In 2004, the hit TV drama The West Wing came to shoot scenes for a couple of upcoming episodes in the Town of Dundas. The producers chose the Valley Town as it could easily pass as a quaint and vibrant setting that could emulate towns in New Hampshire. Other television shows and movies have since filmed in Dundas. It’s useful to ask why. There is very little extra work required to successfully recreate a vibrant small town atmosphere. Dundas is the real deal. What is it that we can learn from Dundas?
As one of the former municipalities now part of the amalgamated City of Hamilton, the Town of Dundas, particularly its downtown, has done a number of things very well. First, the Valley Town has a vibrant commercial downtown. Second, downtown Dundas preserves its built heritage. Third, new development is complementary with the old buildings. Fourth, the main street is well designed and walkable.
The commercial shopping district in downtown Dundas has a diversity of businesses that provides residents and visitors opportunities to buy a variety of goods and services. There is a good mix of restaurants and shops to go along with daily needs such as groceries and banking. Downtown Dundas is also an employment centre and there is even a particular cluster of creative industries located in the core. The local Business Improvement Area does a good job of promoting and maintaining this vibrancy.
However, it’s not just the shops and stores that give the downtown its character. One of the first things you notice is that Dundas is a town not afraid to embrace its built heritage. In fact, much of the main street is old urban fabric including many landmark buildings. Many buildings are either designated or listed as heritage structures, which gives them a measure of protection from demolition. However, even more important, designation or listing symbolically demonstrates how heritage is valued by residents. As Dundas demonstrates, keeping old buildings can be an important asset in creating a vibrant, attractive and economically viable environment. New uses can occupy old buildings, as the reuse of the historic post office illustrates. Also, keeping heritage buildings doesn’t drive away business. Rather, it can help to create a destination for business.
While heritage is a major part of the town core, there are examples of good infill in downtown Dundas. Two recent examples involve a coffee shop and a pharmacy. The coffee shop is located on the first floor of a new two-storey structure on the main street and demonstrates that very modern design can be placed in a heritage-oriented district. While building materials may be different, other elements such as height and setbacks help integrate a new building in an old setting. The second example shows how to take under-utilized land in a downtown and redevelop it in a more appropriate density. The original site housed a pharmacy in a one-storey structure with an adjacent parking lot. The style was more suburban than urban. The redeveloped pharmacy is housed in a two-storey building that contains other professional businesses. The higher density is a better use of space and the design is more suitable for the downtown. The positive elements of this design are even more pronounced when you compare it to a similar redevelopment just a few kilometres away on Main Street West across from McMaster University. This comparable development involves a pharmacy as well, but is only one storey in height. It represents a wasted opportunity to build more density on a major street. By contrast, the examples of infill in downtown Dundas help improve the landscape around them.
Moving beyond the buildings to the street itself, the main street of Dundas is an example of good design that many downtowns try to emulate. The first thing you notice is that the street runs two ways; one lane in each direction. This achieves a few things at once. It increases accessibility to, from and through the downtown. Also, it slows traffic to a level that is more appropriate to a human scale. You don’t speed through downtown Dundas. You notice the shops and stores as you travel through. Another element of the street is the pedestrian environment. The sidewalks are wider and are buffered from traffic by a lane of parking on each side. This makes a stroll through the downtown a safe and pleasurable experience. The main intersections are also well marked and designed to make pedestrian crossings safer. All of this adds up to downtown Dundas being a pedestrian-friendly environment, which feeds into the success of the area as a commercial district.
All of these factors combine to make downtown Dundas a great place to live, visit and shop. As other parts of our community look to renew, develop and grow, Dundas provides a good example, right in our backyard, from which we can learn.
This article was originally published in The Hamilton Spectator.