Thursday, September 26, 2013

Is Hamilton Ready for the Conversation?

In August, I travelled to the city I grew up (Calgary) and thanks to a re-location of our various families, I had time to visit old friends I hadn't seen in a while. Through a miracle of scheduling coincidence, I finally managed to sit down with my old grade-school/University friend Naheed Nenshi, now mayor of Calgary, and his chief of staff Chima Nkemdirim, also a friend from both University and High School.

As one does, when luncheoning with the most popular sitting Mayor in Canada, who swept to office on a wave of social media and voter engagement Calgary hadn't seen in a generation, I asked him "How did you win?"

His answer revealed as much about a city in transition as it did about his tactical skill at elections.

When Naheed declared his candidacy in early 2010, he did so at a small rally of friends and supporters, during which he made one of his now famous speeches. At that time, before Smart Phones were ubiquitous, a local communicty activist showed up at the speech with a handful of flip-cams, and filmed the entire speech - all 14 minutes or so - and posted it to YouTube.

The campaign team watched the results closely, and saw that in a matter of weeks, it was up to 100,000 views. More importantly though, when they asked the person who had recorded the speech for his analytics, they revealed that virtually everyone was watching the entire 14 minute video.

In a world of sound-bite politics, it was a remarkable acheivement.

It marked what Naheed credits as an important condition for his success: Calgary was ready for the conversation he had been waiting his whole professional life to have.

A conversation about urban planning. About limiting sprawl. About transit and cycling and walkability. Calgary was ready to have a lengthy, thoughtful discussion about where it was headed, and where it's newly engaged and passionate citizens wanted to take it.

In the months that followed, Naheed developped the 12 better ideas - 12 platform planks for improving Calgary. Each policy statement contained a one page summary, and extensive briefing notes that in some cases ran to a dozen pages. In the latter stages of the campaign, a member of the media analyzed the various campaigns' literature, and found that one of Naheed's briefings contained more pages of content than all of the other Mayoralty candidates' platforms combined.

Calgary was indeed ready for what Naheed had branded as 'Politics in Complete Sentences.'

This begs the question: Is Hamilton ready for the same discussion? 

Citizens are engaged like never before on issues such as the Downtown Casino, school closures, and complete streets. Active participation has spread far beyond a small group of groundbreaking activists to a large, complex web of people engaging in projects and campaigns that they care about deeply, and to which they bring a diverse set of skills.

We have Canada's only crowd-funded journalist, and an influx of energetic residents who are not prepared to settle for the second-best that many Hamiltonians seem to have become resigned to. 

Their views are infectious.  

Now a broad cross section of Hamiltonians (both demographic and geographic) seems prepared to be uncharacteristically vocal about where they want their city to be headed, in a way that is clearly alarming to some long-serving Councillors.

But while the sense of optimism in what Graham Crawford has dubbed the New Hamilton is spreading, there are still large numbers of Hamiltonians that seem mired in old ways of doing things. 

More concerned about travel times from the 403 to Downtown than the safety of those who live there. More concerned about reducing taxes than building badly needed infrastructure. More ready than ever to write off entire sections of the city as a cess-pool that they would never have any reason to visit.  As willing as ever to leave the details-shmetails up to someone else.

A tension also exists between the urban and suburban, between the lower city and the rest of amalgamated Hamilton that continues to dominate the decision making process at city hall.  It's a tension that has paralysed Toronto, but due to the almost entirely suburban make-up of Calgary, doesn't factor as much into their situation.  

In Hamilton, though, this fundamental disagreement on how the city should be structured, seems to impede every step forward that the progressive voices on Council try to take.  Someone must be telling their councillors to vote this way.

The question this all begs is this: Is Hamilton ready to have a serious discussion about the future of our city? One that doesn't resort to name-calling or painting the proud neighbourhoods of tens of thousands of Hamiltonians as an irredeemable write off? And if so, who is our Naheed Nenshi?

