Three phases of a major new housing and commercial development that both supporters and opponents agree will change the face of downtown Carleton Place received a conditional green light at the lengthy Dec. 19 planning and protection committee meeting. That decision is subject to a considerable number of qualifications that will require further study and public consultation.
The proposed Hawthorne Mill development at 115 Emily Street, the brainchild of local developer Volundur (Wally) Thorbjornsson, would begin with 40 apartment units in a converted heritage mill, followed by the repurposing of a three-story industrial brick building into an additional 30 units. The third phase would require demolishing an existing building and replacing it with a four-story, mixed-use condominium with ground level commercial uses.
The most contentious part of the proposal, however, is a 127-unit, 13-story condominium, a phase of the development that would dwarf current height restrictions.
According to the town’s Manager of Development Services Joanna Bowes, the project is seeking what’s known as a Class 4 development permit, the intent of which “is for the developer to gain an answer to one question: ‘Would this concept in its entirety be accepted provided that all studies, reports and drawings determine that specific conditions for the development can be accommodated?’”
Because it will likely cost over $1 million to produce the required documentation, Thorbjornsson had sought the planning and protection committee’s support of the general concept before taking further steps. In her detailed presentation, Bowes pointed out that the development, at this conceptual stage, generally meets the requirements of the provincial policy statement, the county official plan and the town’s official plan. Meanwhile, Thorbjornsson is seeking relief from certain provisions of those guiding documents that would allow both mixed uses of the property as well as an exemption from current rules governing maximum height allowances.
As part of her report, Bowes noted as well that the project is appropriate for and “efficiently uses existing infrastructure and prevents the need for expansion of the town boundaries due to increasing the density within the area surrounding the downtown core.” She also noted that it supports active transportation, given its proximity to the Riverside beach and park, the nearby trail system, and the canoe club. She praised these combined elements as promoting a “live, work and play feel” for the development.
Bowes pointed out that while a 13-story tower would dominate the visual landscape, it is “hard to determine how phase four will affect the community,” and that is why further studies – almost two dozen of them – will be required.
Bowes said the proposal presents an opportunity for detailed discussion on the future of development in the downtown and along the beachfront, and that such proposed projects must be considered for their impact both in terms of existing neighbourhoods as well as the precedent they might set for future developments.
“I am quite intrigued and interested in this proposal,” said Mayor Louis Antonakos, who added it’s no secret that he is in favour of development, but “there is a lot of information that we don’t have. I don’t think that will necessarily stop us from finding a compromise and making this a win-win for our community.”
He spoke in support of the first two phases of the proposal, but expressed concerns that the third and fourth phases do not meet the spirit and intent of the town’s official plan. He asked for a broader discussion of the later phases, and also declared that he would be more comfortable hearing from each councillor before a final vote.
Each councilor spoke in turn about their support for various phases of the project, with almost all of them supporting the first three phases while sharing reservations about the tower.
Councillor Brian Doucett bluntly addressed concerns about the town losing its small town character by declaring, “I’m sorry, folks. Carleton Place is no longer the small town that we all saw 25 years ago and that I moved to in 1963. It is undergoing a radical change. We cannot stick our heads in the sand. I think this project properly handled…is workable.”
Councillor Theresa Fritz agreed, adding that she has toured the site and studied the issue thoroughly, allowing her to support the three phases but withholding final judgment on the tower. She likes the design’s heritage component and also concluded that ultimately, “what makes a small town is the people, the merchants, the community, and not the white picket fences. We have subdivisions, we have people moving out here because it’s a great place to live, because of the people.”
Sharing that view was Councillor Doug Black, who added “we are very comfortable that we will get a quality project from the developer. I know change is tough but we’re all in this together.”
Councillor Ross Trimble called it “a very exciting project,” but agreed with Antonakos that while he was supportive of the first two phases, he will await further information on the third phase. Councillor Sean Redmond raised his own concerns about traffic flow given the narrow width of some area streets, as well as the 13-story building. He supports phases one to three but needs more study before considering the height variance.
Prior to the vote, Antonakas asked if each phase could be voted on separately, because he felt that the diversity of opinion around the council table would not be properly reflected in a motion based on the existing staff recommendation for conceptual approval of the first three phases and putting consideration of the fourth on hold.
Redmond responded that the developer had not asked for a piecemeal approval of the concept, but needed direction on the entire range of the project. Black agreed, noting that there were plenty of qualifications attached to the vote, and that “this is not a carte blanche.”
During the final vote, Black, Fritz, Redmond, Doucett and Flynn voted in favour of the tower phase, with Trimble and Antonakos opposed.