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Clock Tower plans get rough ride

A special meeting of Newmarket’s Committee of the Whole met yesterday (Monday 17 June)  to hear Chris Bobyk from the Forrest Group explain why the Town's historic Main Street needs a shiny new condo building, sitting immediately behind and dwarfing the iconic Clock Tower.

With a straight face, Bobyk assures councillors his goal is “to preserve the historic character of Main Street”. His boss, the close cropped self styled “entrepreneur”, Bob Forrest, is equally impassive but inside he is laughing.

We are told the developers are listening to what people want and they have modified the Clock Tower plans accordingly.

One storey is to be removed but, to compensate, the footprint of the new condo is to be extended out towards Newmarket’s Public Library.

There will be 145 apartments and six commercial retail units – exactly the same as the earlier proposal.

The developers have set back parts of the new condo to improve sightlines. They have replaced brick with glass here and there. They have employed heritage consultants to advise them and we are told their views have informed the redesign.

It is all complete cobblers. This is how they get their approvals. They put forward something completely outrageous and then make it slightly less so.

The planners recommend councillors "receive" their report on the Clock Tower. This means they don’t want any discussion. But the councillors are allowed to quiz the developers - but only to clarify points.

My heart sinks.

I expect to see a line of councillors, faces as blank and expressionless as Easter Island statues, saying nothing.

Here is their opportunity. They can ask a zillion questions of the developer. And, for good measure, they can grill the Town’s own professional planning staff whose report on the Clock Tower is inadequate.

The Clock Tower is in his patch but Ward 5 councillor Joe Sponga is absent. His empty chair speaks volumes.

Tom Vegh and Dave Kerwin say nothing.

John Taylor mentions the reduction in height and notes the number of apartments stays the same.

He asks Bobyk how far away the proposed development is from the GO station. Bobyk stutters and shakes his head. He has got the note somewhere but it is not to hand.

Now Taylor asks about parking issues. Who doesn’t?

Jane Twinney wants to know if the 80 parking stalls allocated to the Town (at a cost to the Town of $30,000 each) are underground? Yes, says Bobyk, adding triumphantly that there will be elevators too!

Twinney coos: “I do really like this development! Much better than the previous one.”

Now it is the turn of Chris Emanuel who starts with parking issues before asking a series of process questions about the statutory public meeting and so on. He likes the process stuff.

Now he asks Bobyk how the proposed development fits into the Town’s Cultural Master Plan, as claimed by the developer.

Bobyk appears flustered. He tells us “potters or artists” could take out a lease on the commercial spaces in the complex. Oh dear! Is that the best he can do?

We move on…

In the planners’ covering report to the Committee there is not a single reference to the decision of the Town’s Heritage Advisory Committee in April to reject the Clock Tower development.

Now Ward 4’s Tom Hempen wants to know if the developer will be meeting the Committee again and if its view will be reported in due course to the Council.

Bobyk says the Advisory committee had concerns about the building’s height, mass and scale (which doesn’t leave a lot). He plans to meet the Chair, Athol Hart, after this meeting and before the formal planning application is submitted to the Town.

Right on cue comes Maddie Di Muccio with a staccato series of questions that cleverly puts the developer on the spot.

She wants to know if the proposed development fits in with existing policy. What about the obvious conflicts with the Town’s Heritage Conservation District Plan, endorsed by the Council in 2011?

She asks how the proposal squares with the Conservation Districts height cap – two to three storeys max.

Maddie is on good form, asking the probing questions too often ignored by others.

She wants to know what people at the meeting on 4 April, where the proposed redevelopment was first unveiled, thought about it all.

I hear Bobyk say there were about 200 people there and the views split 50:50.

A complete invention! No vote was taken and the mood was politely sceptical.

Now Maddie innocently asks why staff time and resources are going into a proposed development where there is, as yet, no formal application.

Alas, this is how the system works. Private meetings are held between Town planning staff and developers before proposals are floated in public. Developers want to test the water.

Proposals can be changed and tweaked in endless “iterations” before the planners are confident enough to sign the project off.  The councillors then rubber-stamp the planners’ decision.

(In this case, the planners’ report says the Owner has met with staff, giving the clear impression that Bob Forrest owns the entire site. He doesn’t. He owns the Clock Tower residence. He is negotiating to buy out the other landowner.)

The Town’s Chief Planner, Rick Nethery, tells Maddie the developer’s formal application will be evaluated against the policies set out in the Conservation District Plan.

I am left wondering what the developer will do about sightlines, vistas and panoramas that are highlighted in all the official literature on Heritage Conservation Districts.

The Province of Ontario says this in its heritage toolkit:

“The significance of a heritage conservation district often extends beyond its built heritage, structures, streets, landscape and other physical and spatial elements to include important vistas and views between and towards buildings and spaces within the district.”

The Forrest Group’s proposals would obliterate views of the Clock Tower from Lorne looking down Park Avenue.

The view down Main Street South from the brow of the hill would be destroyed.

The historic downtown skyline as seen from Prospect would be changed forever.

Now it is the turn of members of the public who found out about the meeting by luck and good fortune.

First up is Bob Buchan, President of the Newmarket Historical Society. He is speaking in a personal capacity. He doesn’t want councillors to rush into a decision and urges caution.

Chris Morris echoes these concerns. He wonders if six storeys on Main Street could set a precedent and that the now empty King George School on Park Avenue could become the next bone of contention with developers.

Many speakers fear a precedent would be set with ripple developments down Main Street destroying the historic Town Centre. This is something the planners do not address.

Now it is Ron Caister’s turn.

Ron is from the Town’s Heritage Advisory Committee and a man of few words. The little he says has great resonance. He tells Bobyk bluntly the development is way too big and would dominate the downtown.

I hear murmurs of approval around me.

Jackie Player steps forward to say her piece, amplifying the points made in her letter supporting the proposed development. She sweetly tells us she loves the old downtown but she loves the development too! She is convinced both can happily live together.

Now a blistering contribution from Dave Hunter who owns the furniture and upholstery business on Main Street “Lemon and Lime”.

In a gripping display of suppressed outrage he turns on Chris Bobyk who told us earlier that feedback on the proposed development from business owners on Main Street had been positive.

Not so.

Dave reels off a list of business owners on Main who would reject that categorisation.

He tears into Bobyk, accusing him of misleading the Committee.

The pot is now coming to a fast boil.

The Mayor wants to cool things down.

Now Ann Martin, a property owner on Main Street, has her say.

She is not against condos but it would be nice on Davis Drive. Not on Main Street.

It is a sentiment shared by many.

Now the Mayor winds up, thanking everyone for their views, promising there will be plenty of opportunities to make our voices heard.

He always says that.

And we buy the line when we should know better.

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