By Mike Williscraft
In the words of the Grateful Dead, “What a long strange trip it’s been.”
For many, it does not matter how Grimsby council and developer Gabe DeSantis arrived at their destination last Tuesday in a meeting which spanned a total of nearly six hours – covering two major issues – they reached a unanimous decision which will see Century Condos proceed.
The condo project proposed for the old Roxy Theatre site at 21 and 23 Main St. E. and 6 Doran Ave. has had fits and starts, ups and downs, bitter debate and now, finally, approvals for a major step in the process.
Key aspects of the project which were approved include:
PROPOSED RESIDENTIAL DETAILS
• Maximum 87 units;
• 22 visitor parking spaces;
• 131 tenant parking spaces, plus 10 tandem spots which are not included in the formula to meet parking requirements, and;
• 1.5 parking spaces per unit.
• 10 spaces commercial / 17 spaces restaurant (spaces for 93m2 minimum public restaurant area (1,000 of the 3,000 sq ft proposed, and;
• If the number of residential units decreases, the 1.5 parking spaces dedicated to each of the removed units may be dedicated to increase the commercial floor space.
After getting rejected at a special meeting held Aug. 27 – four days before a self-imposed negotiation deadline for an agreement, the project and its related land ownership debate over a right-of-way seemed destined for expensive litigation.
Well beyond the 11th hour, cue Coun. Reg Freake.
Freake, as one member of council who voted in the majority to reject the proposal on the table Aug. 27, got Coun. Lianne Vardy to second his motion to have council reconsider the motion, which included the Aug. 31 deadline for negotiation.
Requiring a two-thirds majority and then a second motion to reconsider a settlement agreement, the project survived a major debate just to be revived for the lengthy discussion about the wants and needs to get enough votes to eventually be approved.
In the end, it was clear for Freake, who opened his comments by noting the lengthy and ongoing confusion regarding various proposals at the Main Street site going back decades.
“This is the first development which this town council has really had the ability to deal with. A lot of the previous ones were dealt with by the old council. I think it is safe to say, Mr. DeSantis, we want downtown to have a signature building, a building that is really going to mean something; the best building in town, practically,” said Freake.
“There are just a few concerns left, parking, obviously, is one of them. For me, I’d like to see a maximum of 87 units. I’d like to see 1.5 parking spaces per unit….no tandem parking.”
“We still would like to see a restaurant there, with ample parking. The laneway is the legal thing we will have to deal with at some point in time. They are not big ‘asks’ and I don’t think I am speaking out of turn with anyone else in this room. These are my asks. I don’t know if any of them are surprises to you.”
When the dust settled, the project had the approval of Freake and all members of council.
“In light of my asks, and Mr. DeSantis has met everyone one of my asks…you have met my wish list and I will definitely move for this going forward,” said Freake.
In between those comments, was a long, detailed debate which proved progressive and fruitful.
The Town’s legal counsel for this project, John Doherty, provided some background and history to set the course for the meeting’s discussion.
Doherty said the project was initially proposed to council back in May 2018, but it was rejected then as well precipitating DeSantis to appeal.
Aside from planning matters, Doherty noted the crux of a major concern for many – ownership of a right-of-way which runs through the heart of the land – “has been unresolved for over a century.”
The last registered owner of the land, James Doran, died in 1912.
With both Town of Grimsby and DeSantis applying to the courts for ownership, nothing has been resolved to date.
“While we’re confident in our case in Superior Court, we did enter in negotiations,” said Doherty.
As a result of those discussions, there was agreement on the right of way proposed Aug. 27 and it remains a key part of what was approved last week.
The Town obtains an easement out to Doran, built at the expense of DeSantis and the Town receives $100,000 toward legal expenses for costs for the Superior Court action, said Doherty.
“To try to move the matter forward, it would be helpful if council could provide staff and consultants with clear information and specifics about its intentions and wishes for this development that might meet with approval,” noted Doherty, so goals for negotiations would be known at the start.
Freake did exactly that, outlining the minimum requirements council needed, which all ended up delivered on in the end.
The four councillors who voted for what others called an incomplete proposal back on Aug. 27 – John Dunstall, Kevin Ritchie, Dave Kadwell and Randy Vaine – made many of the same comments they raised last month speaking in favour of DeSantis’s proposal as previously outlined.
Dunstall said the proposal which was recommended Aug. 27 by Town staff and an independent planner should have been sufficient and, if tandem parking fits requirements, it should be considered valid.
Dunstall went so far as to claim other municipalities are reducing parking requirements for developers “in order to get people to stop owning so many darn cars. We’ve just got to get out of our cars and start using other modes of transportation. If we don’t give it up, we’re going to be in a gridlock.”
