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.