The smiles on the faces of Jodi Lam and Norm Shelehan gave the glorious sunshine a run for its money on May 12 as two of the city’s top revitalization leaders stood next to Hamilton’s Gore Park Fountain and slowly turned around to capture the nearby woods of construction cranes reaching in the sky.
“Last year was the largest number of permits to build downtown condominiums ever,” said Shalehan, the city’s director of economic development. “The developers have really taken an opportunity.” In fact, 2021 brought in a record $2 billion in building permits across Hamilton, he said.
He and Lamm, the city’s director of commercial districts and small businesses, are helping usher in an unprecedented high-rise building boom that has transformed downtown Hamilton from a dead commercial real estate district just over a decade ago into the building boom of today.
Looking around, it’s not hard to see what Lam and Schlihan are up to, and the hard data makes it all the more clear.
The city is experiencing record levels of development in the downtown core as developers have been unable to secure financing for construction.
In the past five years, there have been 19 major building developments completed or under construction downtown — narrowly defined for data purposes as Queen Street to Wentworth Street and Barton Street to Aberdeen Street — valued at more than $733.7 million. This construction boom adds 3,482 new housing units and 41,870 square meters of commercial space to the core.
Here is a look at some of the projects currently under construction:
- Cobalt Luxury Residences in King Street East and Hughson Street South is being built by LiUNA and includes two 30-story towers, 581 residential units, and 1,192 square meters of commercial space. Worth: $140 million.
- LiUNA, Fengate, and Hi-Rise Group are constructing a 34-story building at 75 James St. S. East Jackson Street and will contain 635 residential units and 390 square meters of commercial space. Worth: $180 million.
- The 14-storey Kiwi Condos apartments are built on the corner of King William Street and Ferguson Avenue North by Rosehaven Homes and will include 266 residential units and 493 square meters of commercial space. Worth: $55 million.
And if all projects awaiting approval get the green light, there will be 9,400 new housing units and 63,520 square meters of commercial development built into the heart over the next several years.
- Television City in Jackson Street West and Caroline Street South, a mixed-use development comprising of two 32-story towers and 642 condominiums. Value: not available.
- The Moderne at King Street East and John Street South, a 36-storey mixed-use development. Value: not available.
- Three 30-story towers at 77 James St. Inn, on the Hamilton City Center site. Value: not available.
To put the boom in perspective, the total of all condominiums built downtown in 2011 was 10. Not 10 buildings, 10 apartments. “Today we’re talking about thousands and thousands,” Lam said. “It’s the biggest investment, especially in housing, we’ve seen downtown.”
A little general urban history is helpful. In the post-war years, downtown was a place where Hamiltonians came to shop. But then there was an era of suburban growth, along with the emergence of suburban malls. The journey from the heart of the city was going on. So, in the ’70s and ’80s, the city worked to bring people back by building Hamilton Place, Cobbs Coliseum, and Jackson Square.
Twenty years ago, the concert hall, sports arena and downtown shopping center were stand-alone amenities, which didn’t attract much housing development because that was still a taboo, said Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger. Public funding was available for the utilities, but private funding was not flowing for housing development to augment it. “You can’t get a bank to give you a loan for anything.”
Urban planners now realize that the vibrant heart of the city requires people to live there. Recreation areas or business hubs alone wouldn’t sustain downtown, and so, nearly 20 years ago, Hamilton began offering a slew of incentives—from interest-free loans to area remediation programs—to entice developers to build.
The best example of this is the Kiwi Condos apartments in King William and Ferguson, Lamm said. “It was considered a brown field because there was a dry cleaner there and it was heavily polluted. I sat there for decades and did nothing.”
But with the city’s help, the site has been cleaned up and a 14-storey building is now being constructed.
A larger project is Cobalt Luxury Residences in King East and Hughson, the site of the former Delta Bingo, where two towers will provide 581 housing units. “What is interesting is that LiUNA is renting out flats, not flats,” Lamm said of the construction. “Rental apartments are in demand in the heart of the city.”
Eisenberger said developers’ interest in downtown Hamilton began growing about eight years ago because downtown Toronto reached its saturation point. Then several other factors continued to fuel the shift – including the second GO Transit station downtown and the promise of light rail transport, which made downtown life more attractive.
Jeremiah Shamess, senior vice president of sales at Colliers International, one of Canada’s largest commercial real estate firms, and founder of Colliers Private Capital Investment Group, said developers are beginning to grab land in the heart like hot cakes.
why? Shamis said that developers are looking for value in rapidly revitalizing urban centers. Office space sells for about $1,000 per square foot in downtown Toronto, but $150 in the heart of Hamilton. The same land sells for $300 a square foot in downtown Toronto, he said, compared to $50 in Hamilton.
“Hamilton is the next Brooklyn,” Shamis said. “It’s not the same analogy because Brooklyn is closer to Manhattan than Hamilton to Toronto, but[Hamilton]is a rougher steel city with core, urban fabric, street, and desire.”