The fight to preserve heritage at Randwood Estate

Beckie Fox

Updated on:

Artist rendering of resort proposed to be imposed on Randwood Estate.
Artist rendering of Two Sisters Resort proposed to be imposed on Randwood Estate in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.
Artist rendering of Two Sisters Resort proposed to be imposed on Randwood Estate in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

12 thoughts on “The fight to preserve heritage at Randwood Estate”

  1. We were told at the public meeting that the Randwood developer plans to cut down 113 trees. We need an urban tree by-law to stop indiscriminate cutting of trees for all developers. The article in the Feb. 6 Niagara Advance states “NOTL ready to introduce tree protection policy” was misleading in that this protection only extends to municipal lands. Tree protection for private property still does not exist in NOTL.

    The Town has hired a Consulting company to consult the community to determine if there is a need for an urban tree by-law. With 5 NOTL organizations telling Council that there is a need, and a petition of over 1,000 signatures that there is a need, Council is still not convinced. The consultant is paying great attention to the survey results on the NOTL online engagement platform – Join the Conversation Niagara-on-the-Lake. We need to encourage interested citizens to complete the survey. The link to the survey is:

    The date for the public meeting has not yet been announced, but it will probably be some time in April. Any help you can give in letting people know about this would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

  2. Beckie…a wonderfully well researched, informative and impactful piece. You captured the essence of the argument against this proposed development atrocity perfectly with “when one decides to buy an historical property, the way to leverage its value is to restore, not reinvent.”

  3. Thank you Beckie for bringing this to the readers’ attention. I live in Toronto, where, it seems, municipal control is in the hands of developers. So, I hope scores of NotL residents will keep opposing this thoughtless redevelopment. Yes, no more Marotta wines and perhaps you should let them know that and have the restaurants not serve them either.

    Years ago there was a case in Niagara Falls, where a developer was going to put up a huge apartment building/hotel (?) that would have stuck up like a sore thumb and destroyed the beautiful view at the edge of the gorge. The plan was abandoned because of citizens’ opposition. Change for the better does seem possible.

  4. If everyone who took the time to attend the three meetings thus far concerning this development and a few of their friends will take five or ten minutes to compose an e-mail to the town clerk,Peter Todd at [email protected] and Raymond Tung, Urban Design Specialist at [email protected] specifying 1) their objection to the proposed By-Law Amendment and 2) that they wish to see the the Randwood estate in it’s entirety including 588 Charlotte and 200 John St. immediately designated as a heritage site both municipally and provincially, it will go a long way toward convincing the staff, Mayor and Councillors that we are serious about this issue. You may want to cc: the Mayor , Councillors and all of our elected representatives too! Thousands of protests cannot be ignored.

  5. My husband and I bought a historically designated house in Niagara on the Lake. It was Trisha Romances cottage on the water. Besides the usual designations; exterior of the house, windows, wood trim, fireplaces, wood floors and staircase. We actually have some remaining Dunnington-Grubb landscaping and it’s also designated! The original house before the property was subdivided was all landscaped by Dunnington-Grubb, the landscaping plans are in the museum. But, to see what was left and was designated was almost a joke. The thing is my husband and I want to return it to its former glory. But to designate our little garden and not the Randwood Estate and let Solmar destroy that beautiful property is criminal. Not only must we band together as residents to try and stop this, we must replace our Mayor and town council and put people in place who actually love our town as much as we do. Also let’s send a message to Solmar and Benny Marotta and boycott Two Sisters winery. If money is what’s important to Benny then hurt him where it matters, his pocket book!

  6. This is a thoughtful article. I’m a nearby resident and have attended both public meetings and the recent Municipal Heritage Committee. I was impressed with the citizen members of the committee. Their expertise, clearly detailed assessments of the application and their resulting criticisms would make any decent proponent of a redevelopment be ashamed of their proposal.
    The question of trust was raised repeatedly by a number of speakers. This community acknowledges that the estate should be developed and put to better use. However it must be in keeping with its history. Benny Marotta has significantly impaired his ability to establish trust with his community.

  7. The attitude of the owner is foremost in the issue as “as I own it I can do dam what I please”. Second is the absence of any municipal control without private land tree by-law. The outcome is a developers paradise of a “Wild West” circumstance where the victim is already the landscape and ecosystem. In Niagara On The Lake you say! Pity, in Canada and in 2018.

  8. Sadly the recent purchasers as well as the town staff in Notl do not seem to understand the significance of historical properties.

  9. Thank you for addressing the Randwood Estate. If enough of us demonstrate our interest in the preservation of our heritage, our communities and our planet there is still some hope that we might yet succeed before all is lost.

    • More thanks to Becky Fox for this important information and I hope more people can also be informed to effect change to the Solmar developer.


Leave a Comment