Vaine, who on occasion has stated he defers his opinion to staff and Town experts, chose not to accept the recommendation this night made by Doherty that the Town’s case was strong.
“I agree with Coun. Dunstall…We have no guarantee,” said Vaine.
“There’s a good chance the developer is going to win.”
Vaine also added, “As a representative of a lot of the businesses in the area, they strongly support this and want it to go forward.”
Kadwell said he was listening to the night’s discussion “but not agreeing to all of it.”
Regarding parking, he said he understood the Aug. 27 plan met the parking requirements.
“I’m happy about it,” said Kadwell of the previous proposal.
Ritchie reiterated Dunstall’s belief that the Aug. 27 proposal – which staff said met parking requirements under the Town’s bylaws – should have been enough to gain approval.
“They always stated they were going to provide adequate parking,” said Ritchie.
He also noted that improvements to the laneway which comes off Ontario Street are also important improving safety and accessibility.
Coun. Dave Sharpe reiterated he was not prepared to change his vote to support the condo project as the debate opened.
Among things he wanted to see was the proposed 3,000 sq. ft. of restaurant space split on a two-thirds front of house, one-third back of house “as per industry standards”.
This would mean boosting the required parking for this change from 17 to 34 for the restaurant.
If there was not enough space on-site for these parking spots, DeSantis should consider a cash in lieu of parking for off-site parking. He said staff would have to determine what an appropriate value would be for the cash-in-lieu of parking values.
Regarding relinquishing ownership of the right-of-way, Sharpe asked, “What are we getting?”
Sharpe likened the proposed tandem parking to the situation with townhouses in subdivisions off Livingston Avenue.
“They all have two parking spaces, one in the driveway, one in the garage. We have these streets full of parking, parked vehicles. The people are not parking back to back. They’re not parking one in the garage and one in the driveway. They’re parking one in the driveway, one in the street,” said Sharpe.
“Now I get calls from these residents, five, 10, 15 years after the development and they say, ‘Listen, I have a problem with the amount of street parking. We want to change it. …The answer I have to give them is, ‘There’s nothing I can do’.”
“This same question is what residents are going to ask me, similar to the Winston Road neighbourhood where we have parking problems. Residents are going to start parking in the visitor spots and we’re going to get people calling and the condo boards calling and saying, ‘How do I enforce this?’.”
“They’re going to ask us to hire another bylaw officer.,” added Sharpe, noting extra staff have already been hired to enforce bylaws in the Winston Road corridor.
Coun. Lianne Vardy opened her comments by clarifying a rumour.
“I’m not anti-developer. I don’t hate developers..but I do care about what gets built in our town.”
PROJECT VITAL FOR DOWNTOWN
Vardy noted what happens with Century Condo is vitally important in the long run for downtown as it is just a starting point.
“It would come as no surprise if you (DeSantis) have other aspirations for other parts of downtown because there are a lot of older properties that could be developed, so this is a really important building that you are building. It’s not just a building. This is the building that is going to set the town for the future,” said Vardy.
“It’s a huge responsibility and a huge privilege on both of us, both on the developer and on council, that we get it right.”
“The big issue is parking. We know that the parking downtown is insufficient. We hear that all the time from building owners….That’s without building your building. We need to have the required number of parking spots, including those for residents, visitors, retail and restaurant,” said Vardy, noting with no overlap, no sharing of uses.”
Coun. Dorothy Bothwell cited several concerns regarding the project, the process and items which had long been part of the ongoing review for the development.
“I am very supportive of a development there,” said Bothwell, but she cited earlier motions approved by council which required, among other things, that a cultural heritage report be updated and “prior to the adoption of the Official Plan amendment and approval for the zoning bylaw, the entirety of property covered by the application be merged into one lot.”
This would mean the right-of-way ownership issue had been settled.
Bothwell’s concerns remained centred around the right-of-way ownership and the settlement agreement itself.
“The ownership of the laneway is paramount.”
Dunstall took a second shot at summarizing his thoughts with a lengthy and rambling statement which included a history of DeSantis’s recent development projects in Grimsby.
Dunstall said DeSantis is looking to make a large investment in the downtown core and “We’ve got to go ahead and let him do that.”
Sharpe was not interested it giving Dunstall’s suggestion of allowing fewer than needed parking spaces at Century Condo as a way of pressuring residents and potential retail visitors to walk or take alternative transportation as opposed to driving.
“All this talk about the future and the Jetsons,” said Sharpe, adding council needs to live by today’s requirements.
“Mr. DeSantis’s demographic he is selling to is first-time home buyers, both work. It’s a fantasy world we’re talking about with autonomous vehicles. That is not the reality…and we should not be planning on decisions that are not real.
