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The Secret's Out

The Secret's Out

Hamilton's secret right now is the Metrolinx light rail transit plan proposed. If constructed, it would make Hamilton a more comfortable commute from downtown Toronto, and itself easy to traverse by high-speed public transit.

By Scott Weir

Published in the National Post on Saturday, November 15, 2008.

Any Torontonian who has explored Hamilton is faced with a challenge -- how to communicate the beauty and interest of that city in a way that will be convincing to friends back in Toronto, whose only experience of Hamilton has been gazing down on Stelco on their way from their glass penthouse to a wine tasting on the Bench. That single view from the Skyway Bridge conjures up visions of hell and has closed many minds.

Should drivers have borne left and remained on Highway 403 for two further interchanges, York Boulevard would have led them by Dundurn Castle, among the most magnificent Regency estates in the country. Around Aberdeen Avenue, the Durand district is Ontario's answer to Montreal's Westmount, a neighbourhood of stone villas and Georgian rows climbing the slope of the mountain. And if you peered beyond the Stelco smokestacks from your perch upon the bridge, you would find the 270 Sherman Creative Industries Complex, a conversion of the beautiful brick Imperial Cotton Factory into artist and creative industries studios (think Distillery District). East of the downtown core, Gage Park's towering copper beeches and sunken gardens by Dunington-Grubb create a landscape unmatched within urban Toronto.

This is the challenge and the opportunity of Hamilton -- the city is one of sharp contrasts, with a legacy of beautiful neighbourhoods; refined architecture; spectacular settings and grounded, friendly people; combined with brownfields, the misguided demolition of architectural wonders and urban decay. The great thing is that the city is undergoing a rebirth.

The challenges are obvious. While Hamilton's core is one of beautiful neighbourhoods, magnificent architecture and grand civic monuments, the late 20th century saw the city centre slump into decay. But it is obvious that Hamilton once was a town with great civic pride. The First Nations name for Hamilton was Macassa Bay, meaning beautiful water, and the earliest version of the current city was a lake-side masterpiece of planning and monuments. Though neglected, Gore Park is among Canada's great urban squares, with its towering cast iron fountain, elegant buildings and human scale. The under-appreciated City Hall is a masterpiece, one of the most beautifully executed modernist buildings in Canada. But Hamilton's architectural refinement remains for the most part remarkably unknown outside of movie-industry locations managers (a phenomenal resource untapped by the city's branding machine) and often at risk of demolition.

In challenging times for real estate, the big great hope for successful investing involves finding forces that will affect the future desirability of a neighbourhood. Hamilton's secret right now is the recently unveiled $50-billion Metrolinx light rail transit plan proposed to criss-cross the GTA, including Hamilton. If constructed, it would make Hamilton a more comfortable commute from downtown Toronto, and itself easy to traverse by high-speed public transit. Financial incentives such as funding for business improvement areas, heritage and residential grant and interest-free loan programs, and tax incentives geared toward individual homeowners and developers investing in the core are also having an impact on downtown's recovery.

And the prices are cheap. Like any house on the perimeter of the GTA, the values are lower than in our central city. But Hamilton is different from the Markhams and Mississaugas: Hamilton's historic urbanity is appealing to those who would not consider living anywhere but downtown. There is a burgeoning urban culture with a vibrant arts scene, good restaurants and walkable neighbourhoods. Unlike Richmond Hill, Hamilton is beginning to house the cool kids starting out who are finding themselves shifting out of the Toronto urban market. As our city converts more of its core into 500-square-foot condos, housing singles and childless couples who will never be able to throw a dinner party at home, Hamilton has become a viable option for artists, families and urban renovators wanting to sink their teeth into some affordable architectural grandeur.

A scan of the listings reveals a spread of interesting spaces in both up-and-coming and established neighbourhoods, priced well below the Toronto market. Restored large detached Victorians in the beautiful Durand district near the GO station and Locke Street's restaurant strip can be had for $350,000. Some unique gems have no equals anywhere; a 3,200-sq.-ft. unit of Inglewood, the moody neo-Gothic 1850 stone pile designed by William Thomas (architect of St. Lawrence Hall in Toronto) with elaborate plasterwork, carved woodwork, marble fireplaces and leafy views is currently listed at $479,000. Neighbouring stone palaces can reach $1.7-million.

North of the city centre toward the waterfront marinas are the relatively undiscovered Georgian rows that for the most part are ready for an overhaul. Here, beautiful large brick detached houses of Cabbagetown scale are listed at around $150,000, while others are under $100,000. Around Gage Park are solid Edwardians that benefit from a lush tree canopy, quiet boulevards and close proximity to astounding parks. The large houses here list around $350,000 but the majority can be had for $200,000.

Whether we realize it or not, Hamilton has new relevance for us in Toronto. Here, we have largely abandoned the ability to house and foster artists and musicians. The cheap warehouse spaces required to generate the creative process are now condo lofts, and the costs associated with living within the urban core are unreachable by those who have not yet made it. Artists are discovering that post-industrial Hamilton is an affordable toolbox of functional warehouse spaces and storefronts, as Toronto's downtown fills with bankers and lawyers.

Ultimately the question arises: Will your little Chadwick have the daylights beaten out of him in Steeltown because of his ground-breaking Yorkville haircut? Perhaps, but more likely you will find yourself enveloped in an Upper Canadian graciousness and hospitality that is very evident in the city. In addition, you might discover how splendid life can be when a mere single income is required to pay the mortgage. - For a reading of the city's tone, visit