Density gets a bad rap these days.
It’s often thought of as a dirty word, evoking images of monolithic highrise office towers or apartment buildings that create wind tunnels and foster a sterile street life around them. A concrete jungle.
But we often hear about the benefits of dense, well-designed urban inner cities. Many recent studies link higher employment densities to higher rates of productivity and cultures of innovation. Denser cities more often appeal to young professionals, knowledge workers, empty nesters, new immigrants, “snowbirds”, and elderly people who may no longer want to drive.
Higher-density development decreases cost of infrastructure construction and maintenance (utilities, roads), and decreases cost of delivery of key services such as police, fire, emergency medical response, and garbage collection. Denser built environments tend to be diverse, and foster a more tolerant atmosphere of social inclusion. For this reason, social services and affordable housing are better accommodated.
ou are probably thinking, “I don’t live downtown, so what does this have to do with me?”
Well, do you ever wonder why Hamilton has such high residential tax rates, in all wards? A major part of the answer has to do with the state of our inner city, and not in the way many people might assume.
The most fundamental and immediate advantage provided by increased density is purely economic. The core is like the heart of the human body, pumping life blood to the extremities. A compact, densely developed, walkable core that is fully serviced by all modes of transportation represents a rich and concentrated commercial/residential tax base that will pump the collected riches to all wards. This is the only way that we Hamilton residents, regardless of where we choose to live within the city, can protect ourselves against further property tax hikes. It benefits everyone.
Let’s consider some recent examples. The site of Homewood Suites on Bay Street had a pre-development tax bill of $18,122.86 when it was a parking lot. Estimated post development tax will contribute $310,000 to city coffers. That’s an increase of 1,711 per cent.
The former federal building, nearby on Main Street, is being redeveloped to create new condominium units. The derelict building has a tax bill of $38,177.21; the estimated post development tax will be $550,000. That is an increase of 1,437 per cent.
A third recent example is the Witton Lofts on Murray Street. Taxes on this property have gone up 797 per cent. The empty school on this site earned $15,657.33 for the city prior to development, but the city is estimated to now collect $124,826.20 from the property. In all of these cases, many good construction jobs were created, and increased population and commercial activity will contribute to ongoing economic development.
Now imagine our downtown in its current state. Parking lots and underutilized sites abound. Nowhere else in the city is there such a concentration of development sites that are ripe for intensification.
Imagine for a minute that all of these lands are redeveloped into denser mixed used facilities that include underground parking, and the tax roll is increased at the rate of the development examples above. All of a sudden, one can conceive of hundreds of millions of dollars of additional tax revenue, not to mention the enormous job creation and economic development associated with the development.
The best part is that the money generated will be spread throughout the entire city. This new revenue can go toward building new community centres, improving fire and police services and, more importantly, to maintain our existing infrastructure, which has become an onerous task, in all parts of the city. It can also help with things such as better transit, redeveloping the waterfront or redesigning streets to become more walkable. In short, to maintain the quality of life we have come to enjoy from Dundas to Stoney Creek, from the Mountain to the bayfront and lakefront, we need to generate significantly more revenue from underperforming land.
So, inner-city density is not only our friend, it must be embraced as a major strategy to move forward as we redevelop our city, regardless of which part of it you live in. Tell your councillor you want density in the core. Do it for the sake of your family’s quality of life as well as your kids’ financial future.
This article was originally published in The Hamilton Spectator.