As the initial round of comments from council wrapped up Kadwell shouted out from his seat that he would like to hear from Mayor Jeff Jordan on what he thinks about the project.
Jordan was glad to comment.
“I am not against development by any means and I think this can be a great development for the downtown core. I tend to agree with Councllor Bothwell, that we need to determine the (ownership of) the laneway.”
“The parking has its limitations. Tandem spots and shared spots are an issue. “We’re being a little bit naive to think they are not going to be an issue.”
Jordan noted that at the Winston Road area of town, the number one issue is parking.
“Each developer reduced their parking a little bit and we have an area which is missing parking. We have cars being towed out of visitor spots,” noted Jordan.
“Parking is the number one problem in the Winston Road area. Do we want to make the same mistake twice? We want a great development and it has the potential to be a great development.”
“The laneway decision is problematic, too, because we had COVID in the middle of this. I think we are close. I think we’ve done really well tonight.”
At that point, council took its first of three recesses on the night to allow for Team DeSantis to consider concessions based on what council had outlined as its needs to gain an affirmative vote.
RESPONSE FROM TEAM DESANTIS
DeSantis’s lawyer, Calvin Lance, opened the second phase of the Century Condo reconsideration discussion by putting to rest virtually all of the concerns council had outlined.
“The comments and discussion were very helpful and it has informed some of the
decisions we were able to make very quickly in the room during the
recess,” said Lance.
He noted all on Team DeSantis agreed with council that the condo project would be an important “landmark building” in the downtown core.
“We’re confident we can deliver that,” said Lance.
Lance noted that several councillors noted they wanted certainty on the issue of laneway ownership.
He noted, such a deal had been negotiated with John Doherty, and it would “provide ownership certainty”.
He also noted a contribution to the Town of $100,000 had also been negotiated to defray town costs related to the Superior Court action.
“We have talked with our team and we’re committed to put a cap on the number of units at 87, so maximum of 87 units for this development,” said Lance.
“We heard a lot about the parking. We’re committed to provide parking at 1.5 parking spaces per unit, excluding tandem spaces.”
“We are going to meet the zoning requirement for commercial parking.”
“We’re going to meet the zoning requirement for the restaurant (use) and maintain 93 sq m as a cap for the public restaurant space.”
“Also, with respect to parking, we’d like to confirm that there will be no shared parking..
With all this in place, Lance said the developer has delivered on all that was asked.
DeSantis agreed saying at one point when it was suggested further concessions may be needed, “I think I did what was asked of me.”
For Lance, he said their deliberations during the recess allowed them to devise a proposal which covered all bases.
“We believe these changes and concessions on behalf of Homes By DeSantis address the concerns that have been raised through the course of this public meeting tonight and prior public meetings,” said Lance.
The (development) is going to bring the needed intensification to the downtown and it’s going to bring $7.6 million of community benefits to this town over the next 10 years.”
Project consultant John Ariens spoke in support of many of the comments Lance had made, in particular the team’s desire to create a statement building for the downtown.
Noting he had been part of the planning and design work at DeSantis’s Aqua Blu and Aqua Zul projects in the Winston Road area, “Aqua Zul won best mid-rise in all of Canada,” he pointed out.
“That is the level of architectural development that Mr. DeSantis will bring. We look forward to the fine tuning of the site plan.”
Ariens also outlined his company’s experience in dealing with establishing parking levels for restaurant projects.
“At IBI Group, we have the pleasure of being on the roster for Tim Hortons and we do all of the
McDonald’s Restaurants across Canada. It is common to accept a floor area cap based on parking; whether I am in Calgary, whether I am in Vancouver, whether I am in St. John’s Newfoundland,” said Ariens.
“If we have 17 spots available for parking, that limits the amount of floor space. What’s left over will be the washrooms, the vestibules, the kitchen, the cooler, the storage areas. Sometimes it is two-thirds of the floor area, sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less. The floor area cap sets the tone based on parking. It is a very common practice.”
He pointed out that while a series of parking concerns had been noted during the night’s proceedings, they should no longer be a worry.
“We’ve heard there is insufficient parking in the downtown. These 87 units are not going contribute to that problem because they are going to be able to walk to Teddy’s. They’re going to be able to walk to the TD Bank,” said Ariens.
“There’s no need for cash-in-lieu for parking because we are going to be fully compliant with your parking requirements.”
As well, their new proposal included a parking bonus.
“We will not count the tandem spaces. The tandem spaces will be an extra,” said Ariens.
QUESTIONS FROM COUNCIL
At that point in the evening Sharpe simply was not buying what Team DeSantis was selling.
“It looks like no change,” he said.
