February 18, 2016 — Five Hours and Two Towers
My name is Karen Pagratis and I report on the Planning Committee meetings of Kingston City Council. ‘Cause planning is where its at, at least in this decade, in this great and growing city of Kingston.
The Planning Committee consists of 6 City Councillors, one of whom acts as Chair. Currently: Liz Schell (Chair), Jim Neill (Vice-Chair), Richard Allen, Jeff McLaren, Lisa Osanic, Laura Turner.
Meetings are held on the first and third Thursday of the month in Council Chambers commencing at 6:30 pm. and are open to the public to observe and address.
Five Hours and Two Towers
Not only were all the Councillors in attendance, and many municipal employee luminaries, but it felt as if half of the downtown was there as well. Now why they try to combine a regular planning meeting with a special meeting is beyond me. Unless City Hall is trying to set an endurance test for its citizens.
The regular meeting took over 45 minutes, and was about fairly minor amendments required to create secondary suites for two residences and the renovation of the “Queens’ Day Care” at 169 Union St. into a Dental office with two apartments above. All three passed unanimously and probably should have been deferred to another time, given the tremendous public interest and time required for the Homestead proposal which followed.
The first thing that strikes one about the developers’ presentation was that the designers and architects were given as much time (in this case 50 minutes) as they required to put forward their case for major zoning and Official Plan amendments. Whereas members of the public, those who were both for and against, were given 5 minutes each in which to express their views and concerns. This is normal practice at City Hall, although it does seem rather unfair. One could question why those with an opposing viewpoint wouldn’t have an equal time slot in which to make a cohesive presentation.
As we all know by now, the applicant, Homestead Land Holdings Limited, is proposing to develop two 21 storey buildings, resulting in a total of 380 residential units, (in addition to a parking garage whose spots will be sold back to the City at a cost of $68,000. each) along Queen St and Ontario St. in the downtown core. Essentially there are two major sticking points to the proposal. First the height, because currently the Official Plan makes provision for building heights not to exceed 25.5 metres (8 to 9 storeys). Secondly is location (which again refers back to height) as these buildings would sit on the inner edge of a heritage district thereby dwarfing all buildings near them, and would irrevocably alter the street scape.
After repeated assertions and assurances from the architects that the proposed buildings are not only beautiful, but will incorporate many “heritage details” to make them fit in, and that “the pedestrian experience will be enhanced” and the “impact on surrounding heritage properties is very limited”, they insisted that the proposal “represents good planning and is in the public interest” You’d expect that a designer would consider his plans to be good, and indeed from seeing the sketches the buildings appear reasonably attractive. However when Councillor McLaren asked City Staff for “the rational for those heights?” no one had an answer, but they assured him that they “could get that”. Herein lays the crux of the matter. Why won’t 8 or 9 or even 10 storeys do? Because as a builder, the higher you go the greater the profit. We all understand that. (Although interestingly enough, Jay Patry who suddenly came out in defence of Homestead’s plans, thought he should explain it to us and proceeded to do so himself. So in the near future expect to see some monolithic plans proposed for the beleaguered Marine Museum site which he recently purchased.)
During the following three hours we heard from representatives of organizations, residents and business people, 28 people in all. Almost all were truly engaged and concerned, one way or the other. Downtown business owners seemed to be the most supportive of the Homestead proposal. The shared belief being that “this project will keep our downtown more vibrant. We want people downtown to live, work and play. It just makes good business sense.” Although Ed Smith, president of the Downtown Business Association, clearly stated that “internet shopping has increased significantly…and the anchor stores are not coming back”, he still considered that “these buildings are totally appropriate.” Does this not beg the question as to why? Going back to an earlier question posed to staff by, again, Councillor McLaren: “Will this mixed use building create need by simply existing?… Is it a build it, they will come, kind of scenario?” There were also a few residents who liked high rises because they said that they were “safer” and “more energy efficient”.
On the other side were a mixture of heritage advocates, academics, history buffs, former city councillors and affordable housing advocates. Jennifer McKendry, a well-known historical architect, stated that “the key to the problem is scale”. Also that “economic viability can be achieved with 8 or 9 storeys and there’s no objection to the design, if it were somewhere else. Similarly Ed Grenda, president of the Frontenac Heritage Foundation said that “we have a unique street scape and skyline” and “Intensification is not the only justification for ignoring heritage goals.” There were other speakers, notably from Coalition Kingston Communities who pointed out the impact of sun shading from the proposed height of these buildings, restricted views, lack of amenity space and again the lack of “human scale”. In addition there were residents who simply wanted to maintain a section of “old Kingston” in the same way that Montreal has its old city. In the words of one speaker, no one comes to Kingston for high rises, “if you want to see those, go to Mississauga”.
Profit is by no means a shameful thing. Equally, development is necessary and change is mandatory to keep a society from stagnating. The question is the degree, where does the golden mean lie? Everyone wishes to see those empty spaces of the North Block revitalized and most, if not all, want to enjoy a vibrant downtown. But will the construction of residential buildings alone do that? There need to be employment opportunities for those residents to fill in order that they can pay the property taxes and afford to avail themselves of the shopping and restaurants and other services downtown. Perhaps a new Request for Proposals should go out from City Hall asking for developers to submit plans more in accordance with the guidelines set out in the Official Plan, rather than seeking permission to abandon it? Perhaps we can do better than high rises in a heritage district, here in the place “where history and innovation thrive”?