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Kingston neighbours upset with revised housing next to landmark church

Former church land slated for more housing than originally planned with 16 rental units proposed.
Former church land slated for more housing than originally planned with 16 rental units proposed. CKWS TV

A revised housing plan next to a former church in Kingston‘s Portsmouth Village isn’t sitting well with some of the neighbours.

The new owners of land surrounding the Church of the Good Thief at 743 King St. West are seeking city council’s approval to construct two, six-plex apartment buildings fronting on McDonald Avenue and Baiden Street, and to convert the church’s former rectory into four rental apartments.

The housing redevelopment is vastly different than what the city had initially approved for the site a few years ago.

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The latest proposal is to create 16 rental housing units and 22 parking spaces — one for each tenant and six for the use of the church — on the half-hectare site.

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The historic Roman Catholic church and its iconic square bell tower are not part of the development and will remain owned by the church.

The former Church of the Good Thief with its iconic bell tower, closed in 2013.
The former Church of the Good Thief with its iconic bell tower, closed in 2013. CKWS TV

The church, built in 1894 from limestone quarried by inmates at nearby Kingston Penitentiary, closed in 2013 due to a dwindling congregation, costly upkeep and declining numbers in the priesthood.

In 2016, the Archdiocese of Kingston received municipal approval to sever the landmark property, retaining the historic church for religious archival purposes, while selling the back and side portions of the property for private housing development, including the rectory and parish hall.

The former church, which will become the St. Dismas Archives, requires restoration work on the deteriorating bell tower.

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The Archdiocese wants the restoration work to coincide with the construction of modular apartment units built by Zahlco Construction, and urged the city not to delay the project, according to a letter from Kingston Archbishop Michael Mulhall.

“As we have now completed the Master Plan for the church restoration, and the development of the archives, we are now trying to synchronize our construction with Zahlco,” said Mulhall in a letter to city staff.

However, the latest rezoning application to build modular, multi-family apartments nearly 12 metres tall has irked some neighbours.

The former rectory adjacent to the Church of the Good Thief would be converted into four private rental apartments, plus the construction of two, six-unit buildings on the property.
The former rectory adjacent to the Church of the Good Thief would be converted into four private rental apartments, plus the construction of two, six-unit buildings on the property. CKWS TV

“The current proposal will completely change the character of the neighbourhood, “ said nearby property owner Brad Strawbridge in a letter to the city.

He says the revised project – with two six-unit apartments instead of three single-family homes – seeks too many concessions from current planning rules, noting the requested changes provide reduced setbacks from the street.

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“The mass, height, and density of the project are unlike anything that currently exists in the neighbourhood.”

Strawbridge also took issue with the modular design of the three-storey, wood-frame, walk up apartments, noting the size and configuration will look out of character in the neighbourhood and on the church property itself.

“What they are proposing, fits in with nothing in the neighbourhood.”

The developer is proposing to build two, three-storey buildings with a total of 12 rental units on the former church-owned land in Portsmouth Village.
The developer is proposing to build two, three-storey buildings with a total of 12 rental units on the former church-owned land in Portsmouth Village. City of Kingston planning documents

Local resident Rosemary Wilson voiced concerns about the pending removal of nine old-growth trees to make room for the new housing, as well as with increased traffic and on-street parking congestion in her neighbourhood near St. Lawrence College.

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“I’ll admit we were surprised by this application as we had been led to believe the plans for the lots were higher‐end row housing of two floors.”

Wilson says she supports residential intensification, but urged planners to go back to the drawing board.

“I do think that additional work needs to be done to ensure development is appropriate.”

Two, three-storey apartments would be constructed on the back of the former church property at Baiden Street and McDonald Avenue.
Two, three-storey apartments would be constructed on the back of the former church property at Baiden Street and McDonald Avenue. City of Kingston planning document

Phileen Dickinson, president of the Portsmouth District Community Association, has endorsed the church property redevelopment.

“The Portsmouth District Community Association believes that this development is consistent with the evolution of the Portsmouth community as the Providence Care hospital and its surroundings expand.”

Dickinson says while the housing and church restoration projects are very different, the church archive project is tied to the housing approval.

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“If the residential development is not approved, financing of the conservation and repurposing of the Church will be significantly impacted. We encourage all parties to reach agreements so that the Church of the Good Thief building can be a landmark in Portsmouth for another century.”

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City planners also support the rezoning application, which will be discussed at the Jan. 9 meeting of the planning committee. The final decision rests with city council.

“The proposed buildings represent compatible residential infill development on underutilized lots in a central location within the urban boundary,” according to a staff report.