In 2018, a new Niagara-on-the-Lake council was elected, largely on the basis of defending the town from inappropriate development.
Now, in 2022, those same battles are still being fought.
It’s a necessary and commendable goal as our built heritage, a lot of it at least, is worth protecting.
Which brings us to the ongoing saga of the Rand Estate.
We know that in some quarters developer Benny Marotta is vilified because of how he has handled the Rand development.
And we recognize the danger of saying anything positive about development in NOTL – it can be unpopular and seen as a betrayal. But we’ll ask anyway.
SORE and many others in town agree the once-maligned Trisha Romance hotel approved on the site a decade ago would be acceptable now. So, is Marotta’s hotel plan really worth going to war over?
A bit of history: The Rand property is already zoned to allow a hotel. That happened when Romance still owned it.
Now Marotta wants to build about one storey higher than the Romance proposal – 150 rooms versus about 120. Demand in NOTL has grown and continues to do so. The difference is about 30 or so rooms.
Given that there already is tacit agreement that a hotel is appropriate on the site, is there a middle ground on which both Marotta and the townsfolk could meet?
Lord Mayor Betty Disero has proudly said that if she hadn’t been fighting development, there already likely would be a hotel on the Rand Estate.
The question is: Done well, would that be a bad thing?
Naysayers have said problems include the planned parking garage, damage to the historic Dunnington-Grubb landscape features on-site and the height of the hotel disturbing views from the Commons. Concerns also have been raised about setting a precedent for large buildings in NOTL. And traffic, but experts can figure out how to improve road access, if necessary.
As we view the property, we see: A parking garage that’s not visible above ground, landscape features that, unfortunately, are mostly dead (but could be resurrected) and a hotel that largely would be hidden behind the estate’s stone wall and some of NOTL’s tallest trees.
The property is aesthetically perfect for a hotel. It’s hidden, it’s big, it’s beautiful. The Rand Estate is certainly more suited to a hotel than the Parliament Oak property — the fate of which has yet to be determined.
Or are we going to allow more short-term rentals – which shouldn’t be legal in the first place because property zoning has been ignored – to infiltrate our residential streets (while not being subject to the town’s new accommodation tax)?
A Rand hotel would pay hundreds of thousands in town and regional property taxes, and collect similar amounts from patrons paying the town’s accommodation tax. Both those potentially add up to a more than $1 million annual windfall for the municipality.
And, in theory, every additional room occupied means more people visiting our shops, wineries, restaurants and other NOTL-owned businesses. In the wake of the pandemic, many would welcome that.
That isn’t to say we agree with everything Marotta wants to do on this historic property.
Our biggest concern is the proposed subdivision is far too dense, jampacked with homes and is unsuitable for Old Town or such a landmark property. We’ve said this before: the plan should go back to the drawing board.
And yes, council should be battling to make sure that happens. Part of that starts with fighting the province’s push for densification, moving densification to appropriate areas like Glendale, and letting Queen’s Park know NOTL is unique and needs to be treated as such.
All the more reason why NOTL’s draft official plan needs regional and provincial approval, so the town can move forward with firm development and contextual zoning guidelines with teeth.
Yes, NOTL’s heritage is about more than dollars and cents – but it is inevitable that redevelopment of some Old Town properties, like Rand, will happen.
Conceived properly, a grand Rand hotel – not unlike Marotta’s award-winning Two Sisters winery operation – could be a boon to NOTL, a strong legacy for the historic estate and a big contributor to the town’s treasury.