Posts Tagged Empire Capitol 7

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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Limited Screening: In Which a Chain Movie Outfit Abandons Downtown Kingston but a Local Gem Still Shines.

By Jamie Swift

valentines_theatreA year ago last February a couple of dozen people gathered on a chilly afternoon in front of the Empire cinema on downtown Princess Street. It wasn’t long before the doors of the venerable movie house with the ornate façade were plastered with Valentine’s Day stickers.

Most had been fashioned by the children who made up half the crowd. They had taped their pink paper hearts all over the doors through which generations of Kingston movie-goers had passed.

Those days were numbered.

The Nova Scotia based Empire cinema chain had decided to follow the familiar corporate path of shuttering downtown movie houses, decamping to suburban big box land. The protestors from DARN! thought this was a bad idea and hoped to change the company’s mind by sending messages of love to Empire’s Stellarton headquarters.

“We love the movies downtown!” “Please keep our movie theatre open!”

After the television cameras and news photographers had left, the Downtown Action Revitalization Network people carefully removed their decorations. A volunteer  packed them up together with a letter explaining the community concern over the planned closure.

The company, part of the Sobey’s grocery and real estate colossus, never replied. Its “corporate social responsibility” claim states that “We believe a commitment to community is fundamental to sustaining our success and we encourage our employees, franchisees and affiliates to participate in enhancing the well-being of the communities in which they live and work. “

photo1In spite of it all, Empire closed the cinema. And, to add insult to injury, insisted on a “no-compete” clause in any sales agreement with potential buyers. Anyone buying the building, purpose built as a movie theatre, has to agree not to use it to …. show movies.

“People love to take in a movie and have dinner at one of our great local restaurants,” said DARN!’s Marney McDiarmid at the time. “Closing this magnet attraction would be bad for downtown and all the businesses that we support there.”

photo2The old cinema has been closed for months now.  A new Empire megaplex has sprung up just west of the Division Street ketchup strip – just behind the No Frills store that controversially relocated out there when another supermarket behemoth, Loblaws, closed its Bagot Street store outlet a few years back. Should they sell their near north end property, the buyer won’t be allowed to put a food store there.

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All is not lost. Kingston has a solid track record of supporting independent, downtown cinemas.

In 1988, the non-profit Princess Court Cinema opened its upstairs venue on Princess just below Division. The single screen, co-operatively run movie house enjoyed a good run, screening a diverse selection of films and often mixing several titles in a single week.

When the Princess Court closed some ten years later, it wasn’t long before Terry Atherton opened The Screening Room in a two screen space further down Princess. It proved fairly successful, but lots of work. After several years Ms. Atherton sold the Screening Room to Wendy Huot, its current owner.

The energetic Ms. Huot began to expand the Screening Room’s programming, adding a Cinematica Classics series. It features everything from musical classics like Singing in the Rain to the Coen brothers early, unforgettable classic The Big Lebowski. The Screening Room now has a sophisticated website and a membership-based Film Society. It also works with community groups to organize special documentary screenings featuring speakers on everything from the Jews of Nigeria (Re-Emerging) to recent developments in El Salvador. Or the efforts of Donald Trump to despoil the Scottish coast with golf courses.

Having a downtown cinema adds immeasurably to Kingston’s cultural mix. The Screening Room shows both first-run, quality movies that get short shrift from the megaplex outfits as well as art-house, foreign, alternative, and classic cinema. It also provides a vital home to our locally-based film festivals, ReelOut and the Kingston Canadian Film Festival.

Of course, some will say that the movie theatre is a thing of the past, soon to go the way of the broad-faced poteroo. That we’ll be streaming and downloading from here on in. That video stores are in decline. That we have to be realistic, recognizing that from here on in we’ll be sitting by ourselves, staring into postcard sized screens.

But there’s something wrong with this picture. What can replace the wonderful experience of watching a movie on a big screen with fine sound, in the company of others? And being able to stroll or cycle to the movies instead of driving out to a soulless expanse of asphalt only to be bombarded by a numbing barrage of commercial propaganda.

Think about it. At the megaplex you pay to be deluged by ads. The Screening Room offers freedom from commercial speech. No ads.
Kingston’s funky independent cinema has one thing in common with the canned corporate movie experience. It smells of popcorn. And yet it exists, even thrives, a step or two outside the commercial mainstream.  Instead of minimum wage hirelings, it is staffed by movie buffs who love the movies and get to see them free in exchange for their volunteer labour.

One final note: Wendy recently managed to procure a complete set of comfy seats from the downtown Empire after it closed.
Please join the folks from DARN! in one of our trademark swarms, this one in support of The Screening Room, Saturday, April 6. One marvelously creative wrinkle:  Harkening back to the days before the talkies, local musician Spencer Evans will accompany Buster Keaton short Cops on piano before the main feature, The Princess Bride.

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Kingston writer and realtor Mark Sinnett has a wonderful little article on his MachinesForLivingIn blog. It deals with the new Empire megaplex and the local commercial-entertainment nexus.

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