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CITY FILE | Planning on the city’s future

It might not sound sexy, but how we utilize our existing industrial lands will affect our prosperity for generations to come.

By Sean Burak

The new City of Hamilton is big. At over 1,000 square kilometres, it is larger than some countries, and though its population numbers pale in comparison, it covers more area than Hong Kong

"Land use planning" sounds like something that happens deep in the belly of city hall in a room full of office drones working under the buzz of fluorescent tubes. But defining the permitted and prohibited uses of property is one of the most important responsibilities we entrust to council.

Unfortunately, when it comes to making these decisions, our current council — and their recent forebears — seem to be too busy micro-managing the smaller planning issues to take the time to fully weigh the long-term consequences of the bigger decisions.

This year, Hamilton city council has spent significant time on issues such as the relocation of the Lynnwood Charlton Centre, the creation of rental unit licensing fees and the removal of borer-prone ash trees. Previous council spent over a year studying, deciding, un-deciding and re-deciding upon a location for a stadium before finally settling on not moving it at all. While these issues are important and require careful thought and consideration, one wonders where their time goes when it comes to planning for Hamilton's future employment growth?

A 2005 study told Hamilton that 2,500 acres of employment land would be needed to accommodate 59,000 new jobs by 2031. For these growth projections, the term "employment lands" generally refers to vacant land suitable for development of office or industria businesses. This might be anything from a large-scale manufacturing plant down to a smaller office park. Where will these jobs go?

A fundamental strategy in planning for our future is to ensure that we have developable land available to employers who want to move to Hamilton or expand their current business here. We are lucky to have a fantastic geographic location easily accessible by rail, water and highway. We also have a shrinking industrial base, which is leaving behind large swaths of land ripe for new uses and forward-thinking developers. But our leaders have made decisions that threaten our ability to leverage these opportunities.

In 2008, council went against the advice of city planners, provincial staff, residents and environmental groups by converting 93 acres of prime industrial land into big box retail centres.

In the same year, council approved the conversion of 30 acres of employment land to residential use, so Losani could build homes off of Barton Street in Winona.

The recent development of more retail power centres at Clappison's Corners in Waterdown occurred on lands which were initially envisioned as prime industrial business parks.

As council throws our prime industrial land away bit by bit, they pay consultants to investigate available lands, and accept even the most ludicrous reports without question. In early 2008, council adopted the results of a study which told them that in the entire city, there were only 91 properties (on 376 acres) available for industrial development. This same report states that only 50 acres of the industrial lands along the bayfront off of Burlington Street were "available." To put this in perspective, the U.S. Steel property (formerly Stelco) at 386 Wilcox Street is listed on the city's own mapping system as being over 800 acres. Are we to believe that none of the land occupied by a company that once employed 25,000 people (and now employs 1,100) is available for use? Not to mention the vast seas of unused parking lots and vacant warehouses and factories scattered through the entire city. Our council appears to believe it.

But should these disused industrial lands be considered "available" even if some of them have buildings on them? Local developers seem to think so. The 25-acre Studebaker plant on Victoria Avenue is currently on the chopping block — to make way for the construction of a brand new industrial park. And Mayor Bratina thinks so too. As councillor in 2009, he questioned the servicing costs of new "greenfield" land: "...the fact is that we have road, rail and harbour infrastructure. We have the problem of brownfields. And I think that the onus is on us as a city with this type of infrastructure to exploit it to the best we can..." Let's hope Bratina can bring the rest of council around.

So if councillors believe the consultants' report that we have a shortage of employment lands, how can they be so willing to convert the meagre supply we have over to competing land uses? The answer may lie in Mount Hope. At the very last meeting before the 2010 election, council went against the provincial growth strategy and agreed to proceed with their plan for Aerotropolis. The plan would see an enormous parcel of land (almost the size of Burlington Bay) brought into the Hamilton urban boundary. Our taxes would then pay to service it with roads and sewers, at a cost estimated to start at half a billion dollars ($350,000,000 for roads and sewers within the park, plus $125,000,000 for a trunk sewer to the Woodward treatment plant). The waste from this far-flung business park would need to be pumped uphill and over a watershed divide before gravity could carry it to the treatment plant. All of this in order to create a set of business parks — when we are having trouble filling the business parks we already have (we had to give land discounts and development grants in order to entice Canada Bread to open in the North Glanbrook Business Park).

What happens if the Aerotropolis business parks never fill up? Who will pay for the infrastructure construction and maintenance? How much will we pay to companies in order to entice them to open there? And what will happen with our underutilized industrial lands that are already serviced — potentially numbering in the hundreds or thousands of acres? We need council to ask these questions. We need a proper land availability study that includes all of our underutilized industrial land. And we need to carefully scrutinize the answers we are given. Proper land use planning can guarantee Hamilton's future success. The decisions made now will affect our prosperity for generations to come.