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Saturday, July 13, 2024
Mayor and councillor push back against hotel criticism
Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa and Coun. Maria Mavridis pushed back against criticism from NOTL resident Bob Bader on the Parliament Oak hotel plans. FILE PHOTO

A critique circulated by Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Bob Bader last week sparked some quick and assertive pushback from Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa and Coun. Maria Mavridis.

Bader was highly critical of council’s planning committee approval of rezoning to allow a contentious hotel project to be built by developer Benny Marotta on the old Parliament Oak school property in a residential area of Old Town.

The Lake Report has compiled the exchanges and an edited version of them appears below. It began with this email to councillors and others from Bader:

Exclusive vs inclusive: That is the real question facing NOTL and its lord mayor and council.

Mr. Marotta is proposing to build a five-star hotel on Parliament Oak, presumably a Ritz Carlton, Relais & Chateau or the like to attract, as one councillor put it, a different class of tourist: the upper class, extremely rich who will boost our economy.

So we should allow this very exclusive hotel to be built on one of the last community-zoned blocks in Old Town in direct opposition to the inclusive nature of our community?

Sure, Mr. Marotta’s team assures us the historical aspects of the site will be memorialized in a lovely exclusive walled-off landscape behind the hotel and accessible only through the hotel. How many of the visitors to and residents of NOTL will ever get to see these testaments to our past?

If Mr. Marotta wants to build a Mar-a-Lago to entertain his rich and powerful friends, let him do it on his Niagara Parkway compound overlooking the river.

We have one very rich and powerful developer in our midst that has been trying for years to mould NOTL in his warped vision, thankfully opposed by others rich in talent and commitment.

He seems to have mesmerized our lord mayor and part of council into thinking that attracting the moneyed sort to an exclusive hotel (which they themselves wouldn’t even be able to afford) will be better for Old Town than preserving one of our last publicly zoned sites.

And it is a slap in the face of those hoteliers who have helped make NOTL what it is today by building sensitively to reflect the historic nature of town and who still serve its residents and visitors with exceptional first-class aplomb.

Please reconsider your decision on Parliament Oak.

*****

Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa fired back, defending council’s decision and his own reputation:

Bob, your characterization of my decision-making is unfortunate.

Mesmerized? I confidently have shaped my independent thoughts for the town and the same toward this application. I cannot say I have even had any significant conversations regarding this development with Mr. Marotta.

Your opinion on the application fails to mention the details of the expertly detailed planning report that is shaped by current and past council-approved policies, contained in town’s official plan, heritage policies, region official plan, provincial planning policies etc.

Rationalization along this line of planning applications in the past has led this town down a costly legal spiral, where the town loses the legal decision and the residents pay the bill, residents having been misled by leadership that there was a case in the first place.

*****

And Coun. Maria Mavridis also weighed in with a detailed response:

Bob, your email is very offensive.

For every naysayer opposing the hotel, I have received the same with the support of the hotel.

There are 19,000 residents in NOTL. Local businesses and tourism contribute million dollars every year in taxes to this municipality.

These businesses employee local families, donate to all the community events and fundraisers, sponsor kids’ teams sports and cringe through the winter months with low visitation, but they survive.

This assists in keeping residents’ taxes reasonable. We came into budget this year with a 6 per cent increase due to the Ontario Land Tribunal suits before we even had a chance to approve anything for the community. Why send everything to the tribunal and “let them figure it out”?

I understand and hear what residents are saying regarding the property. I really do.

Don’t like the height? Then the building footprint will have to go from 25 per cent land coverage to 40 per cent in order to accommodate the space on that top floor coming to ground level.

Would that be OK? Happy to motion that, understanding, though, there is a reason that buildings go “up” instead of “out,” as my 12-year-old says.

I understand that some don’t want the zoning changed on this property as it is institutional and they would “prefer” a retirement or seniors building but when I break down the “why” I find:

* A similar number of delivery and garbage trucks if it’s a hotel or a retirement home.

* The noise. I live a few blocks from Pleasant Manor and the firetruck and ambulance sirens are daily. They don’t bother me, though because, well there are more important things going on in my day.

* Underground parking. Any institutional building on the same property requires underground parking if we want to keep the green space.

* The developer should donate the land to the community for a park or build a community centre etc. Why is this property owner obligated to do this?

* Some have said they prefer residential. That was presented and was met with the same outcry from residents. Ship sailed.

* People in support of the application, who live directly across the street and nearby, have privately emailed or messaged council as they “fear” a backlash. Why? How is this inclusive? Being so loud that we silence voices?

* You want the grounds to be accessible for residents? We can propose a gate on one of the walls be installed so it is open for residents and others to explore the grounds during business hours. Again, I’m happy to put forward a motion on this.

Come to me with some solutions, not just problems.

There has also been name-calling from residents. Claiming “liars” and “envelopes” is unfair as well. I wanted to make you aware so you have a better understanding where my frustration with all this is coming from.

Someone commented I am “always looking out for my commercial interests” was made and another said I should “personally have claimed conflict.”

So, I was OK and didn’t have a conflict when I was the deciding vote on the Randwood property in voting the way people wanted, but now I am not?

Just because you voted for someone does not mean they will only vote on items the way you request.

If they do, then worry, as it means they have not looked at the big picture nor listened to all residents.

Some vote yes, some vote no and I can assure you we don’t always vote the same way as we have our own opinions and minds.

Please show me a project, development or renovation that has come before any planning meeting or council that did not require a bylaw or zoning amendment request. I’ve searched and haven’t come across one yet.

To be honest, I was actually leaning toward voting against the proposal and then throughout the evening, some council members brought up more points of information that made me think. Some residents and business owners also were weighing in.

Unfortunately, I will have to claim a conflict at the next council meeting as someone with a “good heart” that is looking out for all residents has reported me to the integrity commissioner (again).

When I voted on Randwood, I didn’t have conflict according to this person, because it was the outcome they wanted. Now I have a conflict?

I guess my problem is that I’m not a politician and still look at things with a community and resident lens.

Many of us live in homes that had rezoning, trees removed, underground parking (Kings Point on the water) and used to be peach farms.

Many called Si Wai Lai the devil when she came into town in the 1990s and renovated the Vintage Hotel properties, but now the same people sit on boards that were established thanks to Ms. Lai’s community contributions.

We need to look at the future of this community while preserving the past (what my campaign was). There is no heritage on the Parliament Oak site built in 1948 and yet we have supported preserving part of it.

The fact that you and many others have suggested that you would support this hotel be built on the old Mori property in Virgil is crazy to me.

Agricultural land is more important to this community than institutional, in my opinion.

The municipality owns the old hospital site, which is institutional. Let’s focus efforts on what we do own while being realistic.

As I have relayed to others, if you feel this passionate about our town, I invite you to put your name on the ballot at the next election.

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