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Downtown condo development should incorporate retail: Councillors

October 21, 2021   ·   0 Comments

Aurora’s vision for its downtown core aims to not only draw people in but give them plenty of reasons to stay – including places to live and shop.

But a new proposal for a six-storey condominium complex just north of Yonge and Wellington has caused some Council members to underscore this vision, calling for developers to take their plans back to the drawing board.

Council, at last week’s Public Planning meeting, sent plans for the condo at Yonge and Irwin Avenue back for further revisions after nearby residents spoke out about how the development might have a negative impact on the long-standing neighbourhoods on both Irwin and Machell.

Their concerns ranged from the impact construction might have on their properties – including flooding – along with increased traffic and sight lines.

Council agreed with many of the concerns raised and voiced some of their own.

Initial plans for the development were filed with the Town in October of 2020 and have undergone many changes since then, including the reduction of one unit proposed for the building for a total of 136 with an equal number of parking spaces.

Six storeys from Yonge Street, the building steps down the incline leading down Irwin to Machell.

Traditional brick for its first three storeys from the Yonge frontage, the top three floors are dominated by glass.

“The building materials comprise of a brick base on the first three levels, windows and glazing on the upper levels, metal panel window boxes, and exterior insulation and finish system around the mechanical penthouse closures,” said Stephen Corr, Senior Development Planner for the Town of Aurora, in a report to Council. “The total proposed building height is 23.54 metres, measured from average finished grade to the highest point of the structure. The height excludes the rooftop mechanical enclosure, which is exempted from being included in the total height calculation [as defined in the zoning bylaw].

“While the proposed building is six storeys in height, staff note that the existing grading conditions, which slope to the southwest, result in exposed basement elevations at the rear of the building. Thus, the building is six storeys along the Yonge Street frontage and visually appears as eight storeys along the Irwin Avenue frontage and the rear.”

Coming into last week’s meeting, the proposal was already faced with several questions.

The report noted staff were still assessing the merits of the plan based on how close it is to a number of heritage properties, including the Northeast Aurora Heritage Conservation District on the other side of Yonge Street, and how it might impact an “active streetscape” in the Yonge and Wellington corridors.

Retail on the ground level is required under the Aurora Promenade Plan and the developers have applied for an Official Plan Amendment to keep the building strictly residential.

This vision for a residential-only building was an issue for Councillor John Gallo who questioned why the proponents had taken retail out of the equation. Consultant Naama Blonder responded that that it was a decision made following retail and market analysis and in keeping with the stacked townhouse development immediately south of the site.

“I… would love to see that study, but I will not be supporting this if there is no ground floor retail,” said Councillor Gallo. “To me, that makes whole communities. I believe we made a mistake with the development to the south of that and we shouldn’t be making it here. I believe there is probably more a reason of economics, that it is much easier to sell residential property on the ground floor than it is to lease retail, and I get that, but our position here is to look after the Town of Aurora. A lot of work went into [the Promenade Plan] and it is not a short-term study. We can’t just think of it that way.

“To remove retail from that ground floor I think is a huge error.”

The Councillor went a step further and said he would “sooner add a floor” through bonusing if it could secure retail on the site.

Councillor Wendy Gaertner said this idea was an “interesting” one although she had concerns about further increasing the height of the building, while Councillor Sandra Humfryes said the number of already empty storefronts in the downtown core was already concerning.

“I support the Promenade Plan very much and it is what we live by, but I just have concerns with empty storefronts,” said Councillor Humfryes. “I would like it [if staff] could help us understand the current buildings in our Town now that do have that scenario, which we pushed along, and what the vacancy rate is. An empty storefront is disastrous.”

In sending the proposal back to staff, lawmakers said they were interested to see what comes back.

“In a couple of places [in the report, staff] are still assessing the planning merits of the proposal and for me that is information I would like to see at this stage of the process so we can have further conversations around issues and ways to address or resolve those issues prior to going to GC (General Committee) and making a decision on the application itself,” said Councillor Michael Thompson.

“When dealing with bonusing, there has to be a clear benefit to the community and, in my opinion, the offer of streetscape improvements and an area for public art is not substantive enough to warrant the bonusing of six floors. In other times we have talked about affordable units within any type of development. Perhaps that can be something staff can have further conversations about, but before moving forward with any bonusing there should be a more substantive benefit for the community.”

Similarly, Councillor Rachel Gilliland said there is “a lot of unfinished business” with the proposal that needs to be wrapped up before anything moves forward.

“There is a lot more information that we all want to see, especially in regards to the traffic impact study, storefronts and such,” she said.

But Councillor Gaertner was definitive in her view: the proposal as it stands is “inappropriate” for the neighbourhood.

“The development in this area (under the Official Plan) is to extend the Heritage Main Street character associated with our Heritage Downtown,” she said. “This is to be done through careful control over the scale, character of the new structure, and the OP says… to enhance the pedestrian experience, which would speak to ground floor retail. It is across from the Heritage District. To me, this building is a completely inappropriate design…. I think we should have a building more in keeping with extending the heritage character of the downtown south of Wellington.”

By Brock Weir
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter



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