Hamilton Pier 7 + 8 Urban Design Study: Good, but not yet Great

Hamilton’s waterfront is in the midst of a major rejuvenation. More former industrial lands are being opened up all the time, creating public access to the waterfront that has not existed since before the industrial revolution. At the epicentre of this is Pier 7 and 8, waterfront lands just east of Bayfront Park owned by the City and currently being planned as a new community.

pier 8 aerial
Aerial shot of the present state of Piers 7 and 8 in Hamilton (source: Pier 7 + 8 Urban Design Study)

It is not often that a city has an opportunity to redevelop prime waterfront lands in such a dramatic fashion as this, and it is imperative that it be done right. Using traditional planning and engineering standards to build a community for the future will almost certainly lead to traditional outcomes, in the form of environments that prioritize motor vehicle travel above other modes.

The community has spoken loud and clear – maintaining the status quo for this new community is simply not acceptable. To that end, the city and its consultant, Brook McIlroy, have responded with plans for a pedestrian-centric community with vibrant green space and mixed use development that supports walkability and sustainable living. While the plan is good, it’s still not great. There are still opportunities, specifically from a transportation perspective, to develop this community as one that embraces sustainable transportation and can lead Hamilton and the broader region towards better health and reduced emissions.

new rendering
The Pier 7 + 8 Urban Design Study lays out the plans for a vibrant, pedestrian-oriented new community

Specifically, the following transportation changes are recommended to the plan for the new Pier 7+8 neighbourhood:

  • Reduce the standard traffic lane width from 3.5 metres (12 feet) to 3.0 metres (10 feet), to improve pedestrian safety through reduced motor vehicle travel speeds and reflect best practices used in Quebec, Boston, Chicago, and other leading jurisdictions
  • Expand transit service in-line with the development, rather than in the future, possibly by extending the 27 Upper James route to serve the waterfront to mimic the planned route for the planned A-Line LRT
  • Initially require parking at a rate lower than one space per residential unit, while provisioning for construction of more spaces in the future if needed, thus enabling the market to decide the adequate volume of parking
  • Encourage developers to de-bundle the cost of parking (approx. $50,000 per space) from the costs of residential units, as a further incentive for residents to pursue sustainable transportation options
  • Modify the phasing plan for parking development, to prevent a short-term oversupply of parking between phases 2 and 3
  • Require, rather than suggest, that parking structures be designed to enable future retrofitting to other uses, reflecting the impact that autonomous vehicles will likely have on parking demand in the next two decades

Traffic Lane Widths

The plan makes it clear that oversizing of streets is undesirable, with the statement that Roadway lane widths should be adequately sized as shown in the street sections and should not be oversized”. So how wide is too wide? The current plan calls for driving lanes that are 3.5 metres (12 feet) wide.

new road cross section
Planned cross-section for most new streets in the Pier 7 + 8 Design Study

According a briefing note produced by Canada’s National Collaborating Centre for Healthy Public Policy (NCCHPP), reducing urban road widths to 3.0 metres can reduce motorized traffic speeds as well as free up additional space for other road users.

The review also found that contrary to common belief, reducing lane widths to 3.0 metres does not lead to increased congestion or more accidents. In fact, if narrower lanes lead to reduced motorized traffic speeds, the likely result would be reduced collisions and pedestrian injuries. The Quebec guide for road design actually recommends 3.0 metre road widths on local and collector streets in urban environments, and major US cities including Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia also recommend 3.0 metre (10 foot) lane widths.

If the city is serious about designing this neighbourhood as pedestrian-centric, it should be considering leading practices from other jurisdictions.

Transit Service

This section of the document leads with the statement that “Pier 7 + 8 enjoys good access to bus transit”, and then suggests that future expansion will likely be needed. First of all, according to WalkScore.com, the “transit score” of the southern point of this neighbourhood is a mere 35, which translates to “some transit”. Imagine the brochure for a new development in the neighbourhood making the claim that their sustainable, leading edge development comes “some” transit access – not exactly a compelling proposition is it?

Common research suggests that people are the most open to changing their mode of transportation when moving to a new location. On this basis, in order to really drive change, the City should ensure that high-quality transit service is available when these new residents move in – not at some later date after they’ve already fallen into the habit of driving. The HSR should explore options for enhancing service to the area, to provide 15-minute service or better during all hours of the day, not just during commuting hours. One possibility would be expanding the Upper James bus route north to reach Pier 7 + 8, rather than terminating at the MacNab Transit Terminal as it currently does. This would mimic the planned route for the A-Line rapid transit route, which today is only served by a 30-minute frequency bus during peak hours.

Parking

Parking is perhaps the greatest opportunity to make a bold statement with this new development. And yet, the plan calls for a whopping 1,422 parking spaces. This value translates roughly to one parking spot for each new residential unit in the neighbourhood – a provision that accommodates the City’s traditional zoning bylaws and almost certainly guarantees that residents will be owning cars and driving to work.

go parking structure
The recently built parking structure at Oakville GO Station includes 1,394 parking stalls

In addition, the dense nature of the site requires parking to be provided in structures, as part of the new developments and in a large 640-space parking garage in the heart of the neighbourhood. While structured parking is more space-efficient, it’s also wildly more expensive than surface parking. The construction cost for new structured parking is up to $50,000 per stall, which translates to a whopping $71 million worth of parking! While these spaces won’t likely be paid for by Hamilton taxpayers, they will be paid for by the future residents of this neighbourhood, built into the costs of the residential units.

Instead of maintaining the status quo, the city should take a more flexible approach, requiring a smaller amount of parking while leaving provisions for more parking in the future if needed. Developers should be encouraged to unbundle the cost of parking from the unit costs, giving residents the option of spending money on parking, rather than requiring that everyone carry this expensive burden.

The city should also be cautious of the phasing of development, which currently suggests building all the parking needed for Phase 3 as part of Phase 2. In the short term, this approach will lead to a massive oversupply of parking and will further encourage motor vehicle use over more sustainable modes.

phasing
Phase 2 includes the construction of the required parking spaces for Phase 3 development, leading to an oversupply of parking in the short term

Finally, almost as an afterthought, the plan states “Parking structures should be designed with the ability to be retrofitted into usable space should the area’s demand for parking be reduced in the future.”. Rather than a suggestion, this should be seen as absolutely imperative, as we enter into the age of self-driving vehicles. In as little as five years, self-driving cars could revolutionize the way we get around in cities, drastically reducing the need for personal vehicle ownership and reducing the overall number of cars by several times. In the near future, large concrete parking structures could quickly become relics of the twentieth century – making it essential that these structures be designed for repurposing.

We can do Better

The redevelopment of Piers 7 and 8 is a unique opportunity and making we should be striving to make it “great”, not simply “good”. Let’s keep pushing the city to ensure that the new Pier 7+8 lives up to residents’ expectations, meeting the needs of all road users and leading the way in sustainable transportation best practices.

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