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Strong opposition continues over Parliament Oak project

Residents who feared a virtual meeting about the Parliament Oak development proposal might not get their message across needn’t have worried. Not all of the 30-plus members who signed up to speak at Monday’s public meeting did so.

Residents who feared a virtual meeting about the Parliament Oak development proposal might not get their message across needn’t have worried.

Not all of the 30-plus members who signed up to speak at Monday’s public meeting did so. But after about four hours of impassioned pleas against the development, with no supporters other than the proponents of the project, councillors were left in no doubt about what is expected of them when it comes time to make a decision.

In the face of such strong opposition that councillors have been asked why staff would even entertain the application for an inappropriate development on the historic Old Town property, CAO Marnie Cluckie opened the meeting by explaining staff cannot turn away an application — they have to review it completely, and then make a recommendation for council to make a decision. Staff, Cluckie said, are still in the process of reviewing the revised application received in early December, with an open house and two public meetings, including the one held Monday, to provide comments to staff, who do not take a position at those meetings. She also explained there would be no decision made Monday — that would come later, after staff have completed their report and recommendations.

The meeting opened with Paul DeMello representing Liberty Sites, the developer of the property, explaining the revisions to the original proposal, which now includes retaining the front portion of the school, a three-storey 71-unit apartment, five single detached homes and four semi-
detached, with a parkette, a medium density of 22 units per acre, and a maximum height of 12.4 metres. The apartment has been lowered to two storeys at its edges, he said, the heritage walkway with public access is still part of the project, and the driveway has been lowered for more private access.

He spoke to three main concerns of residents: intensification, density and height. Policies regarding intensification, he said, were amended in the Official Plan when Parliament Oak was still operating as a school, “and not on the radar of the municipality in terms of potential intensification.” He suggested if the school had been closed at that time, the site “would have met the characteristics for appropriate infilling intensification,” an opinion refuted by others later in the virtual meeting.

He spoke of the medium density, that is acceptable under the Official Plan because it would have little impact on surrounding neighbourhoods — also refuted vehemently by residents — and a height of 12.4 metres, just 1.4 metres above the 11 metres deemed acceptable in the Official Plan. He referred to the apartment as low-rise, with the third storey “minimally visible from Gage and Centre Streets.”

In terms of architectural details, he said at the wrap-up of the meeting, when questioned about the institutional look of the project — some residents referred to it as resembling a high school—that details such as brick and facade can still be worked out at the site plan stage to present “a softer look.”

Residents who spoke were asked not to repeat information already presented, due to the expectation it would be a lengthy meeting, but most focused on the same three issues as DeMello: density, height, and intensification, a provincial policy typically used to ensure densities of development and redevelopment provide sufficient housing to allow for population growth.

Aberdeen Lane resident Judy Gardner was one of many who said any development on the property, bordered by homes on King, Regent, Gate and Centre Streets, should be low density, and that the proposal “is not in keeping with local architecture, character and atmosphere in the Old Town.”

All three residents who created POST, Preserve Our Special Town, spoke in opposition to the project, and said their movement has gained huge traction in the short time since their website was created.

The group formed by Alan Gordon, Marilyn Bartlett and Connie Tintinalli was mentioned by several speakers, who agreed with what they are trying to accomplish. Bartlett said in the short time since they put up their website, they have had 550 people sign a petition objecting to the proposal, many letters of concern, and a momentum of community opposition “that’s far different” than what was described by the planning department, which received 20 letters in opposition that were included in its information package, and about a “handful” received more recently.

Bartlett also attacked the density issue, citing the OP that says infilling must be compatible and consistent with surrounding land uses, including heritage, character, density, height, massing and scale. “The surrounding blocks have an average density of 3.47 units per acre,” she said. “What the developer is proposing is something so far beyond that, it is absurd.”

The height, she said, is the equivalent of a four-storey apartment at well over 40 feet, and that doesn’t include the mechanical penthouse. 

