Where did the idea of spending $81.5 million to tear down and rebuild the current operations in Harbour West come from?
Was there a ground swell of public opinion in some part of Hamilton that we need to fix something in the west harbour?
Did the people who were using the parks and the marinas complain that something was missing?
Did the volunteer organizations who are doing a great job bringing people to the water's edge demonstrate there was a need for radical change?
Did we learn something from the failed experience of designing a Crystal Palace on Bayfront Park?
Is it true that this project is an offspring of Setting Sail?
Here are some of the answers:
How Well Does Harbour West Work Now?
(This is not a simple or short story and may take 3.26 minutes to read. )
Here is a report, thanks to Mocha, the hyperactive insane canine, from one person who walks the area two or three times every day, seven or eight months of the year.
In a sentence: Harbour West works extremely well just as it is today. So why would we talk about fixing something that "ain't broke"?
Until you spend real time walking the area, in all seasons, you will not realize how extremely well Harbour West functions as a recreational resource. And recreational in this report means to "re-create". It is a place of quiet repose combined with festivals, family parties, dog walkers, marathon practisers, boaters, sailors, dragon racers, ethnic family gatherings, Hamilton's best singles dance, a great place for coffee and refined sugar products.
Today, Harbour West is more functional for Hamilton than Central Park is for New York. And as Hamilton, like every city in Ontario becomes more intensified and crowded, the openness and mix of uses in Harbour West will become much more valuable, with little need for much of a cash injection.(The picture on the right shows a typical immigrant family gathering on Pier 4.)
The west harbour can be difficult. Today, Werner's Harbour Queen, stuck in the ice, has no passengers. Harbour West is often an unpleasant place to be four months or five months of the year. It is a place where you come face to face with raw nature. Northern cities' shorelines are not comfortable and rarely successful in Winter. This fact has a significant economic impact on using a northern shoreline for commercial purposes.
From a recreational boating point of view, there is simply no place on the Great Lakes that compares.
There are really good reasons why five recreational boating organizations are all clustered together in the place where Rocco loaded his rum boats and the great sailing vessels of earlier times docked for customs inspection. It is a natural perfect place for boating, right wind, right water, right configuration, right location. It is perfect.
I am very fond of the photo to the right. Click on it and you will see how a few hundred thousands of dollars of government money spent on a simple trail and some landscaping, combined with a marina built with private funds and maintained without costing the City a penny, work together to create an ambiance that is restful, joyous, refreshing, beautiful. It really is perfect.
From a community point of view, the existing stakeholders have done a remarkable job of building, repairing and developing this community resource through hundreds of thousands of hours of volunteer work. There are hundreds of volunteers at work in Harbour West every year. They not only come to the water's edge themselves, they bring friends, family, customers, visitors. These are the experts with a track record of sharing the water's edge with the whole community. This has been good for Hamilton and the staff and consultants do not value it.
Such a great variety is hard for bureaucrats and governments to manage. The diversity is not easily controllable by a bureaucracy. Harbour West works today because of the uniqueness of the contributions of a wide range of individuals, none of whom are on the City's payroll. Unlike the manicured and carefully controlled spaces run by the Conservation Authority, Harbour West is a place for individuals, and specifically, for individuals of all income levels and backgrounds.
Where is the need for change? I have not been able to find a single stakeholder who has expressed a wish or a demand for government largess. They are too busy being successful.
Where then did the current $81.5 million project come from if it is not a solution to an existing problem?
Candy for Government
The answer is that the west harbour is a constant attraction to governments to turn into a project. Governments and well meaning theorists love the idea of a Chicago shoreline. Whether we have the millions of people in our city, whether or not it is accessible, whether or not there is a demand for it. This turns into a sermon that Hamilton can be saved if only we had lots more of something on the west harbour shoreline. We are not exactly sure of what that is, but some people feel that there is a magic bullet there. Somehow. It just feels like it will makes us more like Toronto and therefore more successful. Particularly if you do not know how it works now.
It is a long sad frustrating story. From the days of Urban Renewal when Ken Sobel dreamed of high rise buildings all along the bluffs and a major road running from HMCS Star to Bayfront Park, like Front Street in Toronto, to the plans that have popped up every ten or fifteen years in Hamilton's Public Works department, to Sheila Copps dreams of renaming the West Harbour Hamilton's "Waterfront" and building a legacy there.
