When it comes to development, can Kingston overcome its fear of heights?

One of Canada’s most respected urbanists says local opposition to tall condo projects is making Kingston’s housing crunch worse — and allowing low-quality designs to flourish
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on June 26, 2018
a view of Kingston, Ontario's downtown area
Behind Kingston’s historic city hall stands the 16-storey Harbour Place condo building. (David Rockne Corrigan)

KINGSTON — Vancouver’s former chief planner did not mince words about the city’s track record on urban planning and design when he visited Kingston in January.

“You have some of the worst architecture on a waterfront that I have ever seen,” Brent Toderian told the Kingston Whig-Standard at the time, “and I have seen waterfronts all over the world.”

Toderian had originally planned to be in town for one night, as a speaker at the Kingston Climate Change Symposium. But the city asked Toderian to stay for the week and provide advice about its planning challenges. His work culminated in a presentation to city council and the public about the “battle going on between city hall and community and heritage activists.”

“One of my main observations,” Toderian recalls, “[is] that the conversation [is] almost entirely focused on how many floors a project has. And as a result, you were getting some very poorly designed buildings, in my opinion.”

Kingston’s 0.7 per cent rental vacancy rate (0.5 per cent in the downtown core) is the lowest in the province, which suggests that there’s an urgent need for more rental housing in the city. Paige Agnew, the city’s director of planning, says Kingston will need to get serious about residential intensification in the core if it’s going to solve the housing problem.

“Our council has said that we want to be a 21st-century smart city that embraces smart growth and sustainability,” Agnew says. “In order to achieve that, from a planning perspective, you have to have inward densification.” In other words, Kingstonians will have to accept taller buildings.

Yet community debates around condo development in downtown Kingston have turned into protracted legal battles. Several projects have been delayed for years, and height is the most frequent point of contention.  

For instance, the debate around the Capitol Condos development — a proposed building on the site of a former movie theatre — has focused largely on height (as TVO.org reported last week). Opponents say that, at 16 storeys, the project is too tall and could diminish Kingston’s heritage character. The Ontario Municipal Board heard an appeal in March, more than two years after city council first voted to approve the project.

A proposal to build 17- and 19-storey condos (containing 400 units each) at the bottom of Queen Street, two blocks away from historic City Hall, has encountered similar opposition. The developer filed an OMB appeal, arguing that the city took too long to make a decision. On Ontario Street, some residents are decrying a proposed 20-storey condo at the former Marine Museum of the Great Lakes.

Toderian says that by focusing on height to the exclusion of almost everything else, community activists are missing an opportunity to constructively criticize development proposals. He thinks Kingston needs to rethink its position on height and pay more attention to the quality of the buildings it approves, with special focus on how proposed designs integrate heritage elements.

“Because you’re so focused on height, you’re losing your heritage features. You’re still getting tall buildings, just not as tall. You’re getting fat, ugly buildings,” he says. “And yet you’re claiming victory because you managed to shave some floors off the building.”

Not long after Toderian left Kingston in January, the city asked him to continue advising the planning department, which he still does.

Says Agnew: “We need to change the conversation in Kingston from one that was very polarized into one that is a lot more informed, nuanced, and sophisticated. There are ways to encourage great development in the city, and it doesn’t have to come at the expense of heritage.

“We have to keep talking about these things as a city. And, unfortunately, not everybody is going to be happy.”

Kingston mayor Bryan Paterson says he knows that housing and development — and their impact on the city’s heritage — are burning issues, and that he understands there’s growing frustration among developers and investors, who are beginning to sour on Kingston due to lengthy OMB delays and a perception that the city is stuck in the past.

Paterson says Kingston is committed to addressing the housing shortage: “Housing has absolutely become a top political priority; we have to get more housing built in the community. But I will say that the provincial appeal process through the OMB has been an enormous frustration and a real challenge for us.”

He is hopeful that reforms to the OMB — now known as the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal — will result in a smoother and faster approval process, from proposal to completion.

Meanwhile, Kingston stands to receive $3.65 million over five years through the province’s Development Charges Rebate Program, which is designed to encourage landlords and developers to build more rental housing. That funding, Agnew says, could add hundreds of units each year to the market. (The incoming Progressive Conservative government will have to confirm the grant.)

Paterson acknowledges that in a city like Kingston, which is known for its devotion to architectural heritage, there will be pushback when it comes to downtown intensification. But he says the notion that Kingstonians must choose between development and heritage is false — he believes that the city can fulfill its vision of becoming “Canada’s most sustainable city” while still honouring its historic past.

“I know that the downtown’s become a flashpoint for development,” Paterson says. “But we do need more housing development in the downtown, and frankly, there’s just not as much space. So if you want to build more housing, it means taller buildings.”

This story is the second of a two-part series. Last week, Part One looked at how Kingston's heritage advocates were fighting certain developments 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.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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