Can the harbourfront in Hamilton that was once synonymous with making steel be transformed into a 21st-century industrial site that will bring new jobs? Two brothers who are developing Steelport industrial park think so.
Steelport covers the nearly 800 acres of historic – but underused – Stelco industrial land acquired by global investment firm Slate Asset Management.
“We grew up in the area and we understand what redeveloping the site means for the city, as well as [for] the entire region,” says Blair Welch, who, along with his brother, Brady Welch, founded Slate, which is headquartered in Toronto and has 13 offices in Canada, the United States, Britain and Europe.
Slate recently submitted its application to the City of Hamilton for a massive development project it calls “Industry Reimagined.”
Slate plans to develop up to 12 million square feet of Hamilton waterfront that was home to the century-old steelmaker Stelco, which at its height in the early 1980s employed 26,000 workers.
Its master plan aims to take advantage of the site’s railway, road and port connections to build a modern, intermodal neighbourhood that’s primarily industrial with some commercial and recreational amenities.
The goal is to develop parcels of land that can flexibly accommodate a wider range of industries and supporting facilities than the area has been known for until now.
Stelco filed for bankruptcy in 2007 and was acquired by U.S. Steel. Today, the Hamilton steel site has about 750 workers and does not produce any steel – the factory processes steel made elsewhere into giant sheets and sends it to carmakers and producers of agriculture and infrastructure equipment. The Hamilton facility also turns coal into coke, an ingredient of steel shipped offsite for production.
The steel-rolling operations will continue under a sale-and-leaseback arrangement with Stelco, which sold the entire area to Slate last year for $518-million. Brady Welch says the plan includes phasing out the coking facility, which produces the smokestack flares and fumes that travellers see along the nearby Burlington Bay Skyway.
“We’ll be taking the coking offline. We know what we have to clean up on the site,” he says.
The brothers project their “reimagining” to create 23,000 new jobs. They point to a study by consulting firm Ernst & Young predicting that the redevelopment will inject as much as $3.8-billion into Ontario’s economy over the next decade.
Slate hopes to see industrial tenants start to lease properties on the site within a year, though they expect it will take about 10 years to completely clean up and redevelop the area, and longer for all of the construction and detailed landscaping to be complete.
They expect to attract companies that manufacture or assemble products as well as intermodal logistics and shipping firms that can take advantage of the area’s multiple transportation and service connections.
“The site has more than three kilometres of waterfront, rail hookups and excellent access to power. It’s unusual, maybe unique, to have all this infrastructure already in place at an industrial site on the Great Lakes,” Brady Welch says.
An industrial site of this size is a valuable commodity right now in Southern Ontario, says Marc Kirshenbaum, an executive vice-president and sales representative at Colliers Canada in Toronto.
“The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area [GTHA] is the fourth-largest industrial area in North America, and the main issue for us is that we have not built enough [industrial] product to sustain the demand,” Mr. Kirshenbaum says.
“We only have 13.8 million square feet [of industrial space] under construction, which is really nominal and has led to low vacancy,” he explains. “Industrial vacancies in the area are about 1.1 per cent. This low vacancy rate has led to [industrial] rental rates increasing more than 20 per cent per year.”
Historically, the Stelco site is quite the environmental mess, but so were other places, such as the Sudbury region back in the 1960s and 70s, and they got cleaned up.— Mark Rudolph, president of justenvironment
The high rental rates are driving prospective tenants to the eastern and northern edges of the GTHA, where rents have tended to be cheaper, Mr. Kirshenbaum adds. Adding a new site like the Stelco tract will make a dent in the demand for industrial property, but it will take a while because of the work that’s needed to prepare it.
“There’s significant environmental remediation that’s going to be needed there, and that’s going to take years,” he says.
“It’s likely a 20- to 25-year buildout,” says Steve Robichaud, chief planner for the City of Hamilton.
“It’s much like the way the city of Pittsburgh reinvented itself, going from a steel-industry centre to advanced manufacturing, medical technology and research, yet still paying homage to the city’s industrial history,” he says.
The Welch brothers say Slate has already dismantled many facilities of the steel companies and is recycling as much of the steel and building materials on site as possible to minimize the carbon footprint of the redeveloped property.
“The site also offers opportunities to explore renewable and district energy solutions, as well as other larger-scale sustainability initiatives. Slate will continually assess these opportunities throughout the development process,” Blair Welch says.
“We’ll also invest into the environmental protection and remediation of the site, ensuring that the land is clean and safe for workers,” he adds. The plans call for more public access to Hamilton’s waterfront.
Redeveloping the site is daunting but possible, says Mark Rudolph, president of justenvironment, a Hamilton-area firm that advises both industry and not-for-profit environmental groups across Canada and internationally.
“Historically, the Stelco site is quite the environmental mess, but so were other places, such as the Sudbury region back in the 1960s and 70s, and they got cleaned up,” he says.
“It’s going to require a large dose of the three R’s – remediation, redevelopment and resiliency. It’s not going to be easy, but it can be done.”