What if Kingston…

Last Spring, Waterloo-based IN8 Development unveiled a grand proposal to transform the former Empire Theater on Princess Street into The Capitol, an 18-storey condominium high-rise that has the potential to change the shape of downtown Kingston.  While some argue that the radically modern landmark will erode historic charm, others contend that such development is necessary in order to achieve long term goals of increasing our downtown’s population density.  Just prior to Christmas, Homestead Land Holdings revealed similar plans for a pair of 20-storey condos to be constructed at the foot of Queen Street.  Then came last week’s announcement by Patry Developments, who intends to erect an “extraordinary” residential high-rise on the same land as the Marine Museum.  With skyward development on the minds of many, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Mayor Paterson rang in 2016 by calling it “the year of the high-rises in downtown Kingston“.

Even with the likes of Princess Tower, Harbour Place and the Royal George condominiums dotting the skyline, our downtown has few residential or commercial buildings that reach or otherwise stretch beyond the 6-storey mark.  That fact is partially the result of decades worth of effort to preserve Kingston’s heritage, but it’s also what happens when there just isn’t a huge appetite to build high-rises in a smaller city.  Looking ahead, development is seemingly inevitable, which leads us to the pressing question that’s on the minds of many: how high is too high for a condo in downtown Kingston?  Moreover, what if Kingston limited the size of future condo development in our downtown?

For starters, it’s important to acknowledge that the City of Kingston already controls the height of buildings through official plans, zoning, bylaws etc…, however there’s nothing stopping developers from applying for rezoning to build higher.  In light of these requests, the general consensus is that high-rise development (ie 10 plus storeys) looks unattractively out of place next to neighbouring low and mid-rise (ie 1-6 storey) structures.  Therefore, the current composition of a given block or neighbourhood is often used as a reference point to guide both the shape and height of any new builds.  Charles Marohn, Founder and President of Strong Towns, and member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, suggests that building height be managed by way of “incremental development”.  One way to implement the concept of incremental development is to limit:

the maximum building height to two stories or 1.5 times the average height of the directly adjacent buildings, whichever is greater.

This sort of guideline would effectively slow vertical sprawl, and otherwise put the brakes on high-rise condominiums being plunked down in neighbourhoods predominantly composed of low to mid-rise structures.  Applying this incremental principle to The Capitol, considering the fact that neighbouring buildings on that block and those adjacent barely reach 4-storeys, the height of this new build would be limited to 6-storeys.  Using Patry Developments’ new proposal as a contrasting example, this project would be permitted to stretch as high as 18-storeys, given that the average height of neighbouring buildings is 12.

The dilemma of building height must be addressed with an eye towards what do we want our downtown to resemble in the next 20 to 50 years?  In lesser amounts of time, Canadian cities big (ie Toronto, Vancouver) and small (ie Moncton, Saskatoon) have been increasingly plagued by towering glass and steel structures that have obliterated any sense of neighborhood character.  What is our obligation to follow suit?  Is there another path to increasing density?  Would you prefer downtown Kingston resemble other Canadian cities ripe with condos, or is the typical residential boulevard in a European city more desirable?

Any height restricting decree is bound to be met with criticism.  Land owners drool when faced with the opportunity to net big bucks for their property, while developers are similarly keen to go big and maximize revenue.  Why stop at 6-storeys, when the sky’s the limit?  The unpopular answer is that it simply does not make sense in certain neighbourhoods.  If Kingston were to impose an incremental zoning standard, there would be nothing standing in the way of 2016 being the year of smart growth.  It would ensure development takes place where it truly makes sense, thereby allowing neighbourhoods to evolve naturally rather than grow out of control like bad weeds.

Image credit IN8 Developments.

Harvey Kirkpatrick

Harvey Kirkpatrick is Kingstonist's Co-Founder. His features curiously explore urban planning, what if scenarios, the local food scene and notable Kingstonians. Loves playing tourist and listening to rap music. Learn more about Harvey...

