13.4 C
Niagara Falls
Saturday, September 30, 2023
Arch-i-text: Creating a more welcoming Old Town – for visitors and residents alike
A neighbour the owner of this heritage home likely regrets. SUPPLIED

Those who know me understand that there has to be a compelling reason for me to visit Old Town on weekends during the high season.

It’s not that I mind sharing the treasure that is our town with tourists, on the contrary, I’m an ardent supporter of the opportunity to broaden the knowledge and experience of the visitors with respect to our country’s built and cultural heritage.

Generally, it’s not the people – it’s their cars.

Long lines of traffic turn what is normally a short pleasant drive into a lengthy and arduous marathon exacerbated by navigation system dependant drivers who cannot simply go from point A to point B without their navigation system’s direction.

And, even once into Old Town, it is impossible to avoid tourist traffic by dodging onto the residential streets since every single road from Front to Mary is lined bumper to bumper with parked cars while at the same time being heavily traversed by drivers searching for a parking space.

Certainly, on numerous occasions, I have had my visitors complain about these same issues while expressing their understanding of why my wife and I chose to live on our small farm in NOTL’s countryside.

Fact is, Niagara-on-the-Lake was not designed to handle the seasonal influx of 3.5 million visitors each year.

Moreover, no town council during the last 50 years has seriously addressed this issue but rather studiously ignored this aspect of planning, even when petitions with potential solutions have been brought before them.

Consider Williamsburg in Virginia with annual visitor counts of approximately four million per year where one cannot drive into a historic district, which is completely closed to vehicular traffic and street parking in close proximity to the district is not permitted (with extremely heavy fines and towing levied on those who choose to ignore the prohibition).

Instead, there are a number of visitor parking lots on the periphery from which one can ride coach transit to the historic district, hop on an efficient transit system for movement around town or access the 48 miles of bicycle trails constructed since 1992.

Similar parking and transit plans have been proposed for NOTL periodically since the 1980s with no real uptake by any serving council. Since the town owns various vacant properties which could be converted to permeable surfaced parking lots, I wonder what the reason could have been.

Then, there is the town of Banff in Alberta, where they close their main street to vehicular traffic from mid-May to mid-October, converting it to a pedestrian mall, something that receives uniform accolades from 4.5 million tourists that visit annually.

According to a study conducted by Liricon Capital for the Town Council, they spend more time and money in the various shops and restaurants than prior to its institution.

Paid parking lots have been provided in various locations at walking, biking and transit distances from downtown. Parking in residential neighbourhoods is solely reserved for residents with valid parking permits.

The concept of converting Queen Street to a pedestrian mall during high season is an idea floated by someone virtually every year but, to my knowledge, it has never been truly tried.

It’s something I find very odd given virtually every study I have seen shows similar commercial benefits to those experienced by Banff.

Of course, the town would lose a number of metered parking spots, which brings us back to the parking lot question and proper traffic (parking) planning for 3.5 million visitors.

Moving on, the recent article by Evan Loree (“Three-storey apartment proposed on edge of Old Town”) in last week’s edition of The Lake Report caused me to think about town planning at a different level.

Why, I wondered, would a developer attempt to have a property in the midst of a single-family residential neighbourhood zoned R1 be rezoned to allow for an apartment building? 

I thought, surely there was existing zoning in place within other Old Town locations that would be more appropriate for such a tenanted multi-storey building.

Now admittedly, I am certainly not a planner, however, a layman’s review of the in-force Old Town zoning maps did not identify any locations with this zoning where building(s) were not currently existing.

In other words, if I am correct in my reading of the maps, anytime a developer wishes to construct the type of building mentioned in Mr. Loree’s article they will need to undertake a rezoning application for lands they happen to own in Old Town.

It seems to me this approach puts the town planning onus on the developer (i.e. they attempt to choose the location for an apartment building) rather than the town itself determining what the evolution of our streetscapes and neighbourhoods shall be.

Further, should any such proposed building remove the privacy of, cast deep shadows over or destroy lines of sight from, (etc.) adjoining properties, neighbour resistance would be expected.

So, it is more than a little odd for the Town to employ a process which will likely be disruptive and adversarial, particularly when the process has the potential to fundamentally alter the character of a neighbourhood.

Would a complete zoning plan that reflects both existing conditions and future build opportunities not represent a far more effective method of managing neighbourhood development?    

And, while conducting this bit of research, I happened to stumble across another planning item which left me wondering.

Back in 2009-2010, the town council employed and paid consultants to develop a secondary plan for the dock area to effectively manage development and ensure the neighbourhood character was protected.

Over the next couple of years, the comprehensive and well written plan underwent a series of positive administrative amendments. Then, in 2013, the council deferred its adoption.

Ten years later, it still molders on a shelf in the Town Hall and the dock area remains floating in the unknown.


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

Subscribe to our mailing list