She called the building “an affront to the surrounding streetscape,” an eyesore to those who have to look at it, and a blow to the charm and character of the Old Town, “in gross violation of the Official Plan.”

Bartlett also spoke to the “egregious” issue of access, with all traffic leaving from and accessing the development through a local street, again contrary to the Official Plan. With all the services such as Skip the Dishes and UberEats it will be a very busy residential street, with all the attendant safety problems and diminished quality of life, she warned.

Gordon also spoke of the groundswell of opposition to the project and support for POST, and read a letter from neighbouring residents on the POST website, who said life as they have known it will end — a strong sentiment others repeated. He also said a precedent will be set “if this calamitous development is allowed to proceed. Trust me, many more will follow. An application of this scope, importance and impact on the town requires much more study and input from the community than the limited scope of these meetings so far.”

Janice Thomson, speaking as president of the Niagara Foundation, asked councillors to adhere to the Official Plan.

“Residents of NOTL share a common pride, and find joy in the attributes of the town. Its beautiful natural setting, with pockets of agricultural and heritage aspects, makes it one-of-a-kind. Its unique neighbourhoods are an important part of the landscape  that, taken together, form the town’s special character,” she said.

“Residents elect councillors to develop Official Plan principles and enact bylaws to uphold the key integral strengths of the town, as identified through a multitude of public input sessions, charettes and consulting contracts. You have done that, and continue to do so.”

Residents rely on the strength of “carefully and thoughtfully prepared” Official Plan documents and zoning bylaws to provide councillors the tools required to ensure the town’s development is managed within the established limits, she said.

“As guardians of the rules, council is now in the position of having to consider an application that does not meet the terms of what is considered possible on decommissioned open space and community facilities lands. If a proposed use does not fall within this list of potential uses, as stated in the Official Plan and as known to any property purchaser, the Niagara Foundation believes it should not be
supported,” she said, requesting that councillors “fulfill their duty of care to the residents by upholding the limitations clearly expressed in the
Official Plan.”

Lyle Hall, a board member of the Niagara Foundation and also a representative of SORE (Save Our Randwood Estate), was brief, simply asking why. “Why would you let this happen? Why would you step so far away from the Official
Plan? And why would you
allow something this big to happen in such an established residential area?”

Caroline Polgrabia, a policy advisor who went to Parliament Oak School, said the development should hang on to its green space while offering a housing mix. She suggested something quite different than what is being proposed, including the possibilities of a wellness centre, therapy, mindfulness and even music therapy rooms, spas and saunas, and maybe even a community radio station, off-leash dog park and community garden, all accomplished with a more compact footprint for the residential component.

Although all residents spoke with passion and commitment, several mentioned the eloquence of Jim Reynolds, one speaker calling him “Shakespearean.”

This was his submission:

“The issues we face here tonight are not simply those of zoning or building heights or density or architectural harmony. What we are confronting here is the very future of our town and its priceless heritage. The building proposed for this historic site is not subtle; it is not quietly insidious; it is not a gentle invasion of a neighbourhood. On the contrary, It shouts and proclaims its presence with a brutality and a ruthlessness not seen before in the history of this historic place. The developers bandy about words like “heritage” and “streetscape” and “neighbourhood,” but these are all hollow buzz words with no connection to the reality of what they are truly proposing: the wholesale destruction of the geographic centre of the Old Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.  When the District School Board of Niagara wantonly refused to sell this property to our town and favoured a developer out of concern that a school might somehow reappear there, we all feared the worst. 

“The worst is what we have before us now.  It is as if an alien species has descended to infect our town with a malignancy so profound that we can only recoil in horror. and dismay. There will be no cure for this disease should we allow it to take root. And like all malignant tumours, it will metastasize and spread. The word “precedent” sounds innocuous enough, but it is profoundly powerful. Once a tradition is shattered or a rule is massaged or bent, the deviation becomes the new normal. How do we deny the next developer permission to wreck another neighbourhood? I live in the Dock Area across from the remains of the old American/George III Hotel. There is already a proposal in the works for a gigantic condo block on this site which would dwarf the surrounding homes and destroy our community. I am sure that the developers and their planners are listening in tonight, taking notes, biding their time and watching just how this first assault on our town plays out. Any neighbourhood could be next.