16 thoughts on “What if Kingston…

  • Just to point out that densification / smart growth etc. is not the same as high rise. Developer-led high-rise is largely about rent-seeking behaviour, that is trying to make as much money out of a small ground area as possible. It's not about intelligent, participatory planning and community-centred policies to bring people back into the downtown and encourage walkable neighbourhoods etc. This project is massively out of scale, and it's also a lazy and poorly thought-out piece of architecture. It also seems to be another indication that Kingston's urban planning polcies (even you can even say that Kingston has such things in any meaningful way) are dominated by the interests of developers and are not in any way strategic or well-thought-out. We actually need some planning for a sustainable, liveable city, not just ad-hoc responses to individual proposals from developers. In other words, the city needs to work with people to set an agenda to which developers respond, not the other way around.

  • Seems to be a lot of overlap between people who SAY they want more active transportation and transit, but are always against devlopment that would alow that. Against wellington st and a bridge that would support devlopment close to the core. Against the prison farm ever being developed in the middle of the city. Also against every intensification effort with height. Do they want the city to sprawl north of the 401 with 100% of the people having to drive everywhere, and the new taxes won't support the infrastructure?

    Allowing higher heights is the environmentally friendly option. 1000s of more people living downtown is what will preserve downtown businesses, with the outlook for retail looking bleaker by the day. That piece from the skeleton park site and the Welington x people reminds me of the crazy over the top rhetoric from the save KCVI group. I would guess the BIA, who supports these projects, knows better then the author who speculates on "the ability of business to survive the construction"?

    • I'm certainly not opposed to development nor intensification, but I am of the opinion that height should be controlled by the city to preserve the character of neighbourhoods. Build high-rises where it makes sense, but don't say yes to each and every project just because some developer/business wants to line their pockets. As stated above, we're faced with three projects consisting of four high-rises in downtown Kingston. Do you support all of these projects? Are the arguments against each of those project totally without merit?

      • Yes I support these. Good for the environment, the BIA for the city. The brownfield properties would never be developed low rise as the taxes need to be high enough to fund the remediation. Even the Capital is set back enough to not have an effect on the Princess streetscape. This is the direction society has to move in.

  • Developers need to respect the "Official Plan".
    Kingston relies on tourism & we must maintain our "Historic Charm".

    • The previous council already approved up to 18 storeys for the city owned block that the hydro station is on

      • Going to go out on a limb and say that they got that one wrong. How high are the buildings on neighboring blocks? Even if you were to take the K-Rock Centre as the highest of the lot, that still wouldn't come close to justifying 18 storeys, let alone 10.

  • I honestly do not get what the big fuss is about. I was just in Montreal for the weekend, and Montreal has tons of historic houses and buildings(way more than Kingston), yet it still has skyscrapers and high risers and they mix beautifully together. Not only that, but it brings vibrancy to downtown, A LOT of business, and make people actually want to live in Kingston. We only have a few major corporations downtown which is a shame given the history and age of Kingston. I personally don't mind at all having high rises downtown and I believe that the higher the buildings are, the more attractive the city is for potential settlers. The mayor knows what he is doing. None of the Queen's grad students feel like they want to stay in Kingston because it feels like a small town with no future potential for business.

    • Kingston is not going to stop being a small town. It's just not appropriate to compare an entire urban region of 2 million+ people (Montreal) with a relatively isolated regional town, whose entire regional population doesn't amount to more than 150,000. Kingston has to be rather more intelligent and selective about what kinds of businesses it thinks it can 1. create (let's not forget that a really sustainable economy depends not on the desparate search for external investment but has to build a strong indigenous base); and 2. attract. Now what would attract people to Kingston? Certainly not undermining the few assets it already has (historic character and waterfront) – Kingston already made enough mistakes with the waterfront, and now seems intent on repeating them. The thing is that Kingston has no real economic or spatial strategy. Kedco is a disaster, the local government is unimaginative and in the pockets of speculative developers, and the university it only semi-engaged.

      • The facts don't support that. " in the pockets of speculative developers" – the truth is, 2 of the past 3 councils have had a majority of members endorsed by the Labour council and not been considered terribly friendly to developers. Even the council in between rejected staff recommnedations on development to the point we lost OMB hearings with city staff on the developers side.

