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Despite opposition, city moves forward on waterfront development

'We are not abdicating to the development community,' said Coun. Ted Emond; City looks like 'pathetic supplicants,' resident argues

Emphasizing it’s just the first step in what could be a lengthy process, city council voted to move forward with the city’s downtown/waterfront development plan Friday.

Despite vocal opposition from the nearly 100 residents in attendance, councillors opted to resolve the matter at its Jan. 21 meeting when it will likely adopt the draft Official Plan and zoning bylaw amendment for the waterfront redevelopment area.

That decision could eventually see the city develop a mix of residential and commercial development on the old rail bed land, the adjacent land where the Co-Op Feed Store used to be.

“This is stage one of a three-part process,” Coun. Tim Lauer said. “These are not done deals. We have a lot of moving parts and it’s going to be a tough job.

“All you have to do is look at the train situation that has gone out to RFP (request for proposals) and is still owned by the city and hopefully will be for a long time. There’s been a consistent theme that we need to put a (new) neighbourhood downtown.”

The city’s preferred plan calls for part of the Metro plaza on Front Street, which the city had earlier purchased, to be demolished to make way for an extension of Coldwater Street through to Lake Couchiching.

Coun. Ted Emond said the previous council didn’t spend $9 million to buy the Metro plaza “to put a park in there.”

Emond said the zoning move is needed to gauge interest in the land from developers during next year’s RFP (request for proposals) process.

“We’re only establishing a context here,” he said, adding this move will allow developers to know what the city’s seeking when they create their RFPs.

“We’re not abdicating to the development community. The agreement will have covenants in it to ensure the city’s wishes are respected.”

The former rail bed itself and the land in between are designated as parkland and major open space in the Official Plan, and open space in the zoning bylaw.

The plaza property is designated as a downtown intensification area and has commercial zoning. Originally, the proposed change would also 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 so,” Ian Sugden, the city’s director of development services, previously explained.

But councillors did opt to reduce the allowable building height for structures abutting Front Street North from 10 to eight storeys.

Lauer and fellow Coun. Jay Fallis weren’t keen on the height that could be allowed with Fallis putting forward a defeated amendment to further reduce the maximum allowable height to seven storeys.

“I’m absolutely in favour of developing the waterfront responsibly,” said Fallis, who alluded to Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town when he noted that tall buildings will dramatically and forever alter the city’s skyline.

“Sunshine Sketches could be better entitled ‘Eclipse Sketches of a Big City.’”

And with Christmas just a few days away, the city’s proposed waterfront plan received a large lump of coal from many in attendance Friday afternoon.

A majority of those attending the second public meeting to allow residents to share their opinions on the downtown/waterfront redevelopment plan with councillors are worried the city could create an eyesore, all in the pursuit of the mighty dollar.

From retirees from away to long-time city residents, many worried Orillia could be selling out to the development and real estate community.

“This planning matter is all about sale and development,” said Brian Greer, who lives on Cedar Island Road. “The potential of this city is unimaginable.”

Greer said Orillia’s vast appeal is without question when looking at the city from not only a cultural perspective and a centre of academic excellence thanks to the arrival of Georgian College and Lakehead University, but also when one considers its lovely waterfront and picturesque downtown.

Greer said the city’s proposal panders to development rather than allowing Orillia to be in the driver’s seat.

“We look like pathetic supplicants,” he said. “I urge councillors and members of the public to walk along Centennial Drive and imagine the future.

“I would like to see people continue using the waterfront where I’m fortunate and blessed to live. This is just a plan to sell some lands and build some condos.”

Citizens encouraged council to be courageous with some telling them to create more parkland rather than development “because they’re not making new land anymore” and “you don’t get the opportunity to create more green-space.”

Many worried that the city could create an eyesore, all for the mighty dollar. Some of those who outlined their opposition Friday had previously spoken at last month’s meeting to discuss the changes.

“We need more parkland, not less and more parking, not less,” said Peter Slofstra, who along with wife Marja bought a house on Laclie Street near the Royal Oak restaurant more than a year ago.

“Once you sell it, it’s gone.”

Rick Evans also returned to voice his concern about the potential reduction in the amount of parkland.

“The preferred waterfront development is a bad idea,” he said. “Giving up parkland is a mistake. Can anybody imagine the city ever being able to replace it? The parkland is a valuable legacy for future generations.”

But fellow Orillia resident Ted Reeve argued in favour of the plan.

“I believe that this is a unique opportunity for Orillia,” said Reeve, noting he wants to ensure the project respects environmental concerns by creating a low-impact, low carbon area.

“I’m excited that the development will greatly enhance the draw in destination tourism. I think Orillia can be a destination place. I’ve spent many dollars going to Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake in the past and would like to see Orillia become something similar.”

Following the public portion, Coun. Ralph Cipolla vigorously defended the city’s planning staff from a couple of personal comments leveled against them.

“They didn’t deserve the hits taken during the public meeting,” said Cipolla, who supports the development plan.

“We need to make Orillia a four-season, 12-month destination. The waterfront is the heart of the city. We really need to progress.”

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Andrew Philips

About the Author: Andrew Philips

Editor Andrew Philips is a multiple award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in some of the country’s most respected news outlets. Originally from Midland, Philips returned to the area from Québec City a decade ago.
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