The proposal for a 24-storey waterfront tower with condos, sticking like the proverbial sore thumb above the skyline, well higher than any building permitted by the town’s height bylaw, simply doesn’t fit. And, frankly, it’s big-city ugly. Boxy. Style-less. Drab. Collingwood deserves better. This is our historic waterfront, after all, and the building will be seen from the hills and Blue Mountain, as well as from many places in town.
As a former councilor and newspaper editor/reporter, over the past three decades, I have seen many presentations and proposals about re-purposing the Collingwood Grain Terminals. I’ve seen proposals to turn them into a vertical farm, a mass composter, a mushroom farm, a hotel, an arts centre and theatre, condos, a tourist centre with a rooftop restaurant, and to tear them down. But the latest proposal with 24 storeys is, at least to me, simply inappropriate for small-town Collingwood.
And who will be able to live there? Millionaires, of course, and seasonal residents, but not the bulk of our residents. Condos on the waterfront already sell for more than $1 million. These will be much more expensive. In a Mar. 28 story in CwoodToday, the developer suggested the town use its own (proposed, not built yet) marine services building on the waterfront for “affordable housing:”
“Maybe the town and the community should look at an affordable housing component in the marina building. Maybe there’s an opportunity. In our underwriting of this model, the costs are significant and that wasn’t currently contemplated,” he said.
So much for the promises of affordable housing made in the last election campaign. As the story in CwoodToday noted (emphasis added), the proposal,
…includes a hotel, residential condominiums, restaurants, event spaces and major changes to Millennium Park and the spit and is expected to come in with an estimated price tag of more than $200 million… On the east side of the building connected to the Terminals will be a 24-storey residential condominium tower. Eight of those storeys will be built above the existing structure on the east side.
However… there will actually be 14 storeys above the roofline, as seen in the artist’s representation, above. The eight storeys mentioned above are those higher than the existing tower on the east (which will be torn down). According to the town’s executive director of customer and corporate services, planning approvals won’t even get through all the density of paperwork until mid-2025 (at the soonest) and the estimated date of completion is sometime in 2028.
Not that all of the proposal is as awful as the condo tower, and deserves consideration. A hotel with a restaurant and other amenities seems a good idea and has a lovely design. And if the town wants to keep its icon, the building certainly needs revitalization and restoration. But not this way, with that gaudy tower and elite-only condos (what’s in place to prevent them from becoming Airbnb rentals?).
The existing grain bins are 30m (100 ft) tall. There’s a floor above them (with equipment used to manage the bins and grain, now the proposal’s tenth floor with a restaurant and fitness centre) plus the roof and its structures. Add another eight storeys above the tallest structure: that’s at least 3m or 10ft per storey, but perhaps as much as 4m/13ft. The total height would be at least 60m or 200 ft, but likely much taller; perhaps 96m or 315ft.
Given that the town’s current zoning bylaw limits most structures to three-six storeys (max. 18m or about 60 ft; page 6-4), that would require quite an exemption. And would that not be a precedent that other developers could exploit? Or use it to challenge the current limit in court?*
And let’s not forget this is a designated heritage building which restricts what can be done with and to the building:
The facility is currently listed on the Municipal Heritage Registry as part of the Collingwood Heritage District established in 2002.
The Archaeological Research Associates Ltd (ARA) did an assessment of the terminals and the staff report about it notes:
The Terminals are located along the Collingwood waterfront and are within the Downtown Collingwood Heritage Conservation District and are thus designated under Part V of the Ontario Heritage Act…
ARA’s report recognizes the protections in place based on the designation of the Terminals within the Heritage Conservation District. The Collingwood Pier including the Collingwood Grain Terminals are designated under Part V of the Ontario Heritage Act as part of the Collingwood Downtown Heritage Conservation District. As such, a heritage permit would be required in a redevelopment process.
The Heritage Act also notes:
Alteration of property
33 (1) No owner of property designated under section 29 shall alter the property or permit the alteration of the property if the alteration is likely to affect the property’s heritage attributes, as set out in the description of the property’s heritage attributes in the by-law that was required to be registered under clause 29 (12) (b) or subsection 29 (19), as the case may be, unless the owner applies to the council of the municipality in which the property is situate and receives consent in writing to the alteration.
Of course, the Act has boltholes to allow a heritage building to be altered or de-registered, but the key is above: the alteration by the tower is, at least as I see it, very likely to affect the property’s heritage attributes.
