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Niagara Falls
Thursday, June 20, 2024
Arch-i-text: Some towns listen to their residents, and some don’t
If the four-storey hotel proposed for 223 Queen St. is built according to the submitted modernist drawings by the applicant, such as this rendering, it will "fundamentally and irrevocably alter Queen Street," writes Brian Marshall. HUMMEL PROPERTIES INC.

Community resistance to ill-considered government land-use dictates are mounting across Ontario.

On May 6, Oakville’s town council voted 14-to-1 against accepting the federal government’s densification deal.

To provide a little background, last summer when the feds announced its $4-billion Housing Accelerator Fund, the town lined up with many others for its share of the pie.

As part of the deal, councillors were told they needed to change Oakville’s planning rules.

Federal housing minister Sean Fraser required Oakville to permit four housing units on every residential property in the town “as of right,” as well as four-storey apartment buildings on properties in areas dominated by detached, semi-detached and townhouse dwellings.

Oakville council, in an 11-to-2 vote taken during January, took the first step to approving those changes.

Town staff was directed to develop the necessary zoning amendments for council’s final approval and a public consultation process was initiated.

In February of this year, the town’s mayor — without consulting council — signed a $25-million deal with the feds compliant with these requirements, after which the town received a $1.28-million downstroke for housing.

When word of this deal hit the streets, Oakville residents rose up en masse in opposition.

This public outcry from the majority of the citizens led town councillors to reconsider their January position and, last week, to reject the zoning changes.

In fact, Coun. Cathy Duddeck went so far as to suggest that significant changes to town-wide zoning — which includes allowing four units per lot — should only be adopted if approved through a referendum.

She stated, “Four ‘as of right’ is four as of wrong. Oakville residents spoke loud and clear about the importance of preserving their stable residential neighbourhoods when they supported our Livable Oakville plan.”

So, Oakville now has to cut a $1.28 million cheque back to the federal government.

Something Mayor Rob Burton — who, despite signing the February deal, was one of the 14 votes against — said he wasn’t “fussed about.”

The people of Oakville spoke and their elected representatives listened.

It’s no secret to anyone who reads this column regularly that I consider most of Premier Doug Ford’s provincial government legislation around housing to be flawed — wrongheaded at best and, at worst, blatant self-serving pandering to his financial supporters in the development sector (think of the Greenbelt debacle).

Wrongheaded?

Well, consider his government’s stance on heritage, for instance.

The changes made to the Ontario Heritage Act as a part of Bill 23 — More Homes Built Faster Act 2022 — were a very clear statement that this provincial government believes the protection of built heritage not only limits the freedom of developers to build as they see fit, but that heritage is just so much old stuff that should be cleared away to produce a “clean slate.”

One of Bill 23’s changes to the Heritage Act required Ontario municipalities to “move it or lose it” vis-à-vis listed properties.

In essence, the municipalities were allowed 24 months to designate the listed properties on their municipal registers of properties of cultural heritage value.

Failure to complete the designation process within the allotted timeframe would result in the non-designated properties of interest being removed from the register for a period of five years.

This seemingly simple change — for municipalities committed to the preservation of their heritage and the associated character of their community — resulted in significant shifts to assigned resources (both financial and human) as they attempted to beat the clock.

In short, a lot more money was spent, contract employees hired and responsibilities within planning departments shifted/altered to prioritize processing designations on historic listed buildings within an impractically short timeline.

To put this in perspective, Niagara-on-the-Lake had, by my rough count, about 205 non-designated properties on their municipal register.

Even with the allocation of additional resources, it was an impossible task to even consider successfully guiding half of these properties through the designation process.

Thus, it became a heart-wrenching choice of which properties needed to receive priority before the provincial clock struck midnight.

Municipalities across Ontario, supported by many other organizations (e.g. Architectural Conservancy Ontario) have been incessantly lobbying the provincial government since Bill 23 was passed to give them more time.

And last week, the government announced that it had listened.

Buried within Bill 200 (Homeowner Protection Act 2024), which was introduced into the legislature on May 27, were proposed amendments to the Ontario Heritage Act that, in a letter by Citizenship and Multiculturalism Minister Michael Ford, stated, “if passed, would extend the review period for legacy listed properties by an additional two years.”

He goes on to write, “The newly proposed amendments are the result of feedback received from municipalities, community organizations and the public, and, if passed, will alleviate administrative pressures while still meeting the intent of the original amendments to the Ontario Heritage Act and its regulations, aimed at increasing housing supply and supporting the growth of our province.”

Translated, the Ford government is still no supporter of heritage and remains committed to its original direction, but cannot afford to continue alienating municipal governments and voters across the province.

Particularly if, as many political pundits are predicting, Ford calls an early election in 2025.

Still, in my books it is a win — showing that public pressure can influence the decisions of government … even one as agenda-driven as Ford’s.

There are certainly other recent examples of this type that I could cite, however, these two will serve to make the point and allow us to ask a particular question.

Why does our town council continue to seemingly ignore the will and direction of the people, limit voters’ voice before council while sidestepping the town’s current Official Plan wherein it states as an overarching principle that “All are agreed that this atmosphere should be maintained and enhanced in the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.”?

In the most recent of several incidents, on May 28, town council deliberated on an application to rezone a Queen Street property between Mississagua and Simcoe streets, which would allow the creation of a four-storey, 81-room hotel.

They voted to approve the application in a 5-to-3 vote — with Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa and councillors Wendy Cheropita, Nick Ruller, Adriana Vizzari and Erwin Wiens voting in favour of approval, while councillors Gary Burroughs, Sandra O’Connor and Tim Balasiuk voted against it.

Here I have to ask our elected representatives who voted in favour of this application this: in the face of opposing public sentiment, did you really consider the ramifications of your position?

A four-storey hotel (taller and massing more than any existing building fronting on Queen) at the gateway to Old Town’s main street, if built according to the submitted modernist drawings by the applicant, will fundamentally and irrevocably alter Queen Street.

It will be the dominate building on the entire streetscape. It will diminish the heritage value of the Charles Inn, Chrysler-Burroughs House, shouldering historic properties, et. al., and the Queen Street streetscape to the south.

Welcome to Niagara-on-the-Lake/Niagara Falls, because the two will architecturally be perceived as identically transparent tourist traps.

With all due respect to councillor Cheropita’s posit that this was purely a vote on zoning … I have to say that, in my opinion, your approval of this application has largely turned over the future of Old Town’s Queen Street cultural heritage landscape to a developer.

So, to my readers, are y’all wiling to deliver the preservation and future of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s unique character — including Glendale, St. Davids, Queenston, Virgil, Old Town and all rural points in between — to developers?

If not, get off your couch, stand up to be counted and tell the councillors to do their job in preserving the precious jewel we all enjoy.

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

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