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Niagara Falls
Friday, March 31, 2023
Arch-i-text: Affordable housing can fit in a community like NOTL
Columnist Brian Marshall argues that New Traditional-style buildings, like these, can offer affordable accommodation. Supplied

There is something fundamentally askew when only those of means can live in a town.

For example, a place where there are no starter homes for the younger generation (who may have grown up there) nor any affordable accommodation (rental or otherwise) for those of more modest incomes.

A viable community must contain a cross-section of demographics – the young, the old and those in-between. It must make provision for those of all income levels to live in and contribute to the economy and society of a viable town.

The alternative is a somewhat geriatric, self-absorbed, inward-looking collection of houses with a figurative wall around them, a town that is destined to become nothing more than a country club whose walls echo with stories of the past because there is nothing of the future.

That is what Niagara-on-the-Lake is well down the path to becoming. The youth is largely gone, and you can see that demonstrated by the plethora of “help wanted” signs in virtually every part of the business sector proclaiming our chronic labour shortage.

I was hit over the head by this during a recent conversation with two young professionals when I happened to ask if they lived in town.

They looked at one another, then they looked at me with expressions of incredulity, and one replied, “Seriously? Even if something might be available in this town, there is no way we would be able to afford it.”   

They continued, “We work here, but don’t live here and, as soon as we find another job closer to home, we’ll be working there.”

Personally, with respect to our topic this week, I find the proposals for new hotels in NOTL sadly amusing. Where are they proposing to find all those new employees? Bus them in from wherever they can afford to live?

If we can agree on the importance of building affordable housing in order to ensure the continued viability of this town, then the question becomes what to build and where to put it.

As regular readers of this column know, I am all about contextual design – that is, architecture which merges seamlessly into existing streetscapes. Further, I believe multi-use buildings are a superior form that contributes to neighbourhood, livability, walkability and lifestyle.

I am also a proponent of low-rise, three-storey buildings within the existing height bylaw provisions.

For illustration purposes, the rough drawing accompanying this column is a concept elevation of just such a potential development. Inspired by NOTL’s Queen streetscape, the design follows the parameters of the New Traditional school of architecture – a fresh take on traditional architectural styles.

This concept provides for three distinct setbacks along the facade, incorporates five commercial/retail units on the front at street level, while the rear ground level, second and third floors are devoted to studio condos or rentals with an entry lobby (with stairs/elevator) just left of centre on the facade.

Of course, the concept could be modified to contain, for instance, only two commercial or retail units, substituting ground level residential units in their place. The cladding on the building blocks (shown as traditional Niagara brick and limestone) could be changed out for another traditional type. And so on.

Moreover, because it is contextually appropriate to Old Town, it could be built in any location where traditional architecture prevails on a property with sufficient frontage.

Now, to those who would argue its financial feasibility, allow me to point out that studio condo buildings have and are being built in this province.

I’d direct your attention to the Elevate Living company website (https://elevateliving.ca/essentialist/) for an example of entry-level condos starting at $250K.

While the architectural design of this example may differ from the illustration shown here, the concept and financial picture is completely viable.

It is moot whether this New Traditional concept design is in your wheelhouse or not. What’s vital is to initiate the process of creating contextually appropriate affordable housing in this town sooner rather than later.

Because later may just be too late.

It is no more expensive to build good architecture than bad architecture, but the former adds to the community while the latter scars it for decades.    

Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.

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