead without the right papers, but that isn’t being argued. Clearly they gambled and lost. The question is, what are we accomplishing with these laws? The neighbourhood is a wreck – I love living along Barton and I wouldn’t live there. My friends who have tell horror stories. And these kinds of fees make sure it stays that way.
Bureaucrats at City Hall do not “own” Hamilton. They do not own us, and they do not own our neighbourhoods. They are not entitled to designate uses of every parcel of land within the urban boundary, and they certainly aren’t entitled to collect hundreds of thousands per building in fees when people disagree. Our communities are not required to live up to their personal visions of “redevelopment”.
There is a much cheaper and easier way to address community needs and concerns, as well as resolve disputes. Give communities a say in what gets built there. Make businesses responsible to neighbours, not City Hall, and let them work out their own solutions. The current system only requires both sides to harass bureaucrats until they’re heard, and turns the whole issue into one big adversarial mess. Some projects do get through, because of favourable and cheap amendments brought through political pressure. This process mixes business and politics in the worst way, turning much of City Council’s work into one big approval process for “favoured” projects.
If anyone should be making these decisions it’s communities, and if anyone should be taking these tens of thousands of dollars in fees it’s the people most directly affected by it.

In looking for a good introduction video for the subject of appropriate technology, I wasn’t finding much. Not surprising, when you think about it. And though this one focuses a lot one one issue, Iland really does a good job of introducing the idea, and showing how it applies in an area which illustrates well the needs of the third world and the excesses of the first.

Appropriate Technology, an idea that goes back to Mohandas Gandhi, is simply the idea that we should think deeply about which technologies we used based on the environmental and social context. Instead of simply favouring the most “high-tech” machines possible, the appropriate technology crowd seeks to design ones which best fit the people who will be using them. That means things like using local renewable materials (ie: bamboo or mudbricks), energy and generally making things as cheap and simple as possible so that people can learn to build and repair them.

10 Cases of Appropriate Technology – Listverse.com

How the One Laptop Per Child scheme made it onto this list is a little puzzling. It is, without a doubt, probably the greenest, most ambitious and humanitarian computer projects of all time. But as Iland points out, there’s still some major problems. There are at least a billion kids in the Developing World, and even if they can cut the cost down to $100 per laptop, that still means a total budget of at least a hundred billion dollars. Since so many other AT projects cost only a few dollars a piece and can be built entirely from local materials – such as the family scale composting toilet which can provide biogas to a kitchen stove. If you were starving right now in Africa, without clean water, affordable food, proper sanitation, medical treatment or clothing, how would you feel about a bunch of white people from rich nations who have everything you could ever imagine deciding to raise more money than your nation has ever seen from them before, because of the horrific notion that your kids do not have their own laptops? If you tried to advance an idea like this in an anthropology journal which talked about development would be laughed away. The first rule, as any undergrad learns, is that if you really want to help people, you have to focus on what they tell you they need, not what you think they do. If we’re going to give $100 per child to all Third World families, (which we should) it can surely be better spent than this.

Then again, with the price tag of the Iraq War, now over ten times that amount, you could easily afford everything up to and including a “one Gerber Multitool per child” program without flinching. But that’s topic for another post.

One Laptop Per Child – Yaacov Iland – Google Video (82 min)

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