Niagara-on-the-Lake councillors expressed concerns at a planning meeting last week about a large commercial development by Benny Marotta at 135 Queen St., but didn't block the plan from moving forward to council for approval.
Issues included the size of the building and its lot coverage, a dearth of trees being planted on the property, and the encroachment of commercial space on residential areas.
Solmar Development Corp. is developing the property into a two-storey, 200-foot, five-unit commercial space with a restaurant and patio, paved courtyard and a fountain.
“I’ve been all through this report and I’m concerned because I don’t see anywhere that says the type of trees that they are going to plant,” Lord Mayor Betty Disero told councillors.
The project began over seven years ago, before the implementation of the town's tree bylaw. The land was clearcut and councillors fear Solmar will not plant a sufficient number of trees to make up for the lost canopy.
The property has been sealed off by faded wooden hoarding, which councillors previously criticized as unsightly.
The site plan could be approved at a council meeting on Aug. 30.
Jeremy Tran of the Niagara Planning Group addressed councillors' concerns.
He said Solmar plans to plant a row of trees at the back of the property. He wasn't sure what type or how many but later conceded they probably would be cedars.
Disero recommended planting more trees, particularly on the western side of the property. Town planner Rick Wilson said that part of the property is used for drainage and will most likely not accommodate tree planting.
But extra planting had more importance for Disero than just increasing the town's canopy and resident privacy.
When Solmar purchased 135 Queen it also bought the residential property on 178 Gate St. Disero was worried the residence would be used as a loading zone for the adjoining Queen Street property.
“Here’s my biggest concern. We’re not extending any commercial area into the residential but what might happen is they might use the driveway from Gate Street,” Disero said.
More trees planted at the back of the property would prevent commercial use of the residence and ensure it doesn’t get turned into a parking lot, she said.
Tran said he did not know where the loading zone would be on the property.
Fears about the encroachment of the commercial building on the residential properties on Gate Street were further compounded when Tran informed council there was no plan for the Gate Street property and the residence would remain vacant for the foreseeable future.
“178 Gate St. has been vacant for I guess the last five years, as is 184 Gate St. It’s also a vacant house, as is the next house, which is a holiday house.” Coun. Allan Bisback said.
Bisback was concerned the neighbourhood is being hollowed out and that Solmar might be saving the residential property for commercial use.
“There’s quite a bit of concern that this house needs to be protected. I think there would be quite a few residents who are suspicious of the way this is being designed,” he said.
“We need people in those houses.”
The mayor said she would not be surprised if Solmar applied for a zoning change for the residential property.
"Niagara-on-the-Lake has always been traditionally opposed to the encroachment of commercial into the residential area," she said in an interview later.
The proposed development is significantly larger than previous builds on the property. The previous building covered 25.6 per cent of the lot but the new commercial site will have 60 per cent lot coverage, according to a staff report.
“It takes up almost the whole lot,” Disero said.
The massive structure could be imposing to bordering residences on Gate Street, with its western side a large doorless wall extending roughly 200 feet back with a few scattered windows.
“It looks like a barracks,” Disero said.
“When you look out your back window and see a huge wall. It is concerning.”
Disero hoped that planting trees on the western side of the property would mitigate the building as an eyesore but no planting is in the books.
"I just wish that they were able to put some trees into that back area and provide a little bit of shading and a little privacy for everybody," she told The Lake Report.
Not all councillors felt that the building's design was cumbersome.
“I’m quite comfortable. It looks like the developer is trying to make a property that looks like it fits and is in character with the surrounding buildings,” Coun. Wendy Cheropita said.
Further arboreal concerns were raised regarding a large sycamore tree on Gate Street that may need to be cut down to install services for the site.
“It’s actually a stunning tree. So, I guess anything we can do to save it would be helpful,” Disero said.
“Staff and the applicant would certainly want to preserve that tree, if at all possible,” Wilson said.
“If the tree were to be lost there would be compensation provided.”
But Coun. Gary Burroughs noted, “Compensation ain’t gonna do it in this tree's case,”
The site will have a large paved courtyard with a fountain centrepiece. Coun. Sandra O’Connor wondered what the risk of water runoff would be to surrounding properties.
Tran said drainage had been approved by town staff and the site would have two large underground stormwater containers installed to regulate water runoff.
The stormwater tanks would be installed at the back of the property where the ground has been cleared of archeological concerns, Tran said.
The delayed project has had construction hoarding up for years, an issue that councillors have raised at past meetings.
Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report