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Parliament Oak proposal raises ire of neighbours

Town council has battled over the Parliament Oak property once before on behalf of residents, who are now hoping their elected representatives will again step up to protect the iconic historic property in the heart of the Old Town.

Town council has battled over the Parliament Oak property once before on behalf of residents, who are now hoping their elected representatives will again step up to protect the iconic historic property in the heart of the Old Town.

Although planning staff do not yet have an official application for the development, residents have been vocal about the proposal being inappropriate for the Old Town — too high, too dense, and not in character for the neighbourhood.

The town tried to buy the property in 2017 for a group of residents who were proposing to turn it into a community hub, but after almost a year of negotiations with the school board, including three purchase offers from the town, the board decided to proceed with the tender process. In desperation, the citizens group behind the community hub concept went to the province hoping it would intervene, but with no success.

The conditions from the school board during negotiations were that the town would have to provide assurances the building be maintained as a community hub, not be flipped, and that the property would not be used to provide education.

When the town failed in its efforts to purchase the property, it was sold to a developer, and residents’ fears were realized in June, when Liberty Sites Ltd., a Montreal company known for developing suburban business parks, unveiled its plans. Parliament Oak Residences were to include a dozen semi-detached and detached homes, plus a three-storey apartment building. 

Responding to an outcry from residents over height, density, and design issues, the developer of the project, which is bordered by King, Gage, Centre and Regent Streets, went back to the drawing board, and last week a revised proposal was presented at a virtual public planning meeting.

To proceed, the developer requires a zoning amendment from the property’s institutional use to allow for residential development, and an official plan amendment to permit medium density housing in the Old Town.

The revised proposal reduces the density from the original intent, with five detached homes and four semi-detached, for a total of nine instead of 12, and 71 apartments, instead of the 80 in the first set of plans.

But people speaking at the public meeting are still up in arms, including Centre Street resident Atis Bankas, who suggested the density is too high, that intensification shouldn’t be allowed in the Old Town, and that the project shouldn’t even be discussed, “it should be scrapped and thrown in the garbage. That’s it. If the builder wants to build, let him build a park or something else.”

He continued, saying, “this town will not be the same again ever. This will destroy the town.”

Residents heard from representatives of Liberty Sites, and town planner Mark Iamarino, who said that according to the Official Plan, medium density designation, with “harmonious” design integrating into surrounding area,  and low-rise apartment buildings, can be included in the Old Town.

When Coun. Wendy Cheropita said the Official Plan says planning should maintain existing design throughout a neighbourhood, and that the character of this proposal is quite different than the surrounding area, Iamarino said that it would be considered during the review process — that staff doesn’t have a position on that yet and wont’t until they have the final application.

Gracia Janes, president of the NOTL Conservancy, feels that decision may already have been made.

She is concerned the process is being rushed ahead, with the developers’ representatives talking about favourable reports from the town’s urban design and heritage committees, and that town staff “seem to be biased, seem to be promoting this.”

Pointing out other heritage elements in the neighbourhood, Janes said, “this needs to be planned very carefully, not rushed along, and modifications aside, it’s just not appropriate for this neighbourhood.”

It could be single family homes, she added, suggesting the developer is looking for something “more lucrative.” As to the need for intensification, while there are both provincial and regional provisions for growth, they will be accommodated by the regional plan for Glendale, she said.

Paul DeMelo, a lawyer working with Liberty Sites, said comments from the July open house, were considered, and revisions have received “largely positive comments” from the recent urban design committee meeting.

He said he is very excited about the revised proposal that addresses the comments that have been received, and not only protect the herititage site but celebrate its heritage with a development that will offer “some community benefits we think will arise from this project.”

The three-storey apartment building has seen “significant modifications to address the relationship with the rest of the neighbourhood,” he said, and while the character of the design is different than the rest of the neighbourhood it doesn’t detract from it. “We believe it enhances it.”

The apartment building is still considered three storeys, with “a mechanical penthouse” on the top, but with a step-down to two storeys at the edges of the building to “significantly reduce” the appearance of height and be “much more sympathetic” from street level views.

Other selling points listed by development representatives include underground parking for residents, with four spaces for visitors at ground level; a small parkette which would be zoned open space, although the developer will be asking for an exemption for the need of a playground, with Memorial Park across the street; “a wonderful green garden setting” around the buildings,  the “beautiful mature trees” will preserved to enhance the heritage site, and also there are plans to incorporate a “heritage walk” on the site that will be available to the public.

Alan Gordon, a Regent Street resident, was indignant that the project being proposed could be considered appropriate. 

A building 40 feet high, 300 feet long, and currently containing over 70 apartments, “by any measure is a massive building, virtually a block long,” he said.

The impact of it will have not only a “hugely negative effect on individual properties, but on the streetscape and heritage of this entire town,” said Gordon.

“The visual impact is reprehensible, egregious by any measure.”

Gordon also objected to the developer’s assertion that the building is 11 metres tall, saying it ranges in height from 12 to 13 metres, and also that the density is greater than the Official Plan permits — 66 per cent greater than medium density and “a whopping 233 per cent” than the current low density zoning now allows.

Marilyn Bartlett, a neighbour of the proposed development, spoke to additional issues, such as traffic, lights that will bother other residents at night, and the highest point of the school, the gymnasium, which “looks not much higher that the two original wings of the school,” but the second and third story apartments with the mechanical above will rise three storeys above the gymnasium, as seen from Centre Street. She compared it to facing a cliff, and “it will not be ameliorated by stepping back, like the proponent has attempted to establish.”

She called the project an “outrageous disregard for the neighbourhood and the Old Town in general.”

With a revised proposal that residents did not have a lot of time to study before the meeting, Lord Mayor Betty Disero asked that another public meeting be held with the new information for people to address, and was assured by the developer’s representative that there would be no opposition. Staff have been asked to look for a date for another meeting.