The Hamilton Downtown Secondary Plan: Putting People First

The Hamilton Downtown Secondary Plan – Putting People First

In many ways, Hamilton is in a state of profound change. While this can be said for many areas around the city for the last ten years, it wasn’t until recently that Hamilton’s municipal government (otherwise known as the City of Hamilton, or simply the City) has begun implementing policies and strategies designed to address these changes. The Downtown Secondary Plan (or DTSP), “Putting People First: The New Land Use Plan for Downtown Hamilton” was the first formal plan for the Downtown core, and was approved in 2001. The Plan area is bounded by Cannon Street to the north, Victoria Avenue to the east, Hunter Street to the south and Queen Street to the west. It contains parts of four downtown neighbourhoods: Beasley, Central, Corktown and Durand. In 2011, the City began efforts to review the DTSP, prompted by a resurgence in interest and activity across the core.


The Review

The Downtown Secondary Plan Review has been an ongoing project designed to identify and implement actions and policies for Hamilton’s downtown, receiving active research and effort on the part of City of Hamilton staff since early 2011. Since then, the Plan (or Review, or DTSP) has gone through numerous revisions large and small.

Most recently, on March 19 2018, the City released its final version of the Plan, updated to include various changes prompted by public comment and consultation, as well internal staff recommendations. In general, this new version of the Plan moves to identify Hamilton’s escarpment as a marker for maximum building height. In addition to policies around building height, the Plan also establishes additional standards for design, land use, heritage, as well as other areas of study.

Below you’ll find a quick summary of some of the more recent changes:

  1. Parking – New surface parking lots are no longer permitted.Where parking is required, development has to provide charging stations for electric cars.
  2. Music venues – New development near live music venues will have to provide appropriate noise reduction or other measures.
  3. Public spaces – Building massing and orientations has to minimize shadows on public sidewalks, parks and private open spaces, schools yards, playgrounds, sitting areas and patios to maximize sunlight.
  4. Building Incentives – The city could allow developers to build higher than zoning allows in exchange for community benefits like child care facilities and affordable housing.
  5. Rental Housing – Rental housing can be demolished or developed only if those units can be replaced at the same site. An acceptable tenant relocation and assistance plan addressing the right to return to occupy the replacement housing at similar rents, the provision of alternative accommodation at similar rents, and other assistance to lessen the hardship, is provided.
  6. Views and Vistas – Views to and of the Niagara Escarpment are to be preserved and protected. In order to understand and limit the loss of views to the Niagara Escarpment, significant view locations and corridors have been identified. A Visual Impact Assessment may be required for development located on streets identified as View Corridors to the Niagara Escarpment.

In addition to these changes, the final draft of the Plan contains updates to maximum building heights for various areas around the downtown core. Such updates include: height reductions on Queen Street South (from up to 30 storeys to up to 12 storeys); Cannon Street between James Street N. to just past Mary Street. (from up to 30 to up to 12); Sir John A MacDonald Site (from up to 30 to up to 12).

While other changes have been made to the Plan from the October version to this final draft, those laid out above could be considered the most significant. Most of these changes were a result of community input concerning three main areas: housing, heritage, and building height.


Rental Housing

With the recent surge of development occurring across the city (and particularly in and around the downtown), we’ve seen hundreds of new units added to Hamilton’s inventory of residential properties. However, a large proportion of those units added have been under ownership models, namely as condos.

With the lack of new rental housing being built, Hamilton’s rental inventory has dropped to record lows, with the Hamilton rental vacancy rate sitting at 2.7% as October 2017, down from 4.5% in October 2016. This number is forecasted to drop further as we get deeper into 2018. As such, ensuring the construction of rental units is incentivized and that existing inventory is maintained are significant considerations in this new version of the Plan. One strategy introduced in this new version of the Plan is that any demolition or redevelopment of a property with existing rentals must include the replacement of those units.

In addition, the property owner or developer must ensure “an acceptable tenant relocation and assistance plan addressing the right to return to occupy the placement housing at similar rents, the provision of alternative accommodation at similar rents, and other assistance to lessen the hardship, is provided.” These changes serve to minimize the incentive developers may have to take existing rental units and convert them to condominiums.


Section 37 Bonusing

Building on this notion of incentivization, the City recently introduced the notion of Section 37 bonusing into the Downtown Secondary Plan. This recent addition is likely to have substantial ramifications for the city’s urban landscape. Essentially, it allows the City to authorize increases in the proposed height of a development beyond those permitted as part of the City’s zoning bylaw (subject to policies of the DTSP) in return for the provision of community benefits. A development may be eligible for a proposed height increase provided it:

  1. Shall not be taller than the escarpment
  2. Is consistent with the DTSP
  3. Is compatible with the surrounding area
  4. Provides community benefits consistent with the DTSP

The City defines these community benefits as the following:

  1. Provision of housing, particularly rental and affordable housing
  2. Community services
  3. Child care facilities
  4. Cultural facilities
  5. Protection of cultural heritage resource
  6. Transit station improvements

There are therefore a few ways a property owner may add to the allowable building height of their property. As mentioned in the previous section, the City has recognized the lack of rental units and affordable housing within Hamilton. This is important to have entrenched in the Plan and the city’s zoning bylaw to ensure developers and property owners employ these incentives.


