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Planning staff consider Mizrahi building "landmark"

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One week until Planning Committee on October 27, city planners are recommending that Council go back to the Ontario Municipal Board with a position that the re-designed Mizrahi building is "landmark". The report, attached to this post below, suggests that the building is "distinctive" and "picturesque" enough that it deserves the landmark sobriquet. If Council accepts the recommendation, the door should be clear to Mizrahi's proposal to build a 12-storey building at the corner of Island Park and Wellington West.

Staff are also recommending that they review the policies of the Wellington West secondary plan and Official Plan to see how the words "landmark" and "gateway" are used - hopefully to prevent the City from finding itself in this bind again.

By now, I think most residents are aware that I do not consider the building to be "landmark" or to have the "wow factor" that the Board will use to make a determination of allowing 12 storeys or not. I've reproduced my comments in the report here. The staff report accepts that the building would be distinctive. That's not enough, in my view, to constitute a landmark. There are many reasons why a building might be considered distinctive, and not all of them for reasons that make a positive contribution to the community. While the Board has leaned heavily on concepts of distinctiveness, elegance and something called "picturesque" as criteria for landmark status, that list is non-exclusive. I would add to those that the building should relate to its context. This design clearly does not.

I should note that I'm very pleased that staff continue to argue that the 9-storey limit is appropriate, in keeping with their previous recommendations weighing in on the proposal generally. That ship, however, has sailed in the Board's May interim ruling. Its decision now will be only whether or not the building is landmark. It's important to note that the final decision is the Board's. Even if Council rejects staff's recommendation, and argues to the Board that the building isn't landmark, the final decision rests in the Board's hands.

I'll be spending the rest of the week preparing for Planning Committee and speaking with my colleagues. The Planning Committe meeting takes place on the 27th at 9:30 am, and members of the public are invited to make 5-minute presentations addressing the item.

Here are the comments I made with respect to the proposal, contained in the staff report.

With its May decision, the Ontario Municipal Board has created a thorny issue for the City. It ruled that a 12-storey building at the corner of Wellington Street West and Island Park Drive is permissible, but only if the architecture is worthy of the designation “landmark”. This is highly and unusually subjective.

The question now before Council is whether it is satisfied that changes to the design have resulted in – in the Board’s words – “a project with what, in the vernacular, the Board would call an element of ‘wow’.”
In my respectful opinion, it does not.

I have been following this development closely for several years, among the first to be consulted in my pre-election capacity with the Hintonburg Community Association. I have heard from more residents than I can count in the intervening time. This building became an election issue. Last month, I hosted a well-attended consultation and have received numerous emails and phone calls, in addition to being stopped on the street, since then.

To date, opinion has been divided – as it has the entire time the development has been under consideration. The large majority opinion remains opposed to this development, supporting the staff position, Planning Committee’s, and Council’s. Of course, some of that opposition is rooted in land use planning arguments that the Board has largely settled. I agree with those of my residents who consider that the secondary plan sets out density and height limits that are an appropriate compromise between the thrust to intensify this gateway corner and the strong desire not to overwhelm the location.

However, the question is now whether the architecture demonstrates an element of “wow”. Again, opinion is divided. I and the City have heard significant feedback on the design, and it has become possible to discern a strong majority that consider the design an improvement, but not to a degree that would render it landmark.

I agree with the points raised in this vein:

  • The architecture is out of context for the neighbourhood. There has been insufficient effort made to develop a theme that is of its place and time.
  • Even as a nod to the architecture of the Parliamentary precinct, the crown is out of scale to the rest of the building. Compare the proportions of copper roof to stone on the Chateau Laurier, for example, to the proportion of copper proposed for this project.
  • Much of the rest of the building will be crafted of pre-cast, the long term durability and attractiveness of which is a question.
  • The newly-designated Champlain Oil station kitty-corner to this proposed development is of a scale and architectural style that is more contextually appropriate, rendering this design still more out-of-place.
  • The windows in this design are oversized, imposing and out-of-scale to the pedestrian-friendly nature of the street. There is little about this design that is intended to foster a human-size understanding of the street.

Defining “landmark” architecture is, as noted, subjective. Mizrahi has made a significant effort to create a memorable building, but, I respectfully argue, has failed to be more than derivative. There are numerous architectural cues in the Island Park neighbourhood from which the architect might have chosen a theme: the nearby river, the crossroads, the art deco or cottage styles of nearby streets, and more. But instead of taking context into account, we are left to determine whether a Parliamentary precinct building is “wow” – or “wow” for the right reasons.

In this instance, while the design is a significant improvement, I support those residents who consider that the test set by Board – “in the vernacular” – has not been met. The secondary plan developed through extensive consultation should prevail in the absence of a clear mandate from the community to proceed on the basis of architectural excellence.

Posted October 20, 2015