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Dec. 6, 2021 | Monday
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Condos or hotel planned for former American Hotel site 
The old American Hotel at 61 Melville St. (Richard Harley)

Niagara Falls builder Blythwood Homes buys waterfront property for $1.9 million

The site of the former American Hotel on Niagara-on-the-Lake's waterfront could become condominums or a hotel, says its new owner.

Blythwood Homes purchased the 61 Melville St. property for $1.9 million on June 1 from Preiesenhammer Investments Inc.

The property is currently zoned marine commercial, but Blythwood will be seeking a change to residential zoning, company president Rob Mills said in an interview.

An open house for the property will be held Oct. 28 at 6:30 p.m., during which initial design concepts will be unveiled, he said.

The land is now undergoing an archeological assessment and Mills said so far there have been some "interesting" finds, including some plates that date back to the early 1800s.

"Apparently there are some archeologically interesting things in one corner of the site, which are being reviewed," Mills said.

He said the Niagara Falls-based company will proceed with a full archeological survey of the property, "so they'll be able to unearth all of these things and properly document them."

"I was hoping that we could do to like they do in Sweden, and when we renovate the property have a glass booth which would display the artifacts. But they make us send them all away," he said.

Blythwood has been developing properties in Niagara-on-the-Lake for 35 years, including projects like Bayberry Lane, near Butler's Burial Ground, and Tanbark Trail in St. Davids.

Plans for the property largely depend on the town's decision regarding zoning, Mills said.

"We had looked at a hotel, which is a viable option. The zoning allows for that — a hotel and commercial retail type operations, but we're looking more at something residential, which I think fits in more with community because there really isn't a big retail hub and we thought a hotel might be too much traffic for the area."

The company is now at the stage of putting concept plans together for the property, led by Niagara architect Emilio Raimondo.

"We're looking at probably 16 condominium units and we'll be unveiling our ideas to the area residents at that meeting," Mills said.

"Aesthetically, we're looking for something different," he said. "Like it's not just going to be exactly Georgian architecture like you'll find in other areas, but it's going to be something very distinctive and unique. So it'll give more richness and variety to the neighbourhood."

The development will be an entirely new build.

He's aware there are people who think the existing building has significant historic value, but he said the building isn't in a condition to renovate.

"Obviously it was there historically, but in terms of a valuable architectural building it's really had its day. It's in very, very bad shape. It has zero insulation and it's not that structurally sound, so it's not something that we'd contemplate renovating."

Asked if keeping the old American Hotel aesthetic for a new build could be a good idea for marketing, he said that's something the architect could look at.

"Although, you look at something like Harbor House, just fits in beautifully there in the neighbourhood, but I'm sure it's not based on any particular planning, right? There's a lot of very nice buildings in Niagara-on-the-Lake which weren't necessarily based on a historic building," Mills said.

"I think definitely the new building is going to emphasize balconies overlooking the water. So from that point of view it will be a little bit similar."

He said if the town doesn't approve the zoning change to residential, the secondary plan is to build a hotel.

"I think a hotel would work. Honestly, we just thought that the problem with hotels is you're going to have a lot more cars and traffic, so really we thought the residents would be happier with something residential, because parking is pretty tight in that area."

He noted there is no potential in the dock area for an underground parking garage. Any parking likely would have to be at ground level.

NOTL resident, realtor and heritage preservation advocate Tom Elltoft said he was surprised at the low purchase price of the building.

Elltoft said for him, it will be "unfortunate" to see another piece of NOTL history disappear.

"Everybody's gonna say it's tired, it's old and it's been rundown. Well, it was actually an active service with people staying in it a year ago. I saw people in the hotel room, so we know that everything can be salvaged," he said.

Even if it's not economical to renovate, he thinks it would be a nice idea to have a historical design resembling how the American Hotel once looked.

"That's not a bad option. The Prince of Wales additions have always looked like it," he said.

"I was looking at that picture of the new plan they're accepting for the end of Mississagua, one that says heritage district or something on it, and it's what got me thinking, 'Why are we spending our money on identifying a heritage district, when we don't even protect the buildings that make up the heritage district?' "

Elltoft said he thinks the town needs to "get control" of development.

"Instead of playing catch-up all the time, we need to be ahead of it. We need to be allowed to finish our official plan properly, adopting the new heritage areas and all that. There's a lot of good stuff in our official plan that will help protect and guide builders and developers," he said.

"We're not going to stop development," he said, adding NOTL is known for heritage and tourism. "You know, what do they say, 'Don't kill the golden goose.' You've got to keep it protected."

"Protecting it might not always mean you have to save the building if the building's in rough shape or is so far beyond what it used to be. But it should be more about how do we keep it (so) that whatever replaces it lives within the feel of what a heritage community is."

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