We all know that real estate is about location, location, location, but it appears that the City of Guelph and a local developer have somehow mislaid this wisdom.
Rykur Holdings, a local development firm, wants to build a five-story apartment building just below the tip of the highest hill in downtown Guelph, right beside the landmark Basilica of Our Lady. Historically, the most significant building in the city. It is a National Historic Site.
How could this happen? How can a city that - presumably - long ago left behind the small-town planning approach, support whatever development comes our way? No serious planning questions asked — just review the present planning rules and see if we can squeeze this one in!
Guelph is not desperate for growth, There are more than 30 development applications active in the city. Change is everywhere. So what gives?
First, city planning has been pushed, by provincial mandate, into densification mode. Drop a five-story apartment complex on a former tennis court site, and presto, we have densification. Guelph feels pressured to support whatever densification comes its way. Provincial mandate has compromised our community’s vision for our future.
Second, Guelph recently created a Downtown Secondary Plan as a “focus for intensification and the achievement of a minimum density target of 150 people and jobs combined per hectare by 2031.”
The Plan has merit. In particular, long sightlines from various vantage points around the city to the historic Basilica of Our Lady are protected. You don’t get to put up a building that blocks the tourist attraction of this iconic site.
But, no consideration was given to the visual impact on its immediate neighbours or to the reaction of the many appreciative Guelphites who cherish the view where they live, work and walk. The tourist factor has overshadowed community care for the core.
Even the tourists will be distracted to what would lie beside the unfettered view of those soaring towers on the church — a boxy building, a jarring smudge above the tree tops, a blight on the elegant symmetry of the skyline.
Third, serious work has started on supporting the Downtown Plan with a Downtown Zoning By-law Update. Here’s where things get technical. The city’s draft by-law changes the land in question from institutional to a zone that technically allows four-story apartments everywhere in the downtown, including on top of the hill next to the church.
Even before the by-law has been finalized, the developer is asking for major concessions — five stories, as well as the easing of other restrictions. By including affordable housing units, propped up with federal money which has an expiry date, the developer has succeeded in putting added pressure on our planning process. Federal government tax dollars are undermining our deliberative good sense.
The Ryker Holdings proposed development has potential to be a great asset to Guelph. The concept drawings have character. Affordable housing is important. Accommodation for seniors would be great. Almost anywhere else on the edge of Guelph’s urban growth centre this proposal would be a tasteful addition.
But not here. Not right beside the Basilica of Our Lady. Not at the top of a hill that slopes steeply away in all four directions. Not beside a school, throwing its playground and peace garden into shade. Not beside a neighbourhood of two-story family homes.
Guelph can do better.
Elbert & Nellie van Donkersgoed
Glasgow Street North and Dublin Street North, Guelph