KINGSTON — In an old limestone alley in the old Limestone City, Annette Burfoot prepares for an art sale by hanging paintings, drawings, and photographs, all of them donations from more than two dozen local artists.
Burfoot belongs to Vision for Kingston, a grassroots residents’ group that’s raising money to recover some of the approximately $100,000 in legal fees it spent fighting a 16-storey condominium development that would rise from the site of a historic former movie theatre.
The developer initially proposed a 20-storey building; negotiations with the city led to the current 212-unit design. According to the plans, the old Capitol theatre, built in 1920 and closed in 2012, would be demolished to make room for the condo tower. Though not necessarily one of Kingston’s most prized heritage buildings — according to the City of Kingston Heritage Register, there are more than 1,500 such properties in the city — the old theatre has nostalgic value for many Kingstonians. As a nod to the building’s past, the front lobby and façade are being restored and will serve as the main pedestrian entrance.
Vision for Kingston appealed the city’s 2016 decision to the Ontario Municipal Board, which finally heard the case in March. The decision will determine whether or not the project will move forward as planned. Burfoot and other opponents of the project hope the OMB — in one of the last cases it will hear before it becomes the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal — will reject the plan and thus set a precedent for how Kingston, a city with a relatively high number of heritage structures, will navigate the challenges of planning and urban intensification.
Kingston has the lowest rental vacancy rate in the province, meanwhile, which is creating the demand for high-density living. Several projects other than the Capitol Condos are being delayed by OMB appeals, including a pair of 10-storey condo buildings closer to Queen’s University, and 17- and 19-storey condos at Queen and Ontario streets that would add 800 units downtown. A real estate agent recently told the Kingston Whig-Standard that the city is gaining a reputation as a difficult place for developers.
Opponents argue that what’s at stake is Kingston’s unique heritage character. “The downtown core is recognized as a historic area,” Burfoot says. “If you start putting towers up, you run the risk of severely diminishing the aesthetic and cultural value of that area, and how people experience it.”
In addition to concerns about the impact the building would have on the Kingston skyline, Burfoot questions whether the the Capitol Condos — which start at $240,000 for a 452-square-foot one-bedroom unit — are even needed at all.
“The tower they’re proposing, we argue, is not for residents,” she says. “It’s for investment purposes. It’s for student housing. The units are the size of hotel rooms. We’re not even sure it’s designed for people living downtown continuously.”
A ‘cool, vibrant’ Kingston?
On the other side of the debate, the Capitol Condos project enjoys overwhelming support from the downtown business community. “We have 700 businesses with 10,000 employees, and we’ve heard from three people who are opposed,” says Doug Ritchie, managing director of the Downtown Kingston Business Improvement Area.
As a longtime Kingston resident who has been involved with downtown businesses for years, Ritchie says he knows the importance of heritage in the city. He believes the Capitol project would actually complement and enhance Kingston’s charm.
“The movie theatre was going to sit vacant forever,” says Ritchie. “This is a pretty creative new use. I’m pretty sure this project will actually win heritage awards.”
Ritchie cites Chicago, Ottawa, and Boston as cities where old buildings co-exist with taller, more modern residential buildings (though no one is proposing the kind of height that one might see in Chicago). “That’s what cool, vibrant, growing, changing cities look like,” he says.
Darryl Firsten, president of IN8 Developments, which is behind the Capitol Condos, says Kingston’s rental vacancy rate of 0.7 per cent — the lowest in Ontario, and among the lowest in the country — shows that there is a need for more housing supply in the city. In the downtown core, the rate is 0.5 per cent, according to statistics compiled by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. If the project does not get off the ground, Firsten says, it will be a missed opportunity to address Kingston’s housing shortage.
“The reason [Kingston] has such a low vacancy rate is because there’s not enough new development. And everyone fights development,” Firsten says. “We’re strong believers that more people should live in downtown cores across the province. It’s great socially, it’s great environmentally, it’s great economically.”
It will likely be months until the OMB makes a decision regarding the Capitol Condos project. Firsten imagines a few possible outcomes: the project could be approved, or approved with modifications, or not approved at all.
Even if the OMB rejects the project in its current version, the developer would still theoretically be allowed to erect an eight-storey building, because the city’s Official Plan allows for it. However, condominium projects are often more profitable when they’re taller, and Firsten says redeveloping the Capitol Theatre site would not be “economically viable” at eight storeys.
‘We all want to see more people downtown’
Regardless of the OMB’s decision, Annette Burfoot and her fellow appellants need to pay that $100,000 legal bill. So far, they’ve raised $60,000 — much of it from their own and supporters’ pockets, including some money from a GoFundMe campaign — and hope to raise more through events like the art sale.
Vicki Schmolka, a former city councillor and another of the appellants in the OMB case, has no regrets about putting up a fight against the forces she believes could send Kingston down the wrong path.
“Kingston has an Official Plan that sets out what development should be — a plan that makes sense with the city, that respects its livable scale, that respects its cultural heritage,” Schmolka says.
As developers and skeptical residents clash over what downtown Kingston should look like, the biggest sticking point is height. How tall is too tall?
When it comes to the Capitol Theatre site, Schmolka says 16 storeys is indeed too tall.
“We all want to see more people downtown. I would even support residential intensification on that site,” she says. “But not at 16 storeys.”
This story is the first of a two-part series. Next week, Part Two will look at Kingston's so-called "obsession" with the height of new developments, which some believe is holding back development in the city.
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.
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