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Hamilton's residents have fervently debated the need (or lack thereof) for a light-rail transit line to be built through the city, and with so much riding on the plan, Oliver Moore reports what the billion-dollar development would mean for Steeltown

A Hamilton bus goes down King Street, the proposed route for the LRT tracks.

Patrick Guilbault picked the spot to open a café specifically because a light-rail line was being proposed to run right by. A few kilometres east, Tina Pellegrini is planning to pre-empt the LRT by closing her collectibles business. She'll sell her house if the project goes through.

These are the two solitudes of Hamilton, a city in the midst of renewal and bitterly divided about its future, as local politicians decide whether to accept an almost $1-billion offer from the province to build one of the biggest surface transit projects in the country.

Supporters see the LRT as the best city-building opportunity to come along in decades, one that will help revitalize the long-struggling downtown. Opponents call it a disaster-in-the-making, arguing it'll wreck traffic on one of the key roads through the core and suck up scarce tax revenue to run it.

The fight, which comes as Ottawa and Ontario are promising to spend billions on transit, illustrates that the challenges of building new transportation infrastructure go beyond financing, especially in cities that have spent decades emphasizing the primacy of car travel. In a similar municipal battle, Brampton, to the west of Toronto, turned down hundreds of millions in provincial funding for an LRT in 2015 because a majority of councillors didn't want it to run on the main downtown road.

The debate has turned nasty in Hamilton. Opponents of the LRT proposal have been painted as anti-downtown Luddites. A public deputant at a recent meeting equated "LRT fever" with the SARS and AIDS epidemics. At another meeting, a councillor suggested that the mayor, not having young children, doesn't appreciate the importance of spending time with family.

Patrick Guilbault, co-founder of a coffee bar on King Street West, supports the LRT.

After dozens of votes related to the project, a key council decision is scheduled for Wednesday. In what is expected to be a marathon meeting, municipal politicians have to decide whether to submit a revised environmental project report (EPR) to the province.

With the meeting looming, a Forum Research poll commissioned by nine Hamilton councillors showed 48 per cent of residents were opposed to the project and 40 per cent were in favour, with the remainder undecided. Support was highest among those of ages 18 to 44, and opposition strongest among those 55 and older.

Although killing the project is not officially on the table Wednesday, a vote that would normally be a routine procedural moment in the life of the project has taken on outsized importance. Voting not to submit the EPR would effectively put the project into limbo, a precarious place to be as the next provincial election approaches.

"I think that this is kind of the crucible moment for the forces of old Hamilton versus the forces of new Hamilton," said Keanin Loomis, president of the local chamber of commerce.

"How demoralizing [stopping] would be for all the progress and change we've seen in the last 10 years."

The city is divided on the LRT. Polls show 48 per cent are against, 40 per cent support it, the rest are undecided.

A selective boom

Hamilton was hit hard by the decline of its steel industry but has been bouncing back in recent years. Its population has risen 6.4 per cent since 2006, according to Statistics Canada.

In 2015, millennials surpassed baby boomers to become the biggest demographic group in the city, making up 28 per cent of the population. Some of these are people drawn by the relatively cheap real estate, while others grew up in Hamilton and stayed in a city that has evolved from its blue-collar past.

The number of children is also strong. Those born after 2001 number about 15 per cent of the population.

Alongside these changes, real estate values have surged in Hamilton, which was dubbed the hottest market in Canada late last year. Figures from the Realtors Association of Hamilton-Burlington show reliable year-over-year average price increases in every part of the city over the past decade.

"It's one of those communities that was a sleeper for a very long time, but over the last three years has exploded," Re/Max broker Conrad Zurini said.

The average freehold sold last year for about $450,000, he said, up almost 90 per cent over the past decade. Housing prices jumped 27.8 per cent in March compared with the previous year.

But the progress has been uneven, with the central areas lagging. Kerry Jari, the head of the downtown business improvement area, said development incentives have helped, but the biggest thing the area needs now is more people.

The buses that run through the city wear the logo of HSR, which stands for Hamilton Street Railway.

Mr. Zurini agreed one of the key issues facing the downtown is that its population isn't growing. "There's some fragility in the market, unless we start to see more density coming in and the city allowing for that," he warned.

Anyone walking through the downtown will see immediately what they mean. Although there are encouraging signs of growth in the core – including a McMaster University health-sciences facility, condo development and some well-regarded restaurants – the area still faces major challenges.

There is a vast amount of surface parking available and cars roar along the one-way arterial roads. Empty storefronts have proliferated and hip new offerings are still outnumbered by down-market businesses. There is a strong presence of payday-loan outlets. Signs warn of a video-surveillance net cast across the central area.

