Heritage vs Development? Kingston, Kamala Harris and the truth about false choices

223 Princess Street, the site of the former Capitol Theatre, will be the future site of a 12-storey building following a vote from Kingston City Council on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. Kingstonist file photo.

In the lead up to the hotly anticipated US Vice Presidential debate earlier this month, I read 2019’s The Truths We Hold. The book – part memoir, part manifesto – by Kamala Harris, current Democratic VP candidate, was surprisingly good. In fact, I was taken aback on a number of occasions by how much I resonated with the California Senator’s perspective (though, of course, there were areas of disagreement). Particularly, I liked how she reasoned her way through issues. While the outcomes of her takes were not perfect, I’d go so far to say her way of thinking might well inform the tenor and type of debate in all politics, Kingston’s included.

This was a surprise because she is deemed a moderate. So, before I began reading, I generally expected Harris to follow a bland uninspiring centrist road like her VP predecessor Tim Kain did four years ago (and we know how that turned out: Tim who?). The mushy middle serves almost no one except maybe the powerful few. It should be put off in favour of action-oriented, values-driven policy for the public good.

What I found within Harris’s 300 pages, however, was a principled and, at times, profound ability to navigate a way between and beyond opposing points of view on any given topic. She’s the one who took on big banks after they drained the dreams and bank accounts of millions of Americans in the subprime mortgage debacle of 2008, for example. She pushed past the malaise in Washington, and took down a very bad deal supported by Democrats and Republicans, which would have resulted in a less rich and responsible result for residents than she ultimately secured. Her tenacity to do this and the ethics that guided her ultimately made her the right choice to run with Biden, morally as well as electorally, it seems to me. Perhaps after her calm-yet-fierce presence against Vice President Pence, you agree? Maybe not?

But I’m not here to comment too much more on partisan politics in the USA (and I remain so refreshed that municipal politics in Ontario does not have parties). Nor am I commenting on the Veep hopeful’s intellectual prowess, per se. Nevertheless, the one who may in time become the first woman president exposed the need to speak truth and, in doing so, dismantle the multitude of false choices presented in modern American life. Truth and progress, in her view, were more important than the cheap power play of politics that gets bogged down in ‘either or,’ ‘take or leave’ falsehoods that go nowhere. This pragmatic position is significant. We can take some solace in and guidance from it, though we must tread carefully. For instance, tough or soft on crime? No, smart on crime (as was the title of her first book in 2009). For the police service and therefore against police accountability? To Harris, you can and should have both. Focused on the environment or the economy, why not bring them together?

At first blush, as Canadians, this ability to bridge the apparent political divide may come across less consequential than it actually is. In its context of increasingly polarized Red States and Blue States, it is at least impressive. Indeed, Harris spent her formative teenage years, in the late 70s and early 80s, in Montreal. So perhaps our country’s storied history of crafting compromises (from French and English unity in Confederation to the deal recently reached between Liberals and New Democrats to pass the Throne Speech and now pass a confidence motion) in order to advance the common good rubbed off in a way that will benefit the US in the long run, regardless of who’s running the show? I certainly hope it will!

To bring these reflections closer to home, I also hope the spirit of compromise for the better will frame our understanding of downtown development in Kingston, and how we talk about it and about each other. Again, while there are no formal political parties in municipal politics, for too long our community has appeared to languish under the false choice of maintaining a vibrant heritage core or developing new, multi-unit residential buildings. Think of projects recommended by planners then struck down at council; or plans approved at council then struck down in court. The cycle was vicious and compartmentalized: One side for development, one side for heritage, so it seemed.  
You might argue that such a dichotomy was on display Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020 when eight councillors voted for, and five against, a 12-storey building at the site of the old Capitol theatre – a property beleaguered by such bellicose bifurcation. The close vote on the potential development straddling Princess and Queen Streets, though, disguises the reality at play. As articulated by the Mayor during the debate in question, nearly everyone in Kingston wants to see a centreville that is alive and well. Or, as Harris would say, to truly move forward politics, we must call ourselves and our community to live into our values.

Thus, recognizing our shared values of social, economic, and environmental (more on that to come) prosperity is the first step in reconstructing the heritage vs development debate. Living into our values sheds the dangerous false choice of ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ because factually the vast majority of folks (‘we’) are headed in the same direction. Almost all residents want to be in a lively, local, and lovely city. Usually, that means we uphold vibrant local businesses, attractive streetscapes, safe streets, and breathable air.  

A building with historical facades (the restored marquee on Princess Street and the brick cladding on Queen Street, in particular) that makes pedestrians feel as if they are passing any of the other buildings in the heritage downtown, unable to see upper floors; and, at the same time, that has the needed density for economic viability and increased intensification in the form of a significantly setback seven-storey tower does just that. Not only will this put a dent, albeit insignificant, in the number of overall new units needed to address the affordability crisis, it will support neighbouring shops and stores with more people living downtown. In fact, this solution – now approved by council – is largely in line with expert architectural opinion, such as the peer reviewers who recommended guidelines for building on this parcel of land, and according to city staff, despite a few extra floors, in line with the Official Plan and Provincial Policy Statement.

Is the concept perfect? No: The building could be improved in some ways, like adjusting the angular plane by removing some upper level balconies (which could happen during the next phase of approval known as site plan, it should be noted). But, channelling our inner-Harris, we can’t just accept ‘either or,’ ‘take or leave.’ To fully eliminate false choices, we have to take a third way of ‘both and.’ Just because something is not absolutely jaw dropping does not mean it should not go through, especially in light of its merits, briefly articulated above. Merits that touch on heritage and development. That’s the ‘both.’ We still need an ‘and,’ though. In this situation, the ‘and’ is the environment. Approving such a dense building downtown is good for fighting climate change. Yes, time and time again, urban planners and environmental activists have called for densification in city centres. Building up not out is key. Having folks live closer to where they work, where they shop, and where they eat is not only convenient for people, it’s imperative for the planet. Cutting emissions by lessening the need for cars will help us reach our ambitious goals of becoming carbon neutral by 2040. Of course, we should always push the status quo in building design and materials towards a greener, cleaner standards. Nevertheless, the truth is what we put where is nearly as important as how it’s built.

All of this to say: Keeping people walking and wheeling in mind; promoting our community’s historical beauty; providing more places to live; and realizing that most Kingstonians agree on building in this way – all while fighting climate change – is an admirable undertaking. It is the essence of compromise. It is a ‘both and’ answer that moves us beyond the false choice of heritage vs development, ‘take or leave.’ Indeed, I hope that what has most recently transpired at/for 223 Princess will be a way forward for Kingston, unlocking the potential for more and better things (no matter the outcome of the US presidential election)!

Robert Kiley is Kingston City Councillor for Trillium District and a high school teacher. He writes a monthly “behind the scenes” Op-Ed article for The Kingstonist. He tweets at @robert_kiley.

One thought on “Heritage vs Development? Kingston, Kamala Harris and the truth about false choices

  • How many times must it be said: there’s no “dangerous false choice” between heritage and residential development downtown. Densification, for all the good reasons Rob gives here, can happen at heights of 4, 6, 8 storeys, within the ZBLs. If a developer claims he cannot build at these heights, then maybe he overpaid for the land because he was speculating. Is it the City’s responsibility to make sure that that bet pays off?
    The insignificant (as the councillor himself puts it) dent in the number of overall new units needed to address the affordability crisis will come at a huge cost if all developable parcels of land in the core are assessed as potentially yielding 12-or-more-storey buildings. What “vibrant local businesses” will be able to afford storefronts then?

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