Views and Vistas

A major consideration in this final draft of the Plan is the inclusion of a number of policy items involving the Niagara Escarpment. A prominent visual feature and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the Escarpment is integral to Hamilton’s urban geography. Its striking visibility due to its proximity to downtown, height, and natural beauty, serves to punctuate its presence as end-points of numerous downtown streets.

The Downtown Secondary Plan posits that views to this natural Hamilton landmark should be preserved and protected. As such, a Visual Impact Assessment may be required for development located on streets identified as View Corridors to the Niagara Escarpment. Further, any proposed development within the DTSP area and in particular these view corridors shall be required to provided setbacks or reduced heights in order to reduce the impact of said development on existing views.

As part of a Visual Impact Assessment, a builder/developer will have to provide the following:

  1. Visualizations that demonstrate the impact a development may have on existing views of the escarpment with specific imagery devoted to before and after development
  2. Existing and proposed streetscape treatment to enhance views
  3. Proposed design refinements to demonstrate there is no loss of views from the public realm.

With the emphasis added to the preservation of views and vistas of the Niagara Escarpment, any new development will therefore be required to have its viability demonstrated in this new category, in addition to other studies traditionally required for new downtown buildings, such as shadow and wind studies, environmental assessments, or site plan approvals.


Buildable Height

Much has already been discussed about the changes made to maximum building height as a result of the Downtown Secondary Plan and its subsequent revisions. Blocks of the city’s core witnessed significant alterations to their maximum allowable building heights, with many properties’ having their max heights go from 22m (or 6-7 storeys, depending on use) to 30 storeys seemingly overnight. This resulted in significant community input, forcing the City to re-evaluate much of the maximum building height portion of the Plan.

More importantly, these discussions with community leaders and concerned citizens also forced the City to clarify that these allowable building heights are maximums – and that therefore a proposed 30 storey development would have to demonstrate significant community benefit before being granted permission to move forward. In addition, the City has also given special emphasis in this final version of the Plan to the existing requirement that, notwithstanding the attached building heights map, maximum building height within the DTSP “shall be no greater than the height of the top of the Escarpment as measured between Queen Street and Victoria Avenue…”



As part of the original Downtown Secondary Plan, the City of Hamilton introduced numerous new “downtown zones” via their then new zoning bylaw 05-200, put into effect in 2005. These downtown zones created several new zoning designations design to provide clarity on new and existing permitted uses across the downtown core, as well as create a standard for maximum build height across the downtown core.

Each of these downtown zones applies to a different area across the DTSP and creates an underlying classification through which the zone’s permitted uses are derived. For instance, Downtown Residential (D5) traditionally allowed for primarily low-density residential-related uses, such as Single Detached Dwelling or Duplex Dwelling. A breakdown of these zones is below:

  • D1: Downtown Central Business District
  • D2: Downtown Prime Retail Streets
  • D3: Downtown Mixed Use
  • D4: Downtown Location Commercial
  • D5: Downtown Residential
  • D6: Downtown Multiple Residential

For specific information on each downtown zone and its applicable permitted uses and regulations, please visit the City’s of Hamilton’s website “Zoning By-law No. 05-200” section.

Of the above zones, only the D1, D2, and D5 zones underwent changes between the October 2017 and March 2018 version of the DTSP Review. These have for the most part been minor changes except for the D5 zone, which received additions of several permitted uses, such as Restaurant, Multiple Dwelling, and Retail, emphasizing a healthy mix and balance of both residential and commercial uses: “The intent of the D5 Zone is to maintain residential areas by allowing for a range of housing forms and create opportunities for the integration of retail and commercial uses to meet the daily needs of the local residents.”


The Future of the Downtown Secondary Plan

In its current form, the Downtown Secondary Plan is mostly final. The Plan will be going to Hamilton City Council’s Planning Committee on April 17 2018. Shortly thereafter (pending any adjustments), the Plan will be presented to City Council. Upon acceptance, the Plan will take some time to come into law, but unless there are any substantial revisions, what has been discussed in this article will be enacted Summer or Q3 2018.

We at the Doyle Team have been studying the Downtown Secondary Plan Review diligently for the last several months. As Hamilton’s top team for commercial real estate, we understand the importance of the Plan and its Review. We have established contacts within the City of Hamilton to allow us to continually increase our knowledge base on the Plan and stay apprised to upcoming activity. When the Plan goes to Hamilton City Council Planning Committee on April 17, you’ll be sure the Doyle Team will be in attendance.

If you are curious as to how the Downtown Secondary Plan affects your property and what opportunities the Plan may create for you, or if exclusive opportunities, relevant market insight, and a persistent team of professionals are important to you, contact The Doyle Team, Your Real Estate Professionals today!



In the coming weeks, the Doyle Team will be posting information on our website and social media regarding our upcoming information session on the Downtown Secondary Plan. Be sure to stay tuned to, @thedoyleteamhamont on Instagram, and the Doyle Team on Facebook for any updates!

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