Friday, January 4, 2013

Floating Trial Balloons (and Savings Bonds)

As the debate rages on about the imminent gap-toothing of the Gore Park Streetwall, and the ongoing destruction of Heritage buildings, here’s a good idea:

The most frequent criticism made of the ‘usual suspects’ is that when buildings are threatened with demolition, the alarm is always raised by people who ‘don’t have any skin in the game.’
Besides the absurdity of levelling that accusation to people who own and have restored downtown properties, it’s as if the implication is that unless you have enough money to purchase a commercial building, you aren’t entitled to an opinion regarding what our city’s built environment should look like.
It’s a bit of a hearkening back to the ‘good old days’ before universal suffrage, where only land-owners were entitled to vote.

Such problematic implications aside, the point can be made that if some of what Mr. Dreschel refers to as the chattering classes were to put up a sizable sum, it would do quite a bit to silence this criticism.

More importantly, though, it would also give those of us who are passionate about the downtown considerably more say in what happens to the buildings we own, or have invested in.

The trouble is, that buying a building downtown can be a little pricey. Not a whole lot of the people demanding the preservation of our architectural heritage have the wherewithal to purchase a threatened building outright, a la Nature Conservancy Canada.

At least not separately, they don’t.

Enter my good friends Emma and Graham Cubbitt and their merry band of Mustard Seed Co-Op Grocery store planners, and their ‘community investment’ idea.

When the Mustard Seed’s initial Founding Member drive was being planned, it was obvious that membership fees alone would not be sufficient to supply the capital needed to secure a downtown location, make the leaseholder improvements needed, and purchase the stock required for opening day.

So they hit upon the idea of promissory notes issued by their corporation, where individuals who didn’t have enough money to open a grocery store on their own, could invest in the co-op above and beyond their membership fee, at a competitive rate of interest. Thus appealing to both investors’ sense of community, and their need to invest in ways that respected their financial plans.

So here’s the idea. Why not float a ‘Heritage Preservation Bond’ in Hamilton so that those who are passionate about preserving Hamilton’s architectural heritage can invest at a competitive rate of interest payable upon the bond’s maturity. They can also do so knowing that once sufficient funds have been built up, threatened buildings will be purchased in much the same way Nature Conservancy purchases environmentally sensitive land from private landowners.

Those buildings could then be developed in an appropriate way, and leased out to small businesses and start-ups which would pay the rent needed to ensure the money was available to repay the bonds upon maturity.

Done properly, such bonds could not only appeal to investors looking to make a difference in the face of Downtown, but could make their way into ethical investment portfolios, broadening the reach, and awareness of Hamilton’s Downtown Revitalization efforts.
“That’s ridiculous!  It would never work.  Nobody would invest, and we could never raise enough money.”
Except that it has already been done.
In 1972, Grant Head, when faced with the imminent destruction of Sandyford Place, created Heritage Hamilton Ltd, as a for-profit corporation with the goal of raising enough money by selling $100 shares, to purchase the properties associated with Sandyford.
The catch?  The developer gave them 30 days to raise the funds.  And he wanted $250,000.  No small amount in the early 70s.
In the end, through assuming part of the mortgage, and selling shares to everyone from Hamilton’s monied elite, to average folks with a love of history, they raised a quarter of a million dollars in slightly less than one month.
And while in the end, the developer reneged on his word to sell the property, the heat, and sound, and light generated by the campaign led in part to heritage conservation laws being passed in Ontario, which resulted in the Heritage Designations we know and love today.
As a result, Sandyford, the first property in Hamilton designated under the act, is still standing.
So who’s to say that a well-timed, highly public ultimatum to a developer with a hot-to-trot demolition permit might not also raise the required money in an equally remarkable period of time.
That way, maybe we could be spared for a while from both the short-sighted criticism of Hamilton’s business elite, and the even more objectionable sound of wrecking balls.