At the right you will see the concept plan that was completed for
the West Harbour in 1985 by a consortium of 6 consultants from across Ontario
and three from New York City. As you can see, it
included a proposal for a Crystal Palace, Tall Ships in Macassa Cove (where the current team plans fishing), and an entrance that a local resident who lived through all this described recently as having been designed by Albert Speer on crack. We paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to consultants in a consulting feast, and then the plans died. Same story today.The budgets over the last 60 years have run from todays current $81.5 million to hundreds of millions of dollars. Its like the west harbour is irresistible candy for governments.
So this is not just Setting Sail, its a fantasy tradition in Hamilton.
But what happened in Setting Sail may be useful to understand.
The Setting Sail planning process, initiated because of talk of building great structures on the CN rail lands and Piers 7 and 8, including looking at a stadium and other dreams, and studied the entire area from Barton to the Bay, Wellington to Locke. Because it was an environmental assessment, City Staff had to recruit public participation. At the invitation of the City, a group of local residents and stakeholders met for months and months to review the possibilities.
While the plan eventually proposed over 750 new housing units on Pier 8, combined with new stores and offices on Pier 7, proposals which were fully supported by the neighbouring residents and local stakeholders, this old paranoid lawyer started to notice that the Staff did not seem to be in a rush to deal with two key issues: traffic in the Setting Sail area, including the North End, and the recreational boating uses along the shoreline.
That slow treatment of those two key issues continued until the very end of the process when the planning leaders suddenly advised the stakeholder that the plan had to be approved by Council virtually immediately. (A development control by-law was expiring and Setting Sail needed approval before that by-law expired.)
City Staff stated that the waterfront recreational uses could be dealt with after Setting Sail was approved by means of a "Master Plan." In other words, the decisions on the shoreline would be made in a Master Plan process that gave no stakeholder any rights of appeal to the OMB.
Master Plans are a great way for Cities to reduce stakeholder leverage. They have nowhere to go but to the City itself. No OMB appeals allowed.
The Setting Sail stakeholders refused to accept this and I worked to settle the difference by an agreement with City Staff that the waterfront recreational boating issues would be resolved not through a Master Plan process, but through an Official Plan Amendment which would give all the stakeholders an appeal to the OMB. This is what should be going before Council now.
At the time, all the stakeholders believed that the remaining recreational boating issues would be resolved by creating a working group of the organizations who had the experience and knowledge of how the shoreline worked. We expected it to be a short, two or three month process.
Instead, staff obtained a budget for $600,000 to spend on consultants. Most of us who participated in Setting Sail were astounded when we learned how much was proposed to be spent. City Staff regularly complained that they had run out of budget to bring in experts to assist the study group. Somehow, $600,000.00 was found the same year for the waterfront gambit. Given the very real needs of ordinary people in Hamilton, this budget was widely seen as extraordinarily extravagant.
That $600,000 consultant driven process was seriously flawed from the beginning. The need for change was not identified in advance. Consumer demand research was not undertaken. Stakeholders with experience in operating on the shoreline were disdained. Not one stakeholder I have interviewed reported that their input was valued or taken seriously. Somewhere in the bowels of City Hall a decision had been made to completely destroy and rebuilt this perfectly functioning community resource. Most of the people involved believe that this decision was made years ago and is quietly and silently being played out year by year. The consultants duly proposed a Chicago style shoreline at a cost of $81.5 million. This result is now rationalized by City staff as implementing the City's stated policy of enhancing the city's waterfront.
Ideas that had consistently failed to work in the last century were brought back to life, sometimes by the very same consultants who had been involved in prior attempts.
Everything Hamilton needs to be done in West Harbour could have been resolved with a no-cost working group of local stakeholders. Instead, the locals were largely ignored until a little known sub-committee of the Chamber invited all the local volunteer organizations to meet, and then asked the Manager of Public Works to come and listen. This occurred at the end of the staff/consultant process. Suddenly they were asked what they really thought. Every single stakeholder advised the Manager that their plan was fundamentally flawed.
What Council might Consider Doing Now
The staff report going to Hamilton's Committee of the Whole should be filed, put away, and city staff asked to form a working group with the local stakeholders to deal with a few relatively minor items of maintenance and repair of the shoreline and the wavebreak. And we can all get on to solving some of the real issues in our City.
Next and final episode: Why it might be s a good idea to pay attention to Hamilton's Waterfront
Next, in the final episode of this lengthy journal, I hope you will join me in exploring the nature of Hamilton's real waterfront.