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Sunday, March 3, 2024
Arch-i-text: Draft design guidelines an ‘impressive piece of work’
In defining NOTL’s “character” to establish a framework against which all future development may be assessed, Old Town’s Queen Street might serve as the basis of commercial streetscapes. BRIAN MARSHALL

Before we get into this week’s primary topic, I’d like to extend my best wishes to an individual who served the people of Niagara-on-the-Lake as our principal heritage planner for more than eight years.

I had the pleasure of working with Denise Horne on multiple occasions over the past few years.

Aside from her dedication to the preservation of NOTL’s heritage in all its iterations, Horne actively sought opportunities to expand her expertise in the field in order to enhance the effectiveness of her role within the town’s operations. 

One could easily apply adjectives like “respectful,” “responsive,” “incredibly hard-working” and “competent” (an accolade I seldom award) to her performance, but even more importantly, it was always clear that her primary motivation was service to the community and its citizens. 

This town lost a rare and caring professional when Horne decided to leave public service for the private sector. That said, I am confident her talents will make their contributions felt on a larger stage and I wish her every success.

Moving on, I was elated to learn that during the Nov. 22  meeting of the urban design committee, town staff presented draft urban design guidelines for the Glendale secondary plan.

Now, as long-term readers may recall, I am a strong proponent of design guidelines that are thorough, descriptive and prescriptive. In an Arch-i-text column published on Aug. 4, 2022 (“Town’s lack of design guidelines needs action now“), I cited the following considerations, noting that guidelines:

“Protect the character of the community by establishing clear, unequivocal criteria for acceptable contextual design.”

“Establish a consistent reference that can be applied across the entire town and equally to all proponents, whether you wish to build a single, stand-alone house or multi-unit development.”

“Serve as a constant touchpoint for design review and the review infrastructure serves to record the rationale for any future modifications to ensure the guidelines remain a ‘living’ standard.” 

“Provide a framework that makes everyone’s job easier – whether you’re the owner, architect, builder, town employee or elected representative – while saving time, trouble and money.”

Bluntly, design guidelines are critical and necessary to achieve compatible and integrative development.

In any case, the early draft guidelines presented last week were developed under the joint auspices of the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Region of Niagara.

The 98-page document presents a draft framework with the express purpose of supporting “the principles and policies of the official plan and the Glendale secondary plan to guide development within the Glendale area, as it is implemented through subdivision, zoning and site plan control.”

“The (guidelines) encourage the design of a complete, effective and sustainable built environment consistent with the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s character and vision for the future.”

Then, it concludes: “The (guidelines) provide guidance on design matters that are directly related to ensuring that development projects are of high quality, pedestrian-oriented, interconnected, sensitive to the natural and built environment, and provide adequate public facilities and infrastructure.”

And, I must say, for an early draft, it is an impressive piece of work. 

Divided into three primary sections: public realm, private realm and green infrastructure and buildings, the document seeks to provide guidelines that can be used as assessment criteria for proposed development projects.

In the public realm, the document speaks to the basic physical infrastructure, including the metrics for roads, streetscape elements, existing natural heritage, parks and open spaces, pedestrian pathways, bicycle routes and stormwater management.

I am encouraged and pleased to report the draft guidelines discuss, among other things, discouraging cul de sacs, P-loops and crescents – while endorsing a grid or modified grid street patterns – address the issues of permeability, introduction of bioswales within public right-of-ways and planting continuous rows of canopy street trees on both sides of the road.

Further, there has been a significant effort made to establish integrative measures for pedestrians and cyclists in the context of existing natural heritage and future open/green/park spaces in Glendale’s future developments.

Moving to the private realm, the draft guidelines are equally thorough in addressing low-rise (to three storeys) and mid-rise (to seven storeys) buildings in neighbourhood and mixed-use contexts to establish visually attractive, walkable and interconnected developments.

This is complemented by an emphasis on landscaping design that reinforces the structure of a given site with a focus on creating a safe, comfortable and animated pedestrian environment.

Finally, the green infrastructure and buildings section is not only forward-looking, but also thoughtful in the direction it provides to ecologically sound and sustainable development in Glendale.

The measures outlined in the guidelines will help to incorporate better building technologies, enhance the future liveability of neighbourhoods and perpetuate the long term practicality of this settlement area; all of which have been sadly missing during the last 70 years of surburbia driven development.

Recognizing that in the space I have available in this column there is no practical way to condense the 98 pages of these draft guidelines without doing serious injustice to the document, I’m going to suggest you read them for yourself (go to pub-notl.escribemeetings.com/?Year=2023 and scroll down to urban design committee). It is also worthwhile to watch the meeting video, which you can access at the same URL.

Speaking of which, I completely endorse the position and rationale put forward by committee member Allan Killin – at 43:54 in the video – calling for a straightforward prohibition of highrise (above seven storeys) buildings in Glendale.

Now, given that this is an early draft of these guidelines, I feel obliged to point out a couple of items that, in my opinion, need to be addressed in future iterations of this document.

First, part of the stated intent of the design guidelines is to encourage the design of development “consistent with the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s character.” However, the guidelines do not contain any reference definition of this “character.”

Providing reference data – such as existing building forms, building materials, streetscape rhythms, rural/urban/natural interface transitions and so on – will be absolutely vital as a part of the urban design assessment criteria to ensure future development is consistent with NOTL’s character.

Second, consistent with the old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” and, moreover, is the strongest subliminal statement one can make, all photographs used in the guidelines must reflect architectural design compatible with that aforementioned “character.”

Show only photos of designs, materials etc. consistent with that character and there is far less risk of having to deal with applications for inappropriate development.

These draft guidelines have huge potential to be a superb tool for the town (and region) but, they need to be top priority for completion … because we are looking down the barrel of development today.

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

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