It doesn't help that downtown Hamilton has a sketchy reputation in the rest of the city, where some residents refer to the core with a mixture of fear and loathing. "It's so violent … a Twilight Zone down there," one resident said. LRT supporters say the project will make the downtown a more attractive place to do business and will draw people in, giving the area a new life.

This view is bolstered by analysis by the Canadian Urban Institute, which shows that an earlier version of this project would almost triple development in the area over the next 15 years and generate about $82-million in new taxes and other revenue over that period. The same analysis concluded that buildings within a block of the line would go up 4 per cent in value, while those farther out but within a five-minute walk of a station would go up 2 per cent.

Detractors argue, though, the LRT route isn't long enough to bring substantial improvements and that displacing street parking will hurt the downtown.

"It comes down to people who don't see it, who don't believe it, who haven't come downtown in a long time and have written it off," said Ryan McGreal, of the pro-LRT activist group Raise the Hammer.

Where it goes

The buses that run through the city wear the logo of HSR, which stands for Hamilton Street Railway. The name is a holdover from the days of streetcars, which ended in the early 1950s, but would become accurate again if the LRT plan goes through.

As currently proposed, the LRT – which is pitched as the first leg of a five-line network – is a smaller version of an earlier plan. The route was cut down this year, and the promise of bus service from the waterfront to the airport was added.

It's not possible now to trace the entire LRT route, which will require a new bridge over Highway 403. But walking the portion that exists today is an 11-kilometre trip through Hamilton's history, from suburbia through the old city and out again.

Beginning around the McMaster Children's Hospital, the LRT would start its route on a five-lane road flanked by single-storey or low-rise chain outlets. For blocks, one of the only signs of urbanity is a cluster of bike-share bicycles locked up near a gas station. By the time the highway has been crossed, the road is a one-way pipeline for cars heading west through the city.

"King Street is a highway. We couldn't have the door open in the morning because we wouldn't be able to hear ourselves talk," said Mr. Guilbault, co-founder of the Ark + Anchor Espresso Bar, which opened 16 months ago.

"If nothing else, the LRT seems like it'll make the downtown seem more like a downtown," he added. "The hope would be it starts a refurbishment through the whole city."

The road narrows as it heads through the core, which feels a bit like Toronto's Yonge Street of a generation ago. But the downtown proper is small, and soon King Street is back up to four lanes. This is the inner suburbs: a wide roadway, big gas stations and people riding their bicycles on the sidewalk. On a recent weekday afternoon, in a modern take on the tumbleweed, stormy winds were pushing a rolled-up foam mattress around a parking lot.

The LRT's trip would finish at Queenston traffic circle, where an auto dealer has mammoth lots and a Tim Hortons does a good trade.

A closed storefront downtown displays pictures of Hamilton’s past.

A better plan?

Few argue outright that Hamilton shouldn't get more transit, particularly when funded by another level of government. But opponents have a list of ways they want to change this particular project.

There are those who argue that there need to be parking lots at the LRT's ends. Others want some of the money set aside for beefing up GO train service. Some argue that LRT is obsolete technology or that autonomous vehicles are set to change transportation. And many believe the province's money – although earmarked for capital expenditure – would be better spent on improved bus service.

"I think they should just add some more bus and leave our city alone," said Ms. Pellegrini, the owner of the Coin & Stamp Hut, which has been in the area since the mid-1980s. She's convinced the LRT plan will be "a disaster" that will go vastly over budget. "If this goes through, I'm selling my house and I'm gone."

Amid the litany of complaints about the LRT, little seems to get people more upset than the prospect of private vehicles being slowed down or motorists losing some parking. And the part of the route that narrows to two lanes through the core raises the most concerns.

"Main and King were the regional roads that connected the highways," Councillor Terry Whitehead said. "The urbanites do not want a highway going through the downtown … but that's the way we evolved."

Mr. Whitehead is often painted as an LRT opponent but says he is officially open-minded. He argues that a route along Main Street, which is consistently at least four lanes, makes more sense.

The regional transit agency Metrolinx notes Hamilton's own planning process identified King as more suitable for transit and Main as a through street. The streetscape helps explain that decision. Main, with its multiple lanes and institutional architecture, has few commercial outlets compared with King. It is inhospitable to pedestrians and few are seen.

Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger called it "a little late in the game" to be fiddling with the plan and its route. He says the current LRT proposal will create jobs and help drive economic opportunity. And he argues that it's not a bad thing if traffic slows somewhat.

"There has been traffic changes and there should be traffic changes in the core," the mayor said. "Public transit is a way to make it more people-oriented."