It was fall 2013 when I first talked to Khaldoon Ahmad, a planner with the City of Hamilton, who was developing a street master plan for the one-kilometre long stretch of Ottawa Street North between Main Street East and Barton. Major funds had not yet been put aside at City Hall for a makeover, but about $100,000 was available in the municipal kitty to come up with a proposal.
Seven street master plans had been done for the downtown area and Ottawa Street was the first such study beyond the core. It was the first of any such studies in east Hamilton for about 40 years.
Ahmad would not say if east Hamilton suffered from neglect. “That is not my opinion but to some extent it hardly receives the attention it needs,” he replied, politely.
Our conversation came in the midst of a wave of renewal across Hamilton, including in the Crown Point neighbourhood, as more people from outside the city looked for less expensive housing. It made sense for a city planner to take a fresh look at the century old business hub on Ottawa Street which had been a destination strip for textiles, fabrics and home decor decades before the transformation of either James Street North or Locke Street. Ottawa has always drawn people from across the city and beyond.
The Cannon Coffee Co. was still a recent addition to the Ottawa and Cannon Street intersection in 2013. New types of shops and restaurants were starting to make a presence, especially antique stores, as the commercial rents on Locke Street started to climb. Familiar spots such as Murray’s Farm Butcher Shoppe, City and City Books, Merk Snack Bar and East Hamilton Cheese would not appear for another few years.
When Ahmad and I spoke, the popular outdoor farmers’ market had already migrated from what was once an indoor mall at Barton and Ottawa (now the big-box The Centre on Barton mall) to its current spot in the parking lot between Edinburgh Avenue and Cannon. One of his aims was to improve visibility on Ottawa St.
Ahmad’s biggest challenge was to come up with a way to transition Ottawa street from a speedway for cars and trucks heading elsewhere to a complete street, friendly to shoppers, pedestrians, cyclists, and small businesses, as well as local traffic.
One thing Ottawa Street North had (and still has) going for it was an abundance of on-street parking with additional parking behind the stores on the east side. Ahmad contemplated following the example set by Waterloo in extending the sidewalk pavement temporarily into the space reserved for some on-street parking to allow for bistros, patios, food trucks or mini-farmers markets, especially in the warmer months. In turn, this area would return to on-street parking when that need expired.
He agreed that Ottawa Street North was a risky proposition for cyclists. “There is no planned bike route along Ottawa Street, but we will explore the potential for one to be accommodated. I have to look at everything under the sun.”
Reducing truck traffic between the industrial sector and Main was key for the planner. At the time, the street was officially designated as a truck route which contributed to the traffic problem. At the same time, it was considered a “pedestrian predominant street” in the city’s official plan for shopping and browsing.
Other issues for him were the hanging hydro pole wires and the feasibility of eliminating the no-left turn sign at Barton which prohibits westbound traffic from turning onto Ottawa Street and thereby going against the original intent of making it easy to visit the retail strip.
Fast forward to seven years later, Khaldoon Ahmad is working as manager of urban design and landscape architecture for the Regional Municipality of Niagara. Much of what he proposed is still not in place although heavy truck traffic is less common, even though this is still technically permitted, according to the city public works classification of streets.
Ahmad’s vision of a pedestrian friendly complete street remains elusive. A tiny number of temporary patios have been permitted to pop up during the summer months but otherwise things remain largely status quo. Newer shops and restaurants have since appeared to make the retail strip more vital than ever.
Yet, Ottawa Street North between Main and Barton is still a raceway. Some drivers appear to revel in having loud vehicles that make a statement about their presence. Sitting on a rare Ottawa Street North patio amidst the din of the passing traffic can be an unpleasant experience. Pedestrians, meanwhile, take their lives into their hands crossing the fast moving street while competing with cyclists who prefer the sidewalk to the risk of being on the road.
Ottawa Street North between Main Street East and Barton has for some years been designated as “a major arterial road” which is city planning-speak for a road that is primarily designed to facilitate the flow and volume of traffic. All types of vehicles are tolerated including trucks. Major arterials are designed for speeds as high as 70 to 100 km-hr., but the average running speed is 60 to 80 km-hr. (The speed limit on Ottawa Street North is 40 km-hr.)
The classification of streets is available at the public works department at Hamilton City Hall (https://www.hamilton.ca/sites/default/files/media/browser/2015-04-23/right-of-way-manual-appendixs.pdf) and in the official plan for the city of Hamilton (http://www2.hamilton.ca/NR/rdonlyres/19A8ED23-4AAE-43F6-882D-27CB5D956262/0/COHUHOPVol1Apps211to15.pdf).
Ottawa Street, a shopping area, is grouped awkwardly with King and Main, neither of which are friendly to pedestrians, cyclists or destination strip type retail.
James Street North and South are minor arterial roads (under the official plan) where traffic movement is a major consideration (versus primary consideration for a major arterial road).
A comparable street to Ottawa Street is the village-like Locke St. neighbourhood which is nestled in a valley and has all of the features of a pedestrian-friendly complete street coupled with small and independent retail. Pedestrians cross the street at various locations among slow moving traffic.
Incidentally, on both Locke and the portion of King Street East carving through the downtown of Stoney Creek, traffic is restricted to a single lane.
Contrast that with Ottawa Street North which has two lanes permitting drivers to pass on the right creating the conditions for potential collisions.
Khaldoon Ahmad declined my request to catch up on his conclusions about Ottawa Street North. Had he produced a street master plan? Was he the author of a confidential 2015 proposal to upgrade the farmers market on Ottawa Street North? Apparently, budget limitations precluded anything going forward on the latter. Otherwise, I had few answers. Instead, Ahmad suggested in a brief email that my questions be directed to my local city councillor and the City of Hamilton.
Ward 3 representative Nrinder Nann is addressing all of this later in January and I will report on that for The Point. In the meantime, I am using a complex freedom of information process at Hamilton City Hall to access all the written material including drafts and notes shared between Ahmad and the Ottawa Street Business Improvement Association during a selective consultation process. (So far, nothing has come up.)
Allison Jones, a communications spokesperson for the city of Hamilton emailed that the current major arterial designation for Ottawa Street North stems from how the street and the Centre on Barton are linked in terms of traffic planning, but predates the opening of the mall in 2008. Today, Ottawa Street serves as a conveyor belt for customers and delivery trucks headed to the big-box stores. She assured me that the major arterial designation for Ottawa Street is currently being “re-evaluated” by transportation staff at City Hall but offered no details.
The good news is that there is apparently a new Ottawa Street North street master plan in the works which “builds onto preliminary research and consultation work done by Khaldoon Ahmad during 2013 to 2015,” according to Jones. Nothing is yet available for the public to see.
Ottawa Street North can only become a true destination strip if the hostile traffic is scaled back. A step in the right direction would involve lifting the major arterial designation by the city.
(This is a first of a series of pieces by freelance journalist Paul Weinberg on Ottawa Street North. He is the editor and a contributor to a newly published collection, Reclaiming Hamilton. Essays from the New Ambitious City which is published by Wolsak &Wynn.)