As I’ll explain later, there are other problems few on council (certainly not our Saundersonite mayor!) or in town hall seem willing to recognize (or admit). These include potentially hefty — but undisclosed — costs to the taxpayer, legal liability, the existing dump (containment facility) north of the terminals, technical issues with infrastructure, and the vision of our waterfront. And, of course, the impact of such a large, expensive, and imposing development on our small town’s waterfront.
As resident Greg Ross wrote to council (included on the Consent Agenda, Committee of the Whole, May 1), the containment facility north of the terminals presents a significant problem (emphasis added):
Adjacent to the north is Millennium Park under which there is a Confined Disposal Facility (CDF). The CDF was undertaken by Public Works Canada between 1986 and 1994 as a depository for tons of toxic sediment, including heavy metals, dredged from the harbour and debris from the demolished shipyards.
A plethora of associated, official documentation describes the designation of the Collingwood harbour and shipyards as a Great Lakes environmental hot spot or Area of Concern (mid 1980’s). It documents the evolution of a massive, multi-year restoration project employing an ecosystem approach, and construction of the CDF covering most of the land area north of the grain elevators. Understandably, this was a very expensive undertaking.
The CDF is encapsulated in an impermeable “bladder” to ensure its integrity is maintained. The two important points here are that the CDF occupies virtually all of the area immediately north of the grain elevators and it was designed not be disturbed in order to protect the integrity of the adjacent harbour, the aquatic life within it, and our drinking water. Also noteworthy is the fact that the CDF was not constructed to have structures built above it and this is specifically why Millennium Park was created.
Notably, when the letter was presented to council, it went ignored: none of those at the table commented on it, or spoke to the concerns the author presented. I suspect it’s because several at the table don’t want the problems made public or even acknowledged. After all, it could be council’s legacy and they’d get their names on a plaque (amusingly ironic, given how many of the former council wanted to remove the plaques that named previous members of council who had offended former Mayor Saunderson’s political ambitions).
But local opposition to the project is mounting. And not least because it’s a bad idea and not fully fleshed out, or that it seems at odds with the community’s existing standards. Likely it’s also because of the hidden costs taxpayers will be expected to shoulder.
I’m not an engineer, but from what I know of the spit, I can’t see how the proposed underground parking (much of which will be below the water line) can be built without disturbing the CDF and possibly causing it to leak. Will the parking be privately owned and therefore require residents to pay for parking? Currently, residents can get parking passes for free. Instead of being able to park at the northern end, people will have to park by the hotel and walk there. I suspect some of the regulars (the anglers) and anyone with mobility problems might not be too pleased.
In June, 2018, an engineering assessment of the structure was presented to council. It did not, however, examine the 4,000 wooden piles the terminals rest on (hammered there in 1928). The report noted, “A sub-surface investigation and pile analysis was outside the scope of this report but there is no evidence of differential settlement or distress.” However, it recommended (emphasis added), “Complete a sub-surface investigation of the timber piles; complete any outstanding concrete repairs; and develop a comprehensive maintenance program.” It also recommended, “Undertake a below slab investigation of the wood pile system to document the existing conditions and implement any required remedial actions.” But, like so many other things, these recommendations were never done by the lackadaisical Saunderson council. The report warned, “there have been reports of concern over cyclical wetting and drying of the timber piles which could lead to accelerated deterioration.” Again, the Saunderson council ignored the warning.
All of this makes me wonder about the stability of the structure and the deterioration of the piles (the water level right now is very low, exposing the tops of the piles). What sort of liability will the town take on with this project if there is a collapse? The engineering assessment recommended “full remediation and repair” of the site at a cost between $8 million and $9.7 million (easily quadrupled since then), but the Saunderson council was too busy spending taxpayer’s money on Saunderson’s Vindictive Judicial inquiry (that cost us more than $10 million). Besides, they had no interest in community development or improvement, or anything that didn’t better their own entitlement.
When I was on council (around 2012), we received an estimate for upgrading the infrastructure so the terminals had water and wastewater at $5-$6 million (upgrading the electricity would be at Epcor’s cost, likely meaning a rise in local power rates to all residents to cover the costs). Speaking with a former town employee last week, he estimated the costs today to be at least quadrupled: $20 million, but possibly a lot more, given the nature of the spit and the accelerating costs of construction and materials.