“Eighty seven units, it was already 87. Parking for the restaurant is still based on one-third front of house. We’re not changing,” said Sharpe of council’s stance.
Noting he would want to make sure parking spaces on-site were “signed” for visitor and commercial uses, Sharpe added, “What’s the difference from what I already said no to?”
Ariens clarified concessions which had been made earlier in the evening.
“There’s a substantial change here councillor. It’s a cap of 87 units. That’s the maximum. In order to comply with parking, it will likely be 83 units, 84 units or 85 units. We have to strike a balance between the available parking, the commercial, the retail, the restaurant and the number of units,” noted Ariens.
“The number of units will be at 1.5 which is a pretty substantial parking requirement considering that in Aqua Blu and Aqua Zul it’s 1.25.”
Ariens noted the limit of 87 units residential units would provide the baseline for establishing parking needs.
“The bylaw has a cap of 87 units. It will likely be much less than that in order to meet that balance,” noted Ariens.
Regarding the split on the 3,000 sq. ft. of restaurant use, Ariens said how it gets designed would be up to the restaurant owner and chef who take over the space, but “It has a maximum of 1,000 sq ft for front-of-house.”
He said washrooms will take 600 sq ft for washrooms, which leaves 1,400 sq feet for the rest of restaurant floor plan.
“How they design it, we don’t know but we do know that the public floor area will not exceed 1,000 sq ft,” he said.
“That will be in your bylaw and you can control that.”
Freake asked a few questions about the $100,000 contribution to legal costs and how the ownership of the laneway would be settled.
Doherty told Freake a “Consent Order” would be requested of the court by both Town of Grimsby and DeSantis “to settle right of way issue”.
Doherty noted the redone laneway would be “six times the size of the current laneway” built at developer’s cost.
“The key element is there will be public use through and out to Doran Avenue,” said Doherty.
In clarifying questions about the changes which had been made during the night’s discussion, Ariens told those on hand the plan now will include:
• 131 residential parking spots
• 17 restaurant parking
• 10 retail parking
• 158 in total
• the visitor requirement of .25 parking spots per residential unit will be covered within the 1.5 spaces per unit breakdown with the residential component being 1.25 units.
“That is what your bylaw would stipulate. The building would be designed to those parameters,” noted Ariens.
At that point, council took its second recess of the evening to allow for any touch-ups and finalizing of details.
Lance opened the next phase by circulating a print out of the details to which commitments had been made.
As well, Lance suggested to council they look into revising their downtown parking requirements.
“We’d like to encourage the councillors to do two things in addition to supporting this settlement proposal put forward here and Master Settlement Agreement,” said Lance.
“We’d also like to encourage the Town to bring forward a new zoning standard for parking in the downtown. Use this project as an example of the standard that other developers in the downtown need to meet.”
“That’s a separate task, but we’d encourage council to take those steps.”
Freake said, given other things which will be taking place downtown, that suggestion made sense.
“(The condo build) will probably be happening at the same time as the downtown watermain replacement,” said Freake of a major overhaul of Niagara Region’s plan to update sewer and watermains in the downtown core likely in 2023.
Freake asked that DeSantis’s team work with Town and Region staff to “plan to work around that.”
“I think we’ve forgotten it is going to happen around the same time. As Mr. Lance just mentioned, I think we should definitely do a study and come up with some sort of a parking standard for downtown because it is going to be more and more developed. Parking is going to be more a premium downtown.
Bothwell wanted to confirm the settlement agreement could and would be made public when finalized.
“There’s nothing in the settlement agreement that is confidential,” said Lance, noting it is very longa and full of legalese, but it is out there with “nothing to hide”
In summing up that portion of the agenda, Jordan noted how pleased he was that the two sides could work out all details on the project when in the room together.
“I want to commend the DeSantis team for working with us and I want to commend council for moving forward on this negotiation,” said Jordan.
“This is a project which spans between the old council and new council. A lot of the things that the new council is languishing over is what we inherited from the previous council. Whether that be Official Plan, zoning bylaws and, again, with the Region with their new Official Plan moving forward, this is the time we will be able to look at the Town of Grimsby’s Official Plan.”
Jordan said council should take the opportunity to review its situation.
“I really think that we need to update it (the Official Plan) and make it so it is a better working document so we can move forward and move forward with a downtown that is historic and vibrant,” said Jordan.
“This is the keystone of our downtown right now,” added Jordan about Century Condos.
“We’ve done our due diligence on this project. We really want to get the best for our town and sometimes getting the best is a compromise. The developer has done a lot.
At that point, council took its third recess on the night to allow for time to work through the writing of the motion which council would end up approving in unanimous fashion, which drew applause from those on-hand in the council chamber.