Generation Y take note. A parallel universe is emerging down the lake from Toronto’s central condo land. Urbanity is on offer without the shoebox lifestyle. The GTHA’s oft forgotten sister, Hamilton, is becoming the region’s most exciting story. It doesn’t matter that for years urbanists predicted that an artist-led exodus from Queen Street West would trigger a gentrification phenomenon, attracted to the city’s “great bones” of heritage architecture and cheap real estate. What matters is that what was predicted in now actually happening. And while what is happening is very exciting it has triggered a familiar tension that always shadows change.
Glen Norton, who leads the downtown revitalization file, led me around the city to see the commercial revitalization of the city core, driven by the city’s explosion of Millennials. Evidence of the city’s revitalization is visible everywhere, from major landmark restorations to a wave of sophisticated residential projects (a more detailed account of the projects that are helping write Hamilton’s phoenix-like rebirth can be read in the June-July 2013 issue of Building). Exhibit A might be the vibrant music scene, food truck culture and monthly art gallery crawls, including the annual Super Crawl, which began in 2009 and is now attracting approximately 150,000 people over two days.
But the city’s interest in an old abandoned industrial building owned by Forum Equity Partners brought an interesting perspective to this renaissance. Guided by the flashlight on my iPhone, Glen and I scrambled through the dusty darkness of the Cannon Knitting Mills. Located in a hard scrabble neighbourhood that reflects one’s vision of the old Hamilton, the Knitting Mills building screams urban renewal. As someone who had a hand in saving and repurposing Toronto’s Wychwood Barns streetcar repair facility, it was easy to see the possibilities of live-work artists’ studios, farmers markets, maker movement space, social service delivery programs, community amenity, and abundant private sector commercial and office opportunities.
This may not be the Knitting Mills fate, however. Frustrated by years of a stagnated vision that has been slow to materialize, the forces of “Old Hamilton” are beginning to mobilize and question the value of preserving this old monolith. Demolition has become a valid option. From the outside it is easy to see that the future of the Knitting Mills is really symbolic of a larger debate that the city needs to resolve as it chooses its path forward. There is little doubt that the city’s number one economic development asset is its heritage architecture. This is not a chicken and egg scenario. Hamilton’s character as an older city with exquisite heritage architecture is doing for Hamilton what other 905 cities in the Toronto region cannot compete with: attracting young residents seeking a vibrant, urban and car free lifestyle. This is the demographic that pulls jobs and economic investment with them. And the leading edge of all this, the world over, is almost always artists.
In this context there is a lot riding on one humble old building. Its future is Hamilton’s future. How the city navigates the future of the Cannon Knitting Mills is a test for a city that has come a long way, but still has a long path ahead of it. “Old Hamilton” should be proud of the fact that the city it built is the city that new generations are seeking to protect. Indeed “New Hamilton” is not at odds with the city’s past. It seeks to embrace it.
Richard Joy is Executive Director of ULI Toronto. Previously, he served as Vice President, Policy and Government Relations at the Toronto Board of Trade, and was the Director of Municipal Affairs and Ontario (Provincial Affairs) at Global Public Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RichardJoyTO or email at Richard.Joy@uli.org