Sunday, May 29, 2011

First impressions of the Hamilton waterfront

I originally wrote this blog post for OpenFile Hamilton - thought I'd also repost it here! Enjoy :)

My first trip to the Hamilton waterfront happened shortly after we moved to the city, last winter.

We were looking for something fun to do on Family Day, and decided to check out what the city had on offer down by the lake. I’ll admit that previous to this, my only perspective of the water’s edge in The Hammer was the view of the steel mills as you come over the Burlington Skyway bridge.

Notwithstanding the fact that this was a Canadian waterfront on an icy February day, there was a decent amount going on. A few people were trying out the skating rink, or walking the path that runs the perimeter of the waterfront area near James St. North and Guise St. East.

Where the crowds were really gathered was the Williams Fresh Café – what I would, on first impression, call the “main attraction” of this part of Hamilton’s waterfront area, (although I will admit that I haven’t yet paid a visit to Pier 4 Park, Bayfront Park, taken the trolley or a boat tour yet).

Fast forward to Victoria Day weekend, and we decided to head down to the waterfront again, for a warmer weather perspective. There were a few more people mulling around this time, the ice cream store was open, there was a lineup in the Williams Café and we managed to get a better view of the path around the site, where dog walkers, couples and families alike took in the warm spring evening. (Some people were also fishing: I assume the they were doing so for sport, rather than dinner, but I can’t confirm - there’s also a fishing derby coming up in August!)

Hamilton’s evolving waterfront area is a fascinating mesh of Hamilton old meets Hamilton new – cafes, skating rinks, picnickers and dog walkers share their space with old warehouses (which boast great murals painted by school kids), one or two huge rusting ships and views of factories in the distance.

Both times we have visited the waterfront area, we noticed the beautiful Discovery Centre building, which looks freshly built, but also slightly unused. In the winter, we chalked this up to it being the “off-season”, but in May, the closed patio and deserted feel of the place was disappointing.

Being newbies, we didn’t know the history of this building. Upon further research, it seems the six-year-old centre was closed last summer and its management transferred from Parks Canada to the Hamilton Waterfront Trust, which is reportedly exploring options and proposals for its use.

From the perspective of a new Hamiltonian, finding an innovative use for this building seems absolutely crucial to the success of the waterfront.

What the fledgling waterfront development doesn’t need right now is to start losing relevance and I have to say - a beautiful, new empty building doesn’t do much in terms of piquing people’s interest to visit the area. It also seems particularly critical when you hear that other events that previously drew people to the waterfront are also running into difficulties.

Generally, I find the transformation of Hamilton’s waterfront not unlike what is happening to the eastern part of Toronto’s shoreline, but there are a few notable differences.

Around the same time I first visited this part of Hamilton, a friend also took us on a winter “tour” of the new Toronto East Bayfront site, complete with man-made beach. Yes, this area also used to be industrial. It will soon reportedly boast condos, a college campus, corporate offices and restaurants.

I’m excited to see what else is in store for Hamilton’s waterfront - Hamiltonians are undoubtedly showing an interest in the area, and while there are several exciting things happening, I think a few more restaurants, attractions or exhibitions wouldn’t go amiss.

What are you hoping to see built at Hamilton’s waterfront?

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