A small group of Niagara-on-the-Lake residents is hoping to have a big impact in preserving the character of Old Town.
Neighbours Alan Gordon, Connie Tintinalli and Marilyn Bartlett have formed an advocacy group called Preserve Our Special Town (POST) because they want to ensure the character of Niagara-on-the-Lake is maintained and the town doesn't lose its historic charm.
The group's first mission, and inspiration for forming, is to stop what the trio views as an out-of-character development planned for the former Parliament Oak school property on King Street.
The property owner, development company Liberty Sites (3) Ltd., plans to build 71 apartments on the four-acre property in the historic Old Town, an unprecedented development for the neighbourhood, which is composed mainly of detached homes.
Together group members have set out numerous issues they've found with the developer's plans for the site, including that the proposed density, style and height of the proposal do not match the character of the town.
Tintinalli, who lives at the corner of Gage and Regent streets, said the group isn't against residential development of the property,
“I don't have a problem with there being apartments in town and I know people are anxious for that. It's just the mass and the scale and the architectural language is just totally wrong,” she said.
The proposed building runs the entire span of the community block (about 350 feet), and is four storeys high at the back, she said.
“So, looking from Regent (Street), you're going to see a four-storey building, which just is totally inappropriate for this area. And I think once something like this happens, what prevents it from happening all over town?”
She said the group would like to stop the development from happening as it is currently planned.
“Obviously something is going to happen here. But, I think, little by little this town's being eroded — there's huge monster homes going up beside little tiny cottages. It's starting to look like downtown Toronto,” Tintinalli said.
“It's a bit frightening because I think everybody, people that live here, think this is a special town and all the people that visit think it's a special town, and sooner or later it's gonna be like, 'What's so special about it?' “
Gordon, who previously encouraged residents to attend public meetings about the proposed apartment complex, echoed the same concerns about density, height and scale.
Once the land is divided, he said the proposal would mean about 28 units per acre — a giant leap from the current average of six homes per acre in the surrounding area.
Further frustrating the situation, Gordon said the virtual public meetings due to COVID-19 have essentially muted resident input on the project.
“I've spoken to numerous people who say, 'Boy, I wish there was a live public meeting because I would show up at it but I'm just not comfortable doing the online, speaking out online. I don't know who I'm speaking to, I don't quite understand it.' So, there are a lot of people who are against this, but they don't have a voice. That's why we've established the website and the organization POST,” he said.
The organization is not incorporated yet and is a “grassroots” movement, he said, but he's hoping to make the resident-input process simpler for people who might have a hard time navigating the town's website for information.
“And hopefully that will galvanize the neighbourhood that they've got one place to come and it'll give them a lot of information and a lot of links,” he said.
The group has also put together some pictures of what the proposed development will actually look like, “apart from the developer's pretty watercolour pictures,” he said.
Bartlett, who lives on Centre Street across from the Parliament Oak site, expressed the same concerns about the potential damage to the town's character from the sheer size and density of the Liberty Sites plan. The development company could not be reached for comment on the resident group's concerns.
The group hopes to gain support to fight not only this development, but to set a precedent for other at-risk areas to say no to projects that don't fit in with the character of other neighbourhoods, she said.
“We're also trying to galvanize support from the whole of the town, not just the neighbourhood, because there are other areas in the town that are vulnerable to this type of development. And if it happens here, it can happen anywhere.”
She noted her house and all of the surrounding area, including Parliament Oak, are part of a heritage preservation area of town, which is meant to ensure protection for the streetscapes and neighbourhoods, “and keeping the town as special as it is now.”
From her home, which looks toward the old gymnasium portion of the school building, the former school is not much higher than the other homes — about 17 feet, she notes, according to the developer's report.
If the proposed project goes ahead, she'll be looking at a 54-foot wall.
“That's no streetscape for this town. It's ridiculous,” she said.
Gordon said even the nine planned single homes don't actually fit in with the surrounding architecture.
:”Part of what's mentioned in one of the (town's) official plans, is to have a variety, even within the architecture, because if we look at these houses, they're all very different. They're not exactly the same. Whereas (the developer's plans) are all variations on a theme.”
The developer's plan includes preserving a small portion of the school's entranceway and incorporating it into the design of the building. But Bartlett notes the school really doesn't have heritage value, it's more the property, which is said to have been the site of the first Parliament of Upper Canada.
The group agreed that preserving some aspects of the building could easily be done by moving some of the iconic plaques to a greenspace area for people to view, and don't necessarily see the value in preserving the front of the building.
Tintinalli noted the part Liberty Sites seeks to preserve is also planned to be an area for garbage. “(The developer) wasn't exactly honouring them by enclosing the garbage structure with those.”
Gordon said the group will be advocating for the development to meet the standards of the surrounding properties, by limiting the build to six homes per acre as opposed to more than 20.
“That would give you 24 houses on the site, and that would be in keeping with the four streets that surround the site. And it would also reflect both the existing official plan and what they call the new official plan that has not yet passed the region. And 24 houses on this site is what would be consistent with the surrounding neighbourhood,” Gordon said.
Bartlett agreed. “It definitely should be low-density residential, and done in a way that fits in with the local neighbourhood and local streetscapes and respects respects what this town is about.”
Gordon said with 24 homes on the site, versus the selling price of $4.925 million, the developer could still stand to make about $20 million on the property.
“If you had 24 lots, you sold them for an excess of $1 million each, then you wouldn't have to do a thing other than the paperwork and you're going to walk away with $20 million in your pocket, or more.”
Other concerns the group has are the planned access roads for the apartment complex.
“They've introduced this whole road system for the apartment, another road system for the singles in the semis,” Tintinalli said.
“They say that the semis and the singles are reflective of the houses in the neighbourhood” but the planned houses “are surrounded by pavement. They have tiny postage stamp patios that are accessed from the master bedroom,” she said.
“The access road to the apartment building runs right through the middle of the lot and exits and enters on Gage Street and Centre Street. That is contrary to the official plan. Even for medium density, it's contrary to the official plan. And it's just ruining those streets to have all those cars, garbage trucks, delivery trucks, whatever going in and out of what is a local street,” Bartlett said.
“I worry about what the intentions of those are. Are they going to be short-term rent? Who's going to want to buy them when they can buy (a house with a garden).”
Another issue they fear will be overlooked is the potential for the 71 apartments to be used as illegal short-term rentals.
“One other small thing — and this about the reality of life, not what the law is — with 71 apartments in this building … this is just going to be a magnet for investors to buy those units and albeit rent them out illegally,” Gordon said.
He noted the town already has a problem with illegal short-term rentals in town and fears there would be no hope of them managing an apartment building.
“And I can see this isn't gonna be certainly a building of families and homes and residents who will contribute to the community. This can be a lot of investors,” he said.
“It becomes a community issue for the entire town.”
Adding to the frustration, the group said while the town's planner has been “responsive” to their emails, they've “heard nothing from the politicians.”
“I have heard, though, the politicians are not supposed to publicly comment on an application before it goes to council or before they get the recommendation of the planning department, which seems totally bizarre to me. But that's what I have heard. They have a policy — which is absurd, because why do we have these people (elected to represent us),” Tintinalli said.
The group is asking all concerned residents to sign up to be a member at postofnotl.com and to attend the next public meeting about the development on Jan. 10.