As a gardener, I try to be a careful steward of our property. I also try to be aware of projects that could affect the environment, trees, soil, water, and natural and historical landscapes outside my borders – the community in which I live. My community happens to be Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, a town of 17,500 residents and millions of tourists (three million in 2012) known for its national historical significance, beautiful public and private gardens, theatre, wineries and natural landscapes. Right now, a planning application is being debated in my town – admittedly, a narrow point of reference – but many municipalities are facing similar applications that could have an adverse impact on their natural and landscaped environment and heritage sites.
A very brief background: Randwood Estate is a five-hectare property on John St., with three historically significant structures built in the 1920s. The grounds were designed by the famous Canadian landscape architectural firm of Dunington-Grubb (the name is often misspelled), known for its projects in the Beaux Arts tradition commissioned for private and public gardens in Toronto, Hamilton and Niagara, as well as Buffalo, NY. Few of their private commissions remain – Parkwood Estate in Oshawa is the only one I’m aware of.
Solmar Development Corp, the new owner of the Randwood property, is applying to build Two Sisters Resort – a six-storey hotel, function hall, at least two restaurants with outdoor patios and a spa, a pool, and maintenance building on the site. This is in a town where all the buildings in the historic district are at most two stories. Recently, a meeting of the town’s Municipal Heritage Committee (MHC) reviewed the heritage impact assessment provided by the applicant. MHC makes recommendations to the town council, along with other municipal committees and the planning department, as to whether a building application should receive council’s approval. (Unfortunately, an application turned down by council may still end up at the Ontario Municipal Board and be overturned, but that’s a whole other issue.) Usually, this committee may see one or two residents at its monthly meetings, but this night more than 375 residents attended to hear what the committee would say about this particular controversial development application.
It was heartening to hear comments from the MHC that focused on the Dunington-Grubb landscape and its historical significance. Perhaps more attention to the historical value of this landscape, as well as the property’s historical structures, will be emphasized going forward. For example, the proposed monolithic expressway-style hotel seems unsuitable and incompatible with the historical buildings on the site, and also unsympathetic to the historically significant landscape surrounding them. Regardless of what landscape preservation might be promised by the applicant (and I have my doubts about how extensive that would actually be), it would surely be undermined by a six-storey building, two-level underground parking that many fear will change subterranean water flow, maintenance building, etc. in the middle of it. You can promise to preserve a pretty pond and fountain, but if everything around it is curbing and hardscaping, then what is the point?
Unfortunately, Canada does not have a garden conservancy-type organization similar to what’s available in the U.S. and Great Britain. These organizations preserve and maintain noteworthy landscapes through donations and government funding. (There are one or two small, individual examples in B.C., but I’m not up to date on how successful these have been.) The arborist retained by Solmar is experienced with public parks and golf courses, but he does not appear to have expertise in the preservation of historical landscapes. It would be good if the applicant assured the town that it would hire a landscape architect who specializes in historical restoration and had a way to ensure any such landscape plan would be installed.
I bristle when I hear the estate’s grounds described by the applicant as decaying, overrun and abandoned. That may be the case, but that does not give one permission to alter the intent of the original design if it has historical significance. When one decides to buy an historical property, the way to leverage its value is to restore, not reinvent.
The tree inventory and assessment provided by the arborist in the heritage impact study has several puzzling classifications and designations. I loved one MHC member’s comment, chastising the arborist for deeming honeylocusts unworthy trees. If the arborist finds these trees threatening and undesirable, I worry about other criteria he applied when drawing up his recommendations. Additionally, his report provides a misleading message to people reading the inventory, because although it indicates which healthy trees will be removed due to their location within the footprint of proposed new buildings, it ignores the fact that any number of healthy trees scheduled to remain may be irrevocably damaged during the construction process itself. Niagara-on-the-Lake, unlike other municipalities such as Toronto, Whitby and Oakville, does not have a tree bylaw to protect mature trees on private property.
Much discussion has centred around the timing of the applicant’s proposal. Although the applicant has started the process to get Randwood designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, it is asking the municipality to approve its building application without this designation in place. The Municipal Heritage Committee – and the hundreds of residents who have attended other public information meetings and council and committee meetings about this proposal – believe it is imperative to have this designation secured before even considering the proposal for this six-storey hotel, underground parking and other alterations to the site.
A heritage designation would provide more safeguards to protect the iconic buildings on the site, however, it is unclear to me whether the surrounding landscape designed by Dunington-Grubb and the mature tree canopy integral to the site would be equally protected.
The document entitled “Designating Heritage Property” issued by the province does touch briefly upon preservation of natural landscapes under the section “Making Alterations to Designated Properties,” page 24: “This applies not only to alterations of buildings or structures but also to alterations of other aspects of a designated property, such as landscape features or natural features, which have been identified as heritage attributes.”
Usually, the language in a municipal tree bylaw pertaining to private property is more detailed. For example, these bylaws usually set out best practices that must be followed to protect existing trees before construction commences, as well as enforcing other safeguards to drainage, compaction and elevation changes. They also carefully scrutinize the request for any removal of healthy, mature trees.
Unfortunately, Solmar’s track record with Caledon, Barrie and Vaughan reveals no desire to work with affected local residents in a meaningful way. Owner Benny Marotta is not out to win a popularity contest; he is here to make money. He is using the town’s historical cache to his own end without contributing to it – simply cashing in on it.
Another shoe is ready to drop, too. Solmar will be applying to build a subdivision of 160 town, semi and detached houses crammed onto acreage it owns adjacent to Randwood, which is near an established residential area that includes heritage homes and The Commons, a national historic site. While there has been lots of talk by the applicant about preserving the tree canopy around the Randwood Estate buildings, they have been mostly silent about the extensive tree removal that took place late last year on this large parcel of land to prepare for their subdivision. We have effectively been told by the developer that there were two species of trees growing on this site: ash and diseased. As a result of this clearcutting – before site application – it is incredulous that they would think the community would believe that they are intent on preserving the landscape surrounding Randwood Estate.
Consider this a cautionary tale. Gardeners — with their passion and credibility — need to contribute to these important discussions and be vigilant in helping to protect the historical natural and created landscapes in their communities.
More information about the Randwood proposal
A local group in Niagara-on-the-Lake advocating responsible development called SORE (Save Our Rand Estate) provides details about the proposal at its website sorenotl.ca.