Hamilton is booming. While Toronto’s been busy becoming too pricey for many first-time homebuyers and Millennials, old Steeltown has slowly, but surely become the “next big thing” – flourishing as a hub for education, health sciences and culture. The city’s art scene has been quietly thriving for years, and its food (think: Chuck’s Burger Bar, Mulberry Street cafe, and Black Hoof-inspired Rapscallion) is legit.
But Hamilton has also been making another name for itself — in development. With over half a million people calling the Hammer home, the City hopes to keep building and continue growing.
“I think we’ve got a product here, an offering here, that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the GTA,” said Jason Thorne, the City’s planning and economic development manager.
We asked Thorne — who was born and raised in Hamilton and recently moved back for his new gig as the City’s planning manager — about his vision and what’s next for the city.
BuzzBuzzHome: So what’s been going on in Hamilton?
Jason Thorne: There’s big change happening. It’s gone from there being a buzz about Hamilton to seeing a lot of actual projects now getting built. We’re starting to see a number of cranes in the air, especially in the downtown core, which is something we haven’t seen in probably a generation in Hamilton.
“It’s a fairly diverse type of activity that we’ve got going on. We still have retail development at the city’s edge, but what’s really starting to take off is some of the urban intensification projects.
BBH: What’s trending in Hamilton development right now?
JT: I think one of the things that Hamilton has more of than any community outside of Toronto is adaptive reuse. We’ve got a number of adaptive reuses on the go right now: the old Royal Connaught Hotel. We’ve had a couple adaptive reuses of old school sites. That’s something that differentiates us from some of the other municipalities in the region as well — that’s a significant part of our housing mix… it’s not all new build.
BBH: What would you say has been driving growth in Hamilton?
JT: There’s a whole bunch of different things at play, I don’t think it’s any one single issue. I think we’re benefiting from affordability — the average resale house price in Hamilton is a little over a quarter of what it is in Toronto. I think that’s certainly attracting people. This is a place where for $300, 000 you can get a historic home in the downtown core of a reasonable size, which is something you can’t get anywhere else in the region.
One of the big draws to Hamilton is there’s also a pretty strong entrepreneurial community. A lot of people are coming here to start businesses because it’s a place where you can start up a business, you can find affordable rents, you can find affordable buildings.
BBH: How do you ensure that the young businesses stay in Hamilton long term?
JT: We’ve got three different universities and a college. We’re fairly attractive for new Canadians, so retaining those people is certainly one of our economic development priorities. One of them is making sure that we have a good range of a mix of housing types and housing options that are affordable.
Transit is a big part of that — both transit within the city…[and] the revitalization that’s happening in Hamilton right now is we have a second GO station going in to the downtown core [and] the talk of the electrification of the GO line, which will allow people in Hamilton to connect more quickly to other communities. That’s certainly a draw and I think that’s going to be important to attracting more people to come here, more people to stay here.
BBH: What’s this debate around tall buildings that we keep hearing about?
JT: It’s in the early stages. Hamilton is starting to become attractive to high-rise developments, and it’s not something we’ve seen a lot of in recent years. As land value starts to rise, as house prices start to rise, I think they’ll become more and more a viable product to be building and selling in the Hamilton market.
The city embraces that – we’ve already got a historical legacy of a number of tall buildings, and I think they are going to be a significant part of our city in the future.
To me, it’s not a debate about whether tall buildings are good or bad. I think, for sure, there’s an appetite for tall buildings in Hamilton, it’s just a question of what locations.
BBH: What are the city’s priorities right now and going forward?
JT: One is that we want to make sure that we’re continuing to send the message that this is a city that’s open for business. This is a city that embraces development and wants development.
Part of the challenge for us is to make sure we have all the processes in place that when people want to do business here, that this is a good place to do business. Another unique thing about hamilton is a lot of development being done here is actually being done by people who live here and grew up here.
This interview was edited for clarity.