Twenty Storeys High: Is the Capitol Condo Development Good for Kingston?

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 Jimageuly 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.

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  1. #1 by Scott Shorkey on August 8, 2015 - 7:36 pm

    Lower height limits leading to poor architecture is a genuine concern. Bigger buildings offer more profit, meaning the developer can afford to spend more on aesthetic details.

    Also, height is better than width. A tall skinny building is far less disruptive to human scale than a short fat one. Ottawa’s strict height limits have led to buildings so wide, they literally consume the entire block resulting in nasty canyons throughout the core.

  2. #2 by nykita on August 20, 2015 - 1:57 pm

    I wish the Skeleton Park community cared and organized this way against gentrification in the neighbourhood. A affordable rooming house with six tenants gets converted to a fancy one [rich] family home any no one bats an eye. Happens again and again in the Skeleton Park community and no one cares. Landlords raise rents from 850 to 1100 no one cares.

    Someone tries to build more density so poor folks maybe can find a place to live? All those rich gentrifiers cry! How dare we make housing for the not so wealthy!

    When I see this blog, and the folks behind it, organize to stop the redevelopment of rental units to family homes I’ll take it as a sign this isn’t just a gentrifying site. When the folks start blockading renovations meant to kick out the poor folks I’ll take it as a sign.

  3. #3 by sammiking70 on August 25, 2015 - 4:02 pm

    Thanks for this important reminder, nkyita. Unfortunately, the Capitol building is not designed to be affordable in and of itself; moreover, building more houses does not necessarily lead to lower rents or purchase prices. In fact, densification without an affordable housing strategy often has the opposite effect. If Kingston “builds up,” without control of land prices, everyone but the upper middle classes and the super rich will be priced out of the downtown, as they have been in Vancouver and elsewhere. For these reasons, I cannot see this building helping to alleviate Kingston’s affordable housing crisis. A good chunk of these units are likely to be bought as investments by people who have several other homes and rented out (or even left vacant), pricing out those who need them. Government and not-for-profit funding, subsidy and regulation is the only way to ensure improved access to housing yet we seem to be further away than ever from this making this ideal a reality.

  4. #4 by Edward on September 20, 2015 - 3:52 pm

    Government and not-for-profit subsidy and regulation? That might be the dumbest thing I’ve ever read.

  5. #5 by GetReal on October 13, 2015 - 9:37 am

    Hey Kingstonians

    It’s things like this which cause your city to be stuck in the dark ages.

    I’m glad I got out of that cesspool when I had the chance.

    All you guys ever do is moan and complain whenever anything happens that might lend some credibility to your retirement village.

  6. #6 by Not an armchair capitalist on January 13, 2016 - 1:45 pm

    It amazes me people cannot see the forest from the trees.

    (Get out of town..) Take a look at North York, ON.

    It use to be a low rise, brownstone/store front landscape with a variety of multiple use shops and a sense of community.

    Now, the (remaining) brownstones are a poor mix of signage fronts of discount stores beside towering condo’s.

    The human scale, landscape and sense of community is lost. It looks like any other North American city.

    In addition; no one knows each other (they live in their box and car) – consumed of bling and screen time.

    This proposed tower in the centre of downtown will be a precedence for many more of these homogeneous skyscrapers.

    They and the people in these high end condo’s will lack any sense of our community and will over capacity many downtown community services such as Artillery park, that now is at capacity for use /parking.

    This project like most developers projects ONLY care about making a profit.

    They don’t care or (know) about the local community they plan to “develop” or they say its “for it own good”. “Visionaries”, community builders….

    I respect past developers of buildings that could actually “craft” a building and kept design size to human scale.

    Building stacked boxes for people lacks creativity and is only based on a ROI, return on investment. The more boxes they can stack the more the expense of the building will cover.

    The developer “marketing” for this condo also does not fully disclosing the monthly “maintenance fees” too.

    – “marketing” Artillery park’s” community/gym is within walking distance, is so they don’t need to supply a pool in the building (more condo expense/fees) so they will keep condo fees down, and over capacity the community centre on the backs of the downtown community now!

    The (vacant) local Blockbuster property (on Queen) just a few blocks away…is a much better place for such a project and should remain at the present zoning height of 6-7 stories.

    If they actual were innovators and cared about (zoning bylaws) “develop” that location and others on Queen St. that actually (fits) into the local landscape.

    A trick they use too is to initially – propose is a 20+ storey, but in the end will “compromise” to 16-18 storey with the City…(which is already in their plans) so they get what they want ..and cut back even further on infrastructure of the building (from their concept drawings) to make the same profits!

    The last comment is many visitors / tourists who come to Kingston for a small city / historical building experience..with eclectic shops, places to eat close to the water with human scale. They don’t want to see towering condos and box stores!

    Is Kingston stupid?????

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