10.2 C
Niagara Falls
Thursday, September 28, 2023
Arch-i-text: Let’s work together to preserve NOTL’s character
This house at 48 Queenston St. in Queenston, a circa 1820 vernacular Georgian saltbox, has been designated under the Ontario Heritage Act. BRIAN MARSHALL

I was walking along Queen Street last Thursday morning when I encountered a young couple visiting town, staring perplexed at a yellow sign posted in front of 228 Queen St.

I must have looked like a local, because the young man promptly asked me if I knew what this was about.

I explained that the current owner wanted to build a new hotel on the combined lots that run between Mississagua and Simcoe streets and pointed out that, because the property was currently zoned for a 24-room “boutique” hotel, application had to be made for a change in zoning.

Further, since the town’s building height limit is 10.5 metres and the owner wished to build approximately 60 per cent higher than the existing limit, he would need a variance to allow for the extra height.

The couple gazed down Queen Street before turning back to me and saying, “We’ve been visiting Niagara-on-the-Lake for the last six years and don’t recall anything else in town which is that tall. Is there?”

I replied, “Other than the centre core of the Shaw Festival Theatre building, no, there isn’t.”

“Have you seen what it’s going to look like? I mean, will it look like it belongs on the street or is it just going to be a typical hotel you’d find any place else?” he asked.

“To be fair,” I said, “the proposal does preserve the existing historic house. However, the design for the new four-storey portion facing Queen Street could very easily be described as a typical glass fronted hotel found in any number of other places.”

“So,” he continued, “not only is it going to be the tallest building on the street, it is going to stick out like a sore thumb,” he said.

“You know, we come here every year because we love walking the streets and being surrounded by old buildings and trees. It’s so cool that as we walk, the people who actually live here smile and say good morning. Not many places have the things this town has.”

“I don’t understand why those people would allow someone to build a hotel, or anything else for that matter, that would cheapen the town. I mean, do they want to become a second Clifton Hill?”

They thanked me for my time before continuing their stroll down Queen Street. After they’d crossed Simcoe, I found myself shaking my head – because I, too, fail to understand why many citizens of Niagara-on-the-Lake are not more active in both preserving and maintaining the integrity of our town’s character.

Here, once again, we have a developer who is asking that legal provisions be set aside, that an exception be made to a law so that they can improve their bottom line.

And, it is clearly a normal and accepted practice in this particular sector. Witness the history and current status of proposals for the Parliament Oak property and the proposed development on Mary Street, to name just two.

Now, if I owned a manufacturing facility and made application to the Ministry of the Environment for an exemption to the laws governing toxic waste disposal, thus allowing me to dump that waste into a river because it would enhance the company’s profitability, would such an overture be entertained?

I think not.

Nor would a trucking company seeking exemptions to the Highway Traffic Act, nor a media firm asking for exclusion from the laws governing advertising succeed with such an overture.

But apparently, such hard and fast adherence to established legal provisions simply does not apply to the real estate sector. In that area, laws must only be observed until exceptions are granted, exemptions often justified by the developer in order to improve the profitability of a project.

In my world, corporate executives who commit their company funds to an undertaking that can only generate a return on investment provided they receive exemptions to the law might be fired as financially incompetent.

Frankly, I see no justification to ever grant an exemption to the municipal height bylaw.

Further, codification of the criteria within which the committee of adjustment assesses applications for a minor variance (starting with a clear definition of the word “minor”) is long overdue.

To those who suggest the town’s authority is limited by the provincial Planning Act, I suggest we should immediately get our act in order within the areas under town control.

Then, if the Planning Act is so fundamentally flawed as to promote and promulgate venues whereby the rule of law can be circumvented, I have to ask whether the legislation does not actually strike at the basis of our legal system and whether a court would find such provisions to be legally enforceable.

All such conjecture aside, the fact remains that, as residents of this town, we have an obligation to be active in the preservation and maintenance of our community. It is not enough to simply go to the polls every few years, elect politicians to office and then ignore their actions until the next election.

We have a responsibility to oversee their actions and the staff they employ with our tax dollars. And we need to communicate our direction to them on a regular basis.

Moreover, there are things we can do personally to put additional tools in the hands of our elected council.

For example, the designation of historic buildings. This simple action – which costs nothing – not only preserves our shared built heritage but also comes with personal and community benefits.

On a personal level, it has been conclusively shown by studies (the most recent conducted by McMaster for the City of Hamilton in 2023 using data that spanned more than 30 years and included the largest sampling of any study ever performed in Canada) that heritage properties sell for more than comparable non-designated properties. Simply put, designation makes your house worth more.

In addition, the owners of designated properties can receive annual grants for authorized work performed on the building, defraying the cost of home maintenance.

On a broader basis, designating a property provides council with an additional level of oversight associated with the review process of infill developments on lots adjacent to the heritage asset.

This makes it less likely that a monster house will destroy your streetscape or fundamentally alter the neighbourhood.

If you’re curious about the benefits and process of heritage designation, please contact me and I’d be happy to chat.

If we all work together, I believe we can enhance the community we love. 

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


Subscribe to our mailing list