What future, Hamilton CBD?

Decline_of_Detroit

At times one gets the impression that a large number of Hamilton residents would happily see the Hamilton CBD left to rack and ruin. This is evident not only in opinions given in comments in social media and letters to the editor, but in peoples’ apparent shopping preferences. Yes, we’re talking about The Base, which features an expansive car park ringed by shops and surrounded by a sprawling industrial area, far from any significant concentrations of residents; the would be new (and private) town centre without any townfolk.

Yet given its distance from people and amenities, why do so many shop at The Base and shun the CBD? One cannot ignore that recent low-density greenfields development in Hamilton’s northeast, served by big roads, puts many people in the newer and relatively affluent suburbs at closer proximity to The Base than the CBD. That The Base is shiny and new doesn’t hurt either. And if the abovementioned opinions are to be believed it’s that Hamilton City Council has the audacity to make people pay to use the public roadspace to store their cars on! That last one makes me chuckle, although without a doubt The Base’s hassle-free, no cost parking has real appeal, and especially so when a city has been so singularly developed to prioritise private motor vehicles.

Okay, so far, so car-dependent development of the type we Kiwis are well acquainted with. Retail and jobs far from where people live, necessitating heavy cross-town traffic and obligating most to own and operate private motor vehicles. That car ownership is expensive is nothing new, but when the alternatives are lacking and the city laid out so as to necessitate long distance trips, most readily overlook this drain on time and personal finances because the alternatives seem unthinkable.

Yet apparently Hamilton’s planners and developers see the future in further sprawling, car-dependent ‘burbs on the city fringes, such as Rotokauri and the area to be served by the eyewateringly expensive Southern Links project, which is projected to cost a cool $600 million. And yet, as private motor vehicles continue to decline in popularity at the expense of smartphones, bicycles, scooters, skateboards and shoes, the city may find itself hobbled by the myopia of the current leadership, with so many lifeless cul-de-sacs, congestion befitting a far larger population and the tyranny of non-motorised distance. One wonders if the powers that be think millenials and Gen Y’ers are something only found in other cities.

So what is to be done?

Hamilton’s CBD and The Base are alike in that they would both benefit from larger numbers of people living in closer proximity. Specifically within walking and cycling distance. From the perspective of the CBD, this sidesteps the parking issue and would bring a much-needed vitality to the city streets; I recall visiting Garden Place after having been in the UK for 5 years, and counting a mere 15 or so people in all directions. Admittedly this was January and many would have been on holiday, but the impression was of an overbuilt ghost town.

With so few people anywhere outside business hours, is it any wonder a small number of Hamilton’s increasingly visible homeless population have been able to intimidate passers by and drive even more people to shop at The Base instead? That drunken fights are a regular occurrence in the city streets during the wee hours? That we now need private security personnel and CCTV in the city’s heart?

So how do we get more people to live, work and play where the jobs and amenities are?

In the case of the CBD this means ongoing densification in the inner suburbs, served by safe walking and cycling routes, and apartments in an increasing proportion of its vacant office space. Mixed use development, as described in this excellent documentary from Canada’s CBC News (starting around 14:29). And of course Hamilton City Council also needs to decide what it is going to do with cyclists in the CBD – long overdue!

Meanwhile, The Base, being privately owned, could – if zoning allowed – develop apartments too, and although the distance from amenities might make it a less appealing prospect for many, I’m sure that with some mixed use development and some landscaping many who work there would be happy to live nearby.

And all of Hamilton would benefit from the reduced demand for motor vehicle journeys too. And as residential numbers grew, a busway linking the CBD to The Base would increase the appeal of living in both.

So why isn’t any of this happening yet? Well, in spite of most planners and developers’ apparent tendency to play it safe, to a certain extent it actually is. Some detached houses in the inner suburbs are slowly being converted to multiple-tenant dwellings (although not on the scale of what’s happening around the University), and new developments like The Village Quarter will demonstrate the benefits of mixed-use (homes directly above commercial space) over sleepy dormitory suburbs separated from amenities by long car journeys.

However, we still seem very far from the paradigm change that changing economic and technological conditions are inexorably leading us to. We can only hope that these trends will accelerate as refugees from Auckland’s housing afforability crisis begin to arrive in greater numbers.

6 comments on “What future, Hamilton CBD?

  1. Let’s hope this tweet’s dire prediction doesn’t come to fruition:

  2. Good article!

    There are other ways of creating a shift away from private car dominance. Some of which we have put into practice in our family:
    Walk everywhere you can – adopt a “walk 1st” lifestyle.
    We try to buy local and encourage local businesses to better serve our needs (by asking them to).
    Having to physically carry groceries for a family of 4 means we don’t buy pre-prepared meals, grow as much food as we can and buy as much as possible from our local community village.

    We have also engaged with council, making submissions and attempting to block any policy changes that favor private car usage over any other modes. There are perhaps many other things we can do and are keen to hear ideas.

    Just as the act of putting more people in the CBD dilutes and dissuades unsociable behaviours. Putting more people on the footpaths raises demand for better facilities and increases the visibility of “walk 1st”, shifting peoples thinking away from car dependant lifestyle choices. I hope others will read this comment and consider trying to break free from their car addiction.

    • Being in Europe for a few months, what I am not see is CDB’s, European towns seen to see retail as more a residential activity then a business activity, so the town centres look to be more a concentration of apartment buildings than office building.
      We do need to start asking way we take an opposite approach to town planning in NZ and is it evidence based, theory based or are we relying on Raphael Hythlodaeus type of expert consultants to much.
      Note: in Europe I am referring to Germany and Netherland

  3. I hate when people constantly bring up the cost of parking as a reason to shit on the CBD. We don’t need cheaper parking. We need less parking. And less roads. Leave reasonable vehicle access for the existing parking buildings and convert the rest to pedestrian malls. I’d one way the victoria/bryce/angelsea/knox rectangle and everything else made off limit for cars. (Farmers/CP carparks could have entrances off Angelsea) If you make the city centre a nice place for people then people will come.

    As for The Base: everything north of Wairere Drive needs to be burnt to the ground. The shops, the gross ticky tacky subdivisions: all of it. It is the only sensible option.

  4. I don’t understand the appeal of The Base, at all. But, I’m not a car owner. However, what is the aesthetic out there? Sheds and a parking lot. It completely lacks any kind of atmosphere. I grew up in Hamilton, and have lived there on and off for the last twenty years as well, I’ve never seen it looking as utterly stuffed as it does now. Paradoxically, it’s never been more expensive to rent or buy there, which makes absolutely no sense to me.
    The friendliness has gone. The funny creativity and humour that used to characterise the place, has gone. I’m in the city centre several days a week, it’s almost as if Hamilton is self-destructing. As if people aren’t actually wanted in the city centre because, what are you doing there, in the middle of the day? This deep, narrow conservatism seems to have taken over the mindset in town. With Wintec right in the middle of the city, I don’t understand this. Where are the students? Are they penalised for leaving the campus between classes? It’s got a gutted atmosphere. It also seems to me that there’s a palpable cultural/racial tension in Hamilton now, which I don’t remember being there in the past. The personality has evaporated from the place, it has really, really changed.

    • Loss of major employers from the CBD has been a blow to the atmosphere. Most are government departments moving north to Te Rapa. It’s almost like, central govt wants Hamilton CBD to fail?

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