You see, the spit was built on imported boulders and rubble in the late 19th-early 20th centuries; rocks and stones were dumped into the water as fill. To rebuild any infrastructure work means removing that fill (which will flood the cavity unless engineered to avoid it) and replacing it with new material using modern techniques, standards, and laws. Plus, the terminals are at a lower level than the rest of the town. Pumping wastewater (WW) to the treatment facility will require a lift and pumping station to move the considerable waste and grey water from the large complex to the mains that take it to the WW treatment facility on upper Birch St.
Does the WW facility even have the capacity to treat that many units? I don’t know, but it may require an upgrade to the plant to accommodate such a large development (given the number of developments already on the books that use up or have reserved the capacity). And what sort of capacity will the new water treatment plant have (how much of it will be reserved for this development)? I’m not even sure the water system has the pressure, either. Will we require a new reservoir, pumping station, or even a new water tower? No one at the council table has asked such questions in public.
Right now, the rooftop of the terminals hosts numerous telecommunications and mobile phone towers and antennae. The new plan has solar cells on the roof. These bring the town roughly $50,000 a year in revenue. Where will the towers and antennae be located once they are removed from the terminals? Will they be placed in neighbourhoods? Will local mobile phone reception be worsened if they are moved? And how will the lost revenue be recovered (spoiler alert: through our taxes)?
I also expect our taxes will skyrocket to pay for many of the proposed improvements to the public space indicated in the proposal, as well. These include, I assume, the “swimming platform,” a rebuilt community park, a performance amphitheatre (a second one!), public art installations, rebuilt public parking, skating rink (and, I assume, the machinery to maintain it), a new marine services building, “public marina improvements,” new parks and trails, and a new bay lookout. I didn’t see any estimates for those costs, but it’s easily going to be $10-$20 million at least. I’m not sure if the “Marine Tower: Adventure Zone” climbing tower is supposed to come out of the public purse, and I wonder about its insurance coverage, and liability to the town.
Will the swimming platform be public? Will there be a charge to use it? What sort of liability is there with a public and accessible swimming site in the harbour? Is it even hygienic or safe to swim in the harbour today? After all, the wastewater treatment plant vents its treated water into the harbour, but also, any untreated overflow that happens during a storm or accident ends up there, too. And it’s the home of a lot of wildlife, including year-round populations of swans, ducks, cormorants, and geese (and their feces). Can anyone else recall Collingwood’s cryptosporidium crisis of the 1990s? It could happen again. And the town will be held responsible in any lawsuit.
A subsequent story in CwoodToday noted the developer said (emphasis added),
…the president of Streetcar, Les Mallins, said the entire cost of the project would likely come in at more than $200 million. He confirmed that the condominium portion of the plan would likely pay for the majority of the project cost.
As the Terminals building is a publicly-owned asset, as is Millennium Park and the Spit, part of the request for proposals process undertaken between the Town of Collingwood and Streetcar/Dream will have the two parties signing a memorandum of understanding [MOU], which will outline many details including the estimated costs, as well as who will be paying for what, how much each party will pay, and how final ownership will be worked out once the project is complete.
I’m uncomfortable with that line that suggests the town’s share of the costs won’t be stated up front, but only after the town signs the MOU. Doesn’t that commit the town to paying before the costs are known? How is “the majority” defined? Fifty-one percent? It could be construed that the town is giving a handout to private developers.
Who knows how much taxpayers will be on the hook for? Apparently no one. Or at least, no one on council will say… Maybe I’m just too skeptical, but I think council and staff know more than they are saying, but are being secretive about it. We only need to look at the history of the last two, toxic councils to see how secretive and deceptive our councils can be, and how that behaviour can damage and cost the community.
No, I don’t believe this plan should be allowed to proceed as proposed. Not only is the tower’s height and design inappropriate for our community, but there are too many hidden costs and liabilities that need to be made public first. We need full disclosure and a public referendum.
Collingwood deserves better.
* Collingwood’s 186-page zoning bylaw has various heights for different categories, such as commercial, industrial, and residential, as well as for types of buildings. However, the general height restrictions for most buildings are 8-12m (three storeys) for homes and townhouses, with some zones allowing 13-15m for stacked townhouses. It is 15-19m for apartments; commercial buildings are 12-15m. The maximum height in the downtown core is 13m, with one exception for 27.0m, or 88.5ft, but the terminals are well outside the core. A hospital can be 36m.