“Two hundred and eight years ago, on Dec. 10, 1813, Niagara-on-the-Lake was burned to the ground by retreating American forces, encouraged and abetted by turncoat Canadian Joseph Willcocks and his henchmen. Every house was torched and what remained was a smoking ruin of foundations and chimneys. Our town was rebuilt and many of those new homes still stand today as a testimony to the resilience and determination  of our ancestors. These historic houses are one of the main reasons we have millions of visitors every year to this area. We now stand and face another invader but one who pretends that his actions are benign and will enhance our precious town. Nothing could be further from the truth. If this development is approved it will stand for a century as a monument to folly, short-sightedness and greed, which will leave visitors and residents shaking their heads in bewilderment and disgust. 

“We are on the brink of an existential moment which goes far beyond land use planning. I predict that the Old Town will live or die by the outcome of this one proposal. We must ask ourselves what kind of a town we want to have for the next hundred years. If it includes this development, then we already have our answer. 

“My wife, Patricia Hartman, a former teacher at Parliament Oak School, sees this proposal as the antithesis to what this town really needs: housing that will attract young families. A town with no children is fated to die of old age. This development might attract Airbnb investors or retirees but there would be no place here for families, The old school lies at the heart of the town with green space to benefit all. If we have learned nothing else from the pandemic, we know how vital green space, open skies and nature are to our mental and emotional health. 

“This will have to be a political decision and should it be made in the developer’s favour, a plaque can be erected to proclaim the epitaph of Niagara-on-the-Lake with the date of its demise in the first quarter of the 21st century. Here is an opportunity during these dark pandemic days to give those who love NOTL a reason to hope for a brighter future. Our town council may have been powerless in the face of the DSBN’s adamant refusal to sell us back our own property, which it had acquired at no cost, but our elected officials are not helpless now. The scope of this disgraceful proposal is such a flagrant abuse of our bylaws  and planning principles and requires so many concessions and variances that the developer does not have a leg to stand on. It is vital that our planning staff, our committees and our politicians not provide that leg. For the sake of future generations they have no choice but to say no.”

After the public meeting had wrapped up, in an unusual move, Lord Mayor asked to speak about the Parliament Oak project, promising not to express an opinion — Monday was not the time for that, without a staff report and recommendation.

She did however ask that town staff be directed to carefully consider some particular aspects of the proposal.

“We are at a cusp,” she said. “This could possibly take us down one of a number of roads. This site is very important to the future of our town.”

Disero made it clear, without judging the proposal, that the outcome will set a precedent in town. “The planners will say every property and every application is decided on its own merit,” but the issue of compatibility is part of every application, she said, and developers will point to other properties and say “‘it’s compatible with this.’”

If developers and possibly planning staff determine an application is acceptable, and “you look and judge things with what is acceptable, you end up with something mediocre at best. I think NOTL is more remarkable than mediocre.”

“All these things have been eating away at me,” Disero continued, and in her position as the head of council and CEO of the town, “I think it’s important that I continue, or try at least in every way possible, to promote our purposes and our vision for this town.”

She said she had certain requests of town planners to consider when reviewing the Parliament Oak project, and made a motion that councillors ask staff to look at how much green space will be required “to acknowledge, recognize and reflect on the history of the site;” that they consider the long-term impact of the introduction of medium density to the whole area; and also consider the impact to the cultural landscape of the area while doing their analysis,,, looking not only at provincial guidelines but at NOTL as a whole.

Disero received unanimous support for her motion, which, she explained, “it’s more about where we’re going, and where we’re planning to go.”