The city’s ambitious plans to redevelop the waterfront have been given the green light.
At Monday night’s council meeting, elected officials approved the zoning changes that will pave the way for a private developer to fulfill council’s preferred vision for the waterfront. The zoning change was then enshrined in a bylaw that cements the decision.
It’s been a long and winding path to get to this point. It was set in motion by Mayor Angelo Orsi’s council, which commissioned the Downtown Tomorrow Plan that continues to inform the city’s decisions.
Mayor Steve Clarke and the previous council made the waterfront redevelopment project a priority. A key part of that was purchasing the Metro Plaza for $9.3 million in 2016.
Ensuring the vision becomes a reality was one of the reasons Clarke and several of his council colleagues sought re-election in November.
Last night, it culminated in a rather anti-climactic vote at the Orillia City Centre.
But there was some “drama” courtesy rookie councillor Jay Fallis.
“I am going to ceate some drama here,” said Fallis, who had earlier expressed his concerns about the plan.
He said he has talked to many Orillians about the proposed redevelopment that envisions a mix of commercial and residential development on the old rail lands and city-owned property around the Metro plaza.
He said the primary concern is allowing an eight-storey structure to be built on some parts of those lands.
“The sentiment is quite clear among everyone I talked to in our community and it’s just simple: they don’t want eight storeys on our downtown waterfront,” said Fallis. “They don’t want to see something approximately twice the height of (the) Elgin Bay building over Couchiching Beach Park.”
Fallis said he is “absolutely in favour of developing our waterfront responsibly, keeping in mind the surrounding community and the natural beauty.”
However, he said the zoning change “is not going to guarantee a development of this form.” Because of that, he voted against the zoning change and subsequent bylaw. He was the only one to do so.
Waterfront redevelopment has been a contentious issue. Many expressed concerns about the potential impact on Couchiching Beach Park, but most, as Fallis noted, were fearful of high-rise buildings marring the view of the lake.
Many of those issues arose at a public meeting Nov. 26 and a second public meeting held Dec. 21.
Clarke stressed that council weighed those concerns before giving its final stamp of approval Monday night.
“We heard quite a number of comments over the last few weeks and received ... great feedback (and) suggestions,” said Clarke. “I personally am somewhat comforted that I believe the comments we heard have also been echoed around this table and also have been dealt with in this amendment.”
Clarke said a building’s height is only one factor.
“I agree we don’t want walls down there, but I’ve seen situations elsewhere where three storeys … can be ugly and does not invite access,” said the mayor. “I have also seen scenarios when you have six, seven or eight storeys that are stepped back on the angles we discussed that allow creatively-done sightlines.”
He said he is excited about the proposed public square and encourages citizens to read the 51-page document that outlines the zoning amendments. “It’s a great read and really does enshrine a lot of the items, issues and suggestions we’ve heard,” said the mayor.
“I would just like to remind folks, this is why we bought the property,” said Clarke. “We had the same concerns members of the public do, for the most part. We want to make sure the development matched or even enhanced the character of the city.”
Coun. Pat Hehn said she empathized with Fallis’s concerns about building heights, but said she could “live with it.”
“I would have been very happy with four storeys, but I also realize we’re looking for a first-class developer and we want to open the door to the very best,” said Hehn, who noted developers could propose something less than the maximum. “We probably have to provide as many options (as we can.)”
She said she is satisfied the development will be pedestrian-friendly and incorporate open spaces.
“The reason I ran (for council) is I wanted to make sure this was done right,” said Hehn. “This is what we’re (doing). I have great hopes for the future of this property.”
Coun. Tim Lauer, chair of the waterfront working group that has stickhandled this process for several years, was also, generally, satisfied with the outcome.
“The public should read (this),” said Lauer of the detailed document outlining the zoning changes. “All the concerns we’re hearing, a lot of them are covered.”
The city has hired a consultant to guide the next steps of the process. Ultimately, a request for proposals will be circulated to private developers interested in tackling the project.
As Coun. Ted Emond noted, council will still have the final say on what the development entails.
“We ultimately are still going to get the opportunity to look at what comes forward,” said Emond. “We can ask questions if the proposal causes some stress or concern.”
If you want to read the document that speaks to some of the conditions and parameters of the potential development, click here. The document in question starts on Page 108.
Why were zoning changes needed?
“The old rail bed itself and the land sort of in between, which is where the old Co-op Feeds property was, is all currently designated Parkland and Major Open Space in the Official Plan and zoned Open Space in the zoning bylaw,” Ian Sugden, the city's director of development services, told OrilliaMatters prior to the December public meeting.
“The plaza site is designated Downtown Area Intensification Area zoned commercially,” he said.
The change would “expand that downtown area boundary into the former rail bed lands and former Co-Op Feeds lot and change the zoning to match what it is council has directed us to do.”
He said the land from Neywash to the old Co-Op Feeds lot, would be zoned residential only; there would be no commercial development there.
The zoning for that area would also not permit apartment buildings, but would allow townhomes.
“Then, south of Neywash Street, it would all be zoned Mixed Use Commercial which matches what’s on the plaza site now,” said Sugden. “That allows either residential or commercial or a mix.”