        The notion that its a few owners ruining the downtown with high rents doesn't seem factual either, when we see Kingston's downtown has fared much better then most, retail vacancies are up everywhere in Kingston, and everywhere else. We have things like medical offices taking former prime retail downtown who don't neccesssarily need that high traffic location, or financial institutions locating there instead of locations with more convenient parking.

        The reality is, retail is never going back to the way it was, and downtown is going to continue to transition to more service oriented businesses. To support more restaurants and other services you need more people who live there, and these new buildings will do just that.

  • If it's the "charm" of downtown that people want to preserve, then put regulations on what the outside needs to look like, not on how tall the building is. Look at the old S&R Building. I'd argue that it's better looking now than it was when it was S&R. If a building has to be tall for either density or feasability reasons (or both) then simply ensure that the aesthetics match the downtown core.

    Having more people living downtown will help revitalize downtown. I was downtown with my kids this past weekend, and there are so many shops that are empty, because people are too lazy to go for a stroll to shop. Some of my favourite memories growing up are of trips downtown with my grandmother. We wouldn't be shopping for anything specific, just visiting the downtown area, grabbing some lunch, and popping into stores that looked interesting. We barely could do that now. So anything that could restore the vitality of the downtown core is something I'm going to be interested in.

  • Some great points here, but this:
    "…there are so many shops that are empty, because people are too lazy to go for a stroll to shop"
    oversimplifies why there are so many vacancies downtown. Not disputing laziness/convenience as being a contributing factor, but at the very least, astronomical rental prices and the big dig have to be considered when trying to comprehend why downtown Kingston looks the way it does.

  • Yes, I was. The problem with automatically 'pro-business' responses like mr rectifier's is that they seem to assume that any development is as good as another if 'business' wants them. But that's simply not the case. Aesthetics matter – otherwise people would not bother paying architects to design interesting buildings or redesigning areas. There is plenty of research in the urban planning and regional studies literature that demonstrates the value of distinctive, well-planned, participatory and well-designed development. But what we have here is, as you say, simply homogenous and homogenizing lazy architecture that is straight out of Sim-City.

  • There is no question Kingston downtown is hurting. However, I think it is entirely wrong to blame people for not coming. Instead, we should ask WHY people don't come? Adding a giant residence helps in that it means there are simply more bodies downtown. However, it hinders in that it makes downtown less appealing and accessible to everyone else. It's not clear to me which of those opposing forces would win out. Moreover, downtown thrives on atypical businesses… not stores that sell staples (which can't compete with larger stores outside of downtown). Adding more bodies (due to a residence) increases demand for staples, but the effect on demand for atypical stores is less clear. Demand for restaurants will likely go up, but probably not dramatically, and I'm not sure a downtown dominated by cheap restaurants is quite what we're going after anyway.
    In short, I find it hard to believe that a large residence will move us toward the kind of downtown that would make Kingston a really enjoyable place to live. Instead we should be focusing on how we can make downtown more accessible (more/cheaper parking, fewer traffic lights, etc.), more business friendly (lower rents, etc.) while moving toward an architectural vision that is truly appealing. If we don't, Kingston downtown will become one of the barely distinguishable, crappy downtowns of many of the small towns and cities around us.

    It seems to me that there are really two (related) sets of questions to ask. 1) What does the "ideal" Kingston downtown look like? What kind of a downtown community would we really like to have? What kind of a downtown would make Kingston a better place to live – in terms of quality of life? 2) What is the best way to get there?

    • Indeed, and those kinds of questions would be answered through some kind of public participatory planning process, which would bring people together to work out all the different interests and priorities, and create a way forward. These kinds of processes have been carried out in many places in the world, yet Kingston (as usual) is some way behind the times on this. Instead we just have to listen to interest groups and money talking as if that was democracy in action.

  • Why don't we fix the parking issues in the downtown core and help small businesses during things like the "big dig" that never finish on time this would make for growth in the city. Going to point out the fact that most likely the people who can afford the condos will want parking, with the small space a doubt this will be able to happen.

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