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Bob Forrest and the Clock Tower Redevelopment

Bob Forrest has spent five long years on the Clock Tower project. Patiently assembling the land he needs for his giant disfiguring condo in the heart of Newmarket’s historic downtown. But has he bitten off more than he can chew?

Like most developers he takes the long view. He is prepared to sit out the opposition, waiting until they tire, give up and move on with their lives. He stays the course knowing the financial rewards are immense.

Bob is an honourable man

The Forrest Group website tells us “Bob is an honourable man, of conviction and tenacity.” And one of his key strengths is “his ability to look at dirt but see development.”

Bob prefers to deal directly with planning staff. If the public gets involved they bring with them new and unwelcome unpredictability and uncertainties. Better to deal with the professional planners direct. No matter how controversial the proposal, Bob can endlessly ask for their views and re-shape the concept and fine-tune his plans in a bid to get their OK.  He needs the planners to recommend approval.

This is the way our broken planning system works.

Planners and Developers are made to tango

The developers and the planning professionals have a symbiotic relationship. They both need each other. Too often, the planners see their role as facilitating development rather than being the community’s first line of defence against inappropriate development. The planners do not owe their primary allegiance to the Town that employs them but, rather, to their own professional planning credo. If they regard a development as “good planning" or, less likely, "bad planning” they are obliged to say so regardless of what their employer (the Town) may think.

Bob Forrest recognizes the importance of this relationship and sings its virtues in his website:

“By leveraging our strong reputation and existing relationships with municipal staff and politicians we have successfully achieved results for both simple projects and those that present complex structural and environmental challenges.”

The Clock Tower certainly presents huge challenges. He needs Town owned land for the project to proceed as planned. And he faces a large, varied but well organised group of skeptics who believe his condo would be an outrageous desecration of the Town’s heritage conservation district.

The Gospel according to Saint Bob

Fortunately we know what we are up against. The saintly Bob tells us he conducts his business life by following these maxims:

  1. “Treat others as you would wish to be treated.”
  2. “Make no promises you cannot deliver, then deliver on your promises.”
  3. “Never make a deal you would not yourself accept.”
  4. “Acknowledge your errors.”

Bob’s hagiographic website celebrates his commitment to integrity and innovation and his abiding commitment to his business partners and to business ethics.

This is the same Bob Forrest who wants to transform Newmarket’s heritage conservation district by demolishing a number of its historic commercial buildings to make room for a giant out-of-place condo.  

Boarded-up Main Street

In December 2013 Bob had the first of a series of discussions with his business tenants on Main Street, all of whom have now been evicted from the properties they rented from him. These properties are all now boarded up and have been for many months.

The business tenants facing eviction wondered if they could be accommodated in the empty King George School round the corner in Park Avenue, just beyond the library. It was sold by the York Region School Board in 2011 to Chrisula Selfe for $1,275,000 and has been gently falling to bits since. Occasionally you can see a light burning in one of the old classrooms. They ask for Bob’s help.

Bob offers to approach the owner – a person he describes as a Bay Street financial type - but is rebuffed. Bob tells his business tenants the owner of the old school is just going to let it sit there and worry about it some day.

Heritage By Law wrong-footed Bob

Bob tells his business tenants he was wrong footed by the Heritage By Law and didn’t see it coming. It takes him completely by surprise. He says he lodged his planning application before the Town inconsiderately passed its By Law. This complicates things. He tells them he had been working with the Town for two years before the By Law was passed (but, astonishingly, had no inkling it was in the pipeline). He says he appealed the By Law although he is not against the Heritage Conservation District per se – only insofar as it may affect his condo project. He tells them he hates to be in this position.

Because of this unexpected hiccough Bob is prepared to let his business tenants stay where they are a little bit longer.

Bob is asked if he has a demolition permit for the properties at 184-194 Main Street South. No he doesn’t but he can evict them anyway. He tells them it is in their separate leases. He offers a six month extension and then go month by month.

Bob stresses he is trying to be helpful. He says the old buildings will be maintained – to the extent of keeping the water out – and the tenants’ rents will be frozen for as long as they are there.

Bob wants his business tenants out but fears boarded-up shop fronts

Now Bob declares that from a totally selfish vantage point he would much prefer them to vacate the properties. He could then board them up. However, he fears the Town would go apoplectic at the sight of a long row of boarded up properties. He tells them this would speed things up but then says there are all sorts of reasons why he shouldn’t do this.

Bob wraps up by telling them:

I don’t want to at all sound arbitrary but it is very real for me. My business isn’t renting stores. My business is building buildings and I want to get to the point that I can build my building at the earliest possible moment.

Bob’s right hand man, Chris Bobyk, told the Business Improvement Area Board of Management in November last year that Bob “plans to proceed with a new application for (the) proposed multi-storey Clock Tower project early in the new year.”

As I say, the Town’s planners, for their own reasons, may recommend approval of Bob’s grotesque Condo plan. Who knows? They are a law unto themselves.

But, given this possibility and the cauterizing experience of Glenway, Councillors should make contingency arrangements now to bring in heritage-aware planning consultants to defend the Town’s heritage conservation district policy if their own paid employees decide not to.

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