Soapbox: 223 Princess Street comes to Planning Committee again

A rendering of the proposed development for 223 Princess Street, the former site of the Capitol Theatre, showing the designs as they would be seen from Princess Street. Rendering by SRM Architects Inc. via the City of Kingston.

Editorial note: The following is a submitted Op/Ed piece. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of The Kingstonist.

The Frontenac Heritage Foundation is a not-for-profit charitable organization dedicated to the preservation of structures and sites of cultural and historical interest across the Kingston region. For nearly 50 years, the organization has provided input on many projects and proposals. The Foundation supports intensification in the historic core that is compatible with the existing historic context.

The staff report before Planning Committee on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020 recommends approval of a 12 storey building, when previously there were multiple other proposals for additional height.

Density by Design

The Density by Design study calls for heights of 7 – 9 storeys in the city’s core, a recommendation that may be desirable for portions of the broader historic core, but not for the Princess Street corridor, which has been protected in zoning and limited to a 17m height limit since the Downtown and Harbour Zoning By-law was approved in 1996. The Density by Design project has never been brought forward for approval by Council, yet references have appeared in the Central Kingston Growth Study report, the Williamsville report, and now in the peer review on this document. Density by Design ideas were conveyed to the ERA Architects, which, in our view, calls into question as to just how objective the new peer review is.

Peer Review

The Foundation did not accept the results of the first ERA peer review, and it does not accept the results of the most recent ERA peer review. Because an entirely new development application was accepted by the City, (when the matter is still before Divisional Court) a different consultant should have been selected for the review. The peer review indicates that it is an “objective” review, but that is hardly the case when the Density by Design goals have been advanced to the consultant in the process. While some recommendations have been addressed, others have not. The recommendation for indented balconies has been ignored, which will not only have negative impacts on emissions, but will give it a negative visual appearance. Angular plane provisions in the zoning by-law are being ignored. Simply put, the proposal does not meet the compatibility requirements of the City’s Official Plan and is entirely inappropriate in a historic downtown like Kingston.

Climate Change Emergency

This project does not have regard for City Council’s climate emergency motion of March 2019, which, in our view, cannot be ignored when the city is considering major development applications. The Planning Justification report states that the proposal is sustainable because it provides density, and this, in our view, is not a satisfactory criterion to address the climate emergency. All developments increase density. While there are some elements associated with the structure which may show some concern about sustainable provisions, the City has not advanced any consideration of an incentive program to encourage truly sustainable development. In the existing form of construction, each balcony on this design will act as a radiator outward to the sky, and in this iteration, now this means 169 radiators to the sky. This is not sustainable development.

Built Heritage

The proposed development bridges two Heritage Character Areas (HCAs), as shown on Schedule 9 of the City’s Official Plan – the Lower Princess Street HCA which extends from Barrie Street along both side of Princess Street to the lakeshore, and the St. Lawrence Ward HCA. These areas are longstanding areas of cultural heritage significance, but the City has not undertaken the necessary study to determine what areas are worthy of designation (either individually or as a district) under the Ontario Heritage Act.  All six properties currently listed on this city block are worthy of designation, and several other properties should be considered for heritage protection. Heritage protection, it appears, is not important to the City, and it is our heritage fabric that brings visitors back again and again. 

Official Plan Conformity

Official Plan policies call for the following: Conserving the cultural heritage resources in our core, applying urban design policies, preserving human scale in the core, and policies also require visual compatibility for new buildings. The intent of the urban design guidelines done for the historic core was that mid-rise development was recommended – thus, the references to human scale development; all of these policies have been ignored, and the City is simply amending the zoning by-law.

Community Benefits

The Staff report suggests attaching a Holding symbol to the zoning by-law amendment. Too little too late, in our view. The Mayor’s Task Force on Housing investigated this matter, gave its recommendations, and nothing has happened. Now more than ever, people have concerns about the need to increase the amount of affordable housing in this city. The proposed units will not meet the affordability criteria. Still, money can be taken if the development is approved, and that money can be directed towards a fund for affordable housing in the immediate vicinity. Retention and restoration of the façade of the building, in our view, should be done as a matter of course.

Seriously, can we not get this development right? Send it back to the drawing board.

Shirley Bailey
Frontenac Heritage Foundation

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