Our Lady of the Condos development

Last night I had the pleasure to attend the public meeting held by Ashcroft to unveil their proposal for developing the Soeurs de la Visitation site on Richmond Road, just west of Island Park Drive. This is a five acre site, still occupied by the cloistered convent buildings even if the nuns are leaving.

The meeting was well attended (about 300 people) in a very hot church basement. The Ashcroft slide show was a thorough review of the planning process leading up to the proposed plan. They then went through the plan in a lot of detail. It was good consultation, with a concerned and well mannered audience.

My first impression was they were putting in a lot of buildings, but the site does remain 50% open space, and the building massing and stepping up in height was well handled. The site plan consists of five or six buildings and twelve courtyard spaces, each one handled with thought and care, not just empty spaces. I have some doubts about how pedestrian friendly the front courtyard will be given that it is for use by cars and pedestrians on an undifferentiated surface (ie people and cars mix — no sidewalk! It may be all the planning rage in Holland but Wonufs didn’t work here either…).

Questions from the audience were generally thoughtful, with a few grandstanding ones thrown in. I am not surprised that someone would prefer they get their view of the convent buildings while driving by at 40km, but I was surprised they would actually admit to that in public. Instead, the heritage people claim it is a cloistered building to be viewed close up, and for heritage honesty they kept the public views from inside the site, up close. Of course, this conveniently left the Richmond Road frontage clear for the largest building and commercial spaces as part of the Main Street facade.

Also on the heritage aspect, I was disappointed to learn that the Sisters have painted over all the decorated walls and pictures with gray paint, presumably for some religious reason that escapes me. They are apparently planning to strip the building of some of its heritage stair cases to resell. Hmm. But then they aren’t the Soeurs de la Charite.

One speaker encouraged the audience to express by show of hands if they thought it was too dense a development, and got only about 50% show of hands. Whether others disagreed with the notion, or his method of voting, was unclear.

The proponents made clear they were providing a variety of housing types for a variety of markets, with a generous dose of old-age units. I thought this was a progressive program and well in tune with reality, but it generated little positive spin amongst the audience (and one speaker who thought all those “paying” people would object to rowdy parties on the lawn that, apparently, he hoped to partake in).

Access to the large development was contentious. No one wants more car traffic on their own street. Yet most people still want to drive cars …  I thought one way to reduce the impact of a new driveway across the Byron streetcar right of way/linear park, would be to reverse the proponents plan. It calls for an at-grade road across the park and entering a parking garage ramp under the first building. Instead, why not put the down ramp out along the Byron road allowance, perhaps eating a bit into the park, then take it under the park into the garages of the development, allowing the Byron park to continue over top of the underground ramp with little or no interruption. This would completely remove the pedestrian/cyclist – car collision possibility and preserve at least 50% more of the Byron park than the current plan.

It remains to be seen how economic the plan is, whether the community will go for it, and what jockying for positions there might be as it is an election year. But I thought the process was off to a good start, with a considerate proposal that attempted to address many neighborhood concerns.

One tendency I do regret is that it is human nature to compare the current site to the current proposal, without considering economics, and without considering how well the proposal will fit into a future city that continues to grow. If we don’t want sprawl … where do we put people? If we don’t develop the “vacant” sites, do we demolish existing neighborhoods to build anew? If we load up developments with a huge wishlist of “features” for the neighborhood, when does this become an unfair tax on the people who want to buy the units. And make no mistake, those buyers are our children, our parents, and ourselves.