Despite nearly six years of feuding over height versus heritage, all it took was a walk in the park to lay the groundwork for a compromise deal for downtown Kingston’s Capitol condominium project.
“I met with Bryon Springer last November. We started talking about what might be possible,” says Vicki Schmolka, a former city councillor and key member of the group Building Kingston’s Future, of how the somewhat surprising deal came about.
Springer is co-owner of the Springer Group of Companies, a Kingston-based property management firm. He says a division of his company has a business partnership with IN8 Developments in the Capitol condo project.
While IN8 president Darryl Firsten has largely remained the public face of the Capitol condo project, Springer says he was keen to play a more direct role when faced with the prospect of yet another legal challenge.
“It was as simple as a walk in the park.”
Building Kingston’s Future and the Frontenac Heritage Foundation had already waged a costly but successful appeal of the 16-storey condo proposed by IN8 Developments in 2018 when the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT) ruled it was too tall for the surrounding neighbourhood.
Read more: 16 floor Capitol condo rejected by LPAT
The same groups were getting ready to launch a second round of arguments before the LPAT over the developer’s revised 12-storey proposal for a residential building on the vacant Capitol movie theatre at 223 Princess St.
Springer says he began looking for other ways last fall to resolve the seemingly never-ending dispute, even though he says the development group was still “very bullish and optimistic” that it could win the next LPAT appeal after the revised zoning bylaw for a 12-storey building was approved by council in October 2020.
“Even though we felt we might’ve been successful at the LPAT hearing because there was more broad-based support on council, looking at the time frame and looking at what was best for the community, we thought, ‘What if we could come to a resolution of the matter?'”
Springer says he recalled that opponents had earlier referred to the nine-floor Anna Lane condominium, located on Queen Street just two blocks from the contentious Capitol project, as an acceptable comparison.
The comparison would eventually turn into a compromise.
“So our epiphany was to basically take a look at zoning permissions for the Anna Lane project, overlay those onto 223 Princess St. and sketch out what it might look like,” he said.
The next step, according to Springer, was to reach out to well-known local heritage architect Bruce Downey, who had testified on behalf of the appellants during the initial 16-storey building appeal, to see if opponents would be interested in opening up a discussion.
The overture then led to a phone call between Schmolka and Springer where they agreed to a somewhat off-the-beaten path meeting at Douglas Fluhrer Park last Nov. 19.
Schmolka says Building Kingston’s Future was curious to see what the developer had in mind during her “walk in the park” conversation with Springer without prejudice, meaning whatever was said during the informal meeting could not be used against either party during a future LPAT hearing.
Schmolka says her group also wanted to dispel a nagging reputation it had earned among some in the community.
“Along the way we got portrayed by people as being against all development, anti-progress and anti-building anything. That was really far from the truth,” she said.
The group, in fact, says it always wanted to see a building on the disputed site, she explains.
“It doesn’t make sense for the city to have an empty movie theatre there. That wasn’t going to come back.”
Read more: Life in Kingston one year into the pandemic
Schmolka says that led to an “opening of minds” that served as the impetus for serious discussions.
She says she chose the outdoor park setting because it was out of the way and there was little chance the activist and the developer might be recognized or interrupted.
“There was a certain sense of going somewhere and being private.”
Their walk lasted over an hour as the two strolled along portions of the K&P Trail from the downtown area to Belle Park.
Springer says the initial discussion was more about building trust than building a condo, trying to find some common interests such as preserving the vitality of Kingston’s downtown.
“When you’ve had a couple of sides that are sparring and involved in quasi-legal proceedings with each other, the first matters you have deal with are establishing trust and mutual respect.”
Both Schmolka and Springer say the initial walk led to about half a dozen followup meetings between December 2020 and March of this year involving architects, developers and opponents meeting either in person or virtually to fine-tune aspects such as height, setbacks, amenities and public access in the revised building layout, which would tower over the low-rise heritage buildings that have come to characterize lower Princess Street.
City councillors were first briefed of the compromise in a closed-door meeting Feb. 16, and later instructed staff to provide a “high level summary of the settlement” at their April 6 meeting.
It was at that meeting council voted unanimously in open session to approve the enabling zoning bylaw amendment and site plan.
The agreed-upon result is a 28.5-metre-tall building that’s only three metres higher than what current municipal zoning rules already allow on the site, which stretches between Princess and Queen streets.
The revised project contains 182 residential units, a pedestrian walkway through the building’s main floor connecting both streets and a stepped-back building design to make it less imposing from street level, and, as Downey had suggested in followup meetings with project architects, there’s a more sympathetic rooftop design to soften the way the “building met the sky,” Schmolka explained.
“The Queen Street façade was treated as the back end of the building. Now it’s being treated as a fully functional part of the building. Queen Street is going to have commercial ground floor and only one garage door.”
Springer gives credit to Building Kingston’s Future and the Frontenac Heritage Foundation for their willingness to get together to craft the nine-storey Capitol condo compromise.
“We wanted to try and work out something that we had control over, rather than leave it to (LPAT), where there would be one clear winner and one clear loser,” he explains.
The signed multi-party agreement for the downsized building is to be presented on May 31 to the LPAT, which retains control over the still-appealed project, in what is now called a settlement hearing, according to Springer.
Springer says he understands that the LPAT, if satisfied with the minutes of settlement, could rule in favour of the deal at the same meeting, clearing the way for demolition and construction to begin this summer.
Despite the all-round praise heaped on each side for coming to a compromise, it raises the question of why this approach wasn’t taken much sooner when the Capitol condo initially started at 21 floors and was then lowered to 16, then cut to 12 stories and finally settled at nine floors.
Springer did not say whether he has any regrets over not attempting a compromise sooner, but called the process a learning experience.
“In the book of hindsight, there’s many things in life you look back on. Had we done this at the beginning and come forward with a resolution that much quicker, of course it would’ve been beneficial.”
For her part, Schmolka did not characterize the negotiations as angry or difficult but described the key development players as charming, acceptable and interested in working towards a common goal.
However, she has harsh words for city planning staff who had supported much taller iterations of the Capitol condo over the years when recommending past council approvals.
“I just hope what comes from this a bit more backbone on planning staff to say to developers, ‘You’ve got to rethink this.’”
Of the final nine-floor compromise, Schmolka adds: “I think other people would like it to be lower even more. But I’m confident that within the boundaries we had in Official Plan and zoning this will be a good building.”