Special to NiagaraNow/The Lake Report
I recently returned to Niagara-on-the-Lake after decades of life in various regions throughout southern Ontario.
I grew up in Niagara Falls and, like so many, worked in tourism. After spending days listening to visitors express how they loved the Falls but found the city disappointing, I looked forward to riding my bike along the Parkway to this idyllic town.
Words like “tacky” and “unsophisticated” became the norm when people described Niagara Falls.
Feeling bad that visitors might be left with a less-than-stellar impression of my home town, I would direct them to NOTL. Invariably people would return, thanking me for the introduction to such beauty and the opportunity to learn more about Canadian history.
Years later I would be telling people in the international diplomatic corps to make sure to see NOTL while they were in Ontario.
By this time, everyone knew it was the place to visit. It was making the top of “Most beautiful towns in North America” lists and the place where one could literally walk through Canadian history.
I was proud to brag that NOTL had been designated as a provincial heritage conservation site and a national historic site of Canada.
It’s easy for a Niagara native to be dismissed as romantic and sentimental, or to be accused of NIMBY biases.
While I do have resident-oriented concerns, my opposition to the Solmar proposal for the development of the Rand Estate lands is based on very pragmatic, far-reaching, long-term implications.
To make the wrong kind of changes to Old Town NOTL is to clear the way for the degradation of this unique region. It is provenance and beauty that has defined and continues to define NOTL.
And it is for this reason that I am putting my opposition to the proposed Solmar subdivision in writing. My concerns about the developer’s proposal include:
- The overall plan puts profit over context and disregards the established community.
- High density: defies the designation of land for low-density development and sets a dangerous precedent.
- Unattractive row-housing design erodes what NOTL stands for and what residents, investors and international visitors value.
- Lack of likelihood that such housing would retain value – and that reconstruction/redevelopment will take place.
- Evokes a sense that the historic part of town is simply a construct for tourists, not an organic community.
- Disrespect for a nationally designated historic region.
- Poor house design with awkward features, no evocation of existing historical sensibilities, unattractive garage-front row-house plans, cheap looking, building code minimum at best.
- Poor landscape design with almost no side yards (resulting in no glazing to sides of houses) and no breathing space. Imparts an unfriendly feeling to the neighbourhood.
- Narrow streets with a tight turning radius are questionable for emergency vehicles, bicycles, etc.
- Environmental impact on surrounding agricultural land.
- Strain on infrastructure such as hydro, sewage, drainage, overhead wiring, education, health care and other services.
- Damage to existing roads through construction period and beyond – costs to the municipality.
- Unresolved issue with clear-cutting and gutting of interior of Randwood Estate.
- Paucity of open space and landscaping.
- Visibility of unattractive row housing from busy wineries.
- Long-term impact on tourism and commerce as visitors will be left with a negative impression.
Having lived in the GTA, I have seen first-hand what poorly considered, hasty development has done throughout the region – from the strain on infrastructure to fostering a level of disrespect for the built environment.
I am not opposed to development, I simply believe that it can be done far more responsibly, sensitively and creatively.
For these reasons, I am also in support of the SORE proposal that includes:
- All built heritage attributes on the site are saved.
- No significant grade changes
- Number of residential units reduced to 70.
- Most of the remaining designed cultural heritage landscape and mature trees are retained.
- Public pedestrian access to view the heritage attributes of Randwood is provided at 200 John St. E. and 588 Charlotte St.
- The “Whistle Stop” on the Upper Canada Heritage Trail, including the “memorial garden” that was a central feature of the designed landscape at Randwood, is “preserved and enhanced for public and resident enjoyment.”
- Primary access to the site is provided using a historic access route between 144 and 176 John St.
I would also propose consideration of the following:
- Complete restoration of the Randwood estate’s interior, exterior and landscaping. The building could then be opened up again as a museum, think tank, event centre, etc.
- Boulevards instead of narrow streets.
- Consideration of access through the Two Sisters property.
- A 50- to 70-unit subdivision with no two houses being exactly alike.
- Consider the work done on Garrison Village Drive: unique, mixed-style homes respectful of historic architecture featuring large front yards and garages located out of visible sight.
- Consider the architectural style of experts such as Robert Stern and the sensibilities of well-planned communities such as Seaside.
- Work with Willowbank staff and students to ensure a respect of the historic nature of this part of town.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is not a subdivision that happens to be on historic land.
NOTL is a historic region that has some room for new residents willing to recognize both the restrictions and the benefits of settling here.
The Rand property presents an exciting opportunity to showcase thoughtful, creative development and to welcome new residents to this very special part of Canada. Let’s demand a design that reflects it.