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Niagara Falls
Friday, March 31, 2023
Arch-i-text: Setting the record straight: Development is inevitable
This house on Gate Street is an example of contextually appropriate infilling. Not all development is bad, as long as it is done with taste and respect for the area, says expert Brian Marshall. Supplied

In a recent conversation, I apparently surprised some folks by defending a developer.

Apparently, as I was told, I am perceived as being firmly in the anti-development camp and generally seen as holding developers in contempt.

In thinking about a number of my columns, I can see how this impression may have been created. So, this week, let me take the opportunity to set the record straight.

I believe that development is both inevitable and necessary. There is consumer demand for housing in Niagara-on-the-Lake and the existing supply is inadequate to meet that demand.

It’s a situation that will be exacerbated should the demand increase. I think infill and multi-dwelling development should and will occur.

That said, I deplore the “wild west” theatre in which development has occurred in the past and continues to be the case today (a theatre that Doug Ford’s Bill 23 has doubled down on).

This situation is not the fault of developers but rather the failing of our elected officials in whom we have vested the responsibility for community management.

Any business that claims success over time has clearly defined “who they are” (core values statement), “where they are going” (vision and mission statements), “how they will get there” (strategic and tactical plans) together with benchmarks tied to accountability.

Most importantly, the creation of these statements is done by shareholders, stakeholders and employees rather than contracted outside consultants or someone sitting in an ivory tower.

In my opinion, these properly developed and articulated tools are completely absent within the halls of government in the vast majority of Canadian towns and cities.

Simply put, it is impossible to successfully manage appropriate development without understanding “who you are”, “where you are going” and “how you’ll get there”, nor without the criteria to evaluate success or failure.

All of these tools are vital. The absence of any one or more, condemns us to perpetuating the “wild west.”

And, what does this “wild west” environment spawn?

We simply have to look back over the last six decades in the GTA for that answer: a vast sea of individual developments which, when viewed from the air, the boundaries of each can clearly be seen.

Each development is a separate inward-looking island joined only by a network of car-centric roads that, at best, produces a fragmented and factional “community.”

Moreover, in many cases each island lacks the essential elements (multiple dwelling types, parks, walkability, retail venues, gathering spaces, etc.) to even produce a viable community within its boundaries.

I, among others, have observed that the generations who have grown up in these island developments tend to associate community with their far-flung social network rather the people who physically live in the same development.

Sometimes I wonder if this dissociation with their actual neighbours is not one of the reasons some people perpetuate the creation of new island developments and infills. 

Be that as it may, there is strong evidence that if an existing community such as Niagara-on-the-Lake desires to preserve its character, the wild west must go.

And please don’t get me wrong, not everybody from boomers to Generation Z is devoid of empathy for community, just as not every developer will build isolated islands filled with bad architecture.

On the contrary, there are some developers who study the existing community, take their design lead from the surrounding neighbourhoods, refuse to build on a closed-loop street pattern, hire talented architects, bring cutting-edge building technology into play and incorporate walkability, while investing in community amenities.

Further, there is a significant body of developers who are moving toward building many of these criteria into their new developments as cost and feasibility allow.

Consider the net-zero dwelling that Gatta Homes newly completed (see Evan Loree’s “What’s under the hood?” report in the Jan. 26 edition of this newspaper) at 28 Cottage St. as an example of  house incorporating some of these criteria.

It is unfortunate that there still remains a segment of the real estate development sector who are firmly attached to the failed (from a community perspective), but highly profitable, 20th-century subdivision development model endemic across the GTA and many other places. 

It is to these people we owe the island developments in many cases replete with tweaked clones of one or two examples of uninspired design.

On a “micro” scale, a builder (or property owner) of an infill development makes the choice between this island approach and community integration.

Make no mistake, a single house that is out of context with the neighbouring streetscape and setting can become an isolated island forever divorced from the community. And, unfortunately, Niagara-on-the-Lake possesses a growing number of “island” examples.

Still, I suspect many of these folks are victims of an inferior architect (any designer worth their salt will strive mightily to achieve contextual integration) or are simply uninformed as to the consequences of creating an “island,” something which in turn comes back to rest on the shoulders of their architect.

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

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