Archive for August, 2015
by Samantha King
Kingstonites have good reason to be concerned about a proposal to build a twenty-storey condo tower, “The Capitol,” on the site of the former movie theatre at 223 Princess Street.
At a July 22 meeting organized by the McBurney Park Neighbourhood Association, In8 Development’s Darryl Firsten presented his company’s plan for the building, which would dwarf the characterful two and three storey retail and service spaces that largely comprise the downtown core. Two councilors, Jim Neill and Jeff McLaren, were in attendance and listening intently to public concerns.
Not one member of the public spoke in favour of a structure this high. Instead, speaker after speaker addressed the effect of the tower on the heritage look and feel of downtown and the fear that this project would provide other high-rise-happy developers—especially those with their sights trained on the North Block—a proverbial foot in the door.
While Mr. Firsten attempted to address heritage concerns by claiming that the height of the building would be unnoticed by people in its immediate vicinity, he refused to acknowledge that such concerns extend beyond Princess Street to the fact that the tower would dominate the skyline of Kingston and change its look and feel forever. He also did nothing to allay fears that should the city grant a bylaw exemption for a 20-storey building, there would be significant pressure from other developers to have the same (or greater) exception applied to them.
Through letters to the planning committee and at a previous public meeting, concerned citizens have outlined numerous additional problems that are likely to arise from this development: High rise corridors of luxury condos tend to lead to higher rents for small businesses which are subsequently replaced with chain stores, banks, and other service-sector tenants who cater primarily to the corporate classes. Such a transformation is already underway along Princess Street and the building of the Capitol would only intensify this trend. If there are to be a mix of people living downtown, the need to build affordable housing with low access points is crucial.
There are also practical concerns about the creation of wind tunnels and shade, car traffic congestion, the volume of garbage and recycling that would be generated in an area where this is already a problem, the ability of surrounding retail businesses to survive during the build, and the upshot of all of these effects for the city’s tourism industry.
Critics of the project are keen to note their support for downtown densification and at least some are willing to support a 10-storey building in this space. Unsurprisingly, the developer seems interested in hearing only specific and small-scale suggestions about the aesthetics and design of the building. They clearly plan to push for 20 storeys and it remains unclear what they are willing to settle for should City Council reject the proposal or seek a compromise.
Mr Firsten did not answer a question about the point at which his company would walk away from the project should they be required to lower their ambitions, but he was frustratingly adamant that there was no way to build an attractive 10-storey building in that space. The public is rightly skeptical of Firsten’s repeated claim that the only architectural possibility for a shorter building at 223 Princess is an “ugly blob.” The available plot is admittedly complex in its layout, but there are other examples of attractive downtown densification projects within blocks of the proposed site. Anna Lane, the new condo building at Queen and Bagot, was a frequent point of comparison, although it sits at the base of the hill and thus folds more organically into the low-rise streetscape of downtown than would a 20-storey building at its top.
I left the meeting with Mr Firsten with a longer list of concerns about the project than I had going in and the feeling that leaving the space empty would be better than building 20 storeys. I also have some hope that with enough pushback, a compromise solution sensitive to the human scale, the heritage feel of the city, and to a diversity of social and economic interests might prevail.