Members of city council were unanimous in their decision Monday to initiate the process of rescinding a 2008 Ontario Municipal Board order requiring any development on the Alma property to “include a faithful and accurate representation of the front facade of the college building.”
Reached with a minimum amount of discussion, the motion brings Patriot Properties a step close to commencing work on their three-tower residential development on the Moore Street property.
What is not so clear is whether the developer is backtracking on a statement he made earlier this year regarding the public having access to the amphitheatre at the east end of the property, which will be subject to a heritage easement, according to city manager Wendell Graves.
Company president Michael Loewith had urged council to support “removal of the OMB order” and accept his plan for the “thoughtful interpretation and articulation of the historical significance of this lost institution.”
The emotionally charged debate over replication of the facade sharply divided members of the Alma College International Alumnae Association and at an open house held Sept. 4, Donna Robertson, president of the alumnae association, stressed “the issue we are here to discuss is an apartment complex on the old Alma College location, not a memorial to Alma College.
“The OMB decision was put in place to deter any demolition permit. That OMB decision is what, for years after the fire, prevented the sale of the property. And that is what will prevent this proposed development.”
The city must now file an application to Environment & Land Tribunals Ontario (ELTO) – which adjudicates matters related to land use planning, environmental and heritage protection, property assessment, land valuation and other matters – to have the OMB order removed from the Alma property.
It’s virgin territory for St. Thomas, admits city manager Wendell Graves. Right down to how long it might take to have the order rescinded.
“We’re not 100 per cent sure because there is a bridge between the former Ontario Municipal Board and the new lands tribunal,” explains Graves.
“We don’t know what kind of process they will invoke to hear an application. And I don’t think we are going to hear until we give them our paperwork.”
Likewise, Graves is uncertain as to whether those individuals opposed to removal of the OMB order will have an appeals process to follow with ELTO.
“What the tribunal decides will be in their domain,” suggests Graves. “They will lay the ground rules down once they respond to us. We understand they are really there to confirm it is a local decision.”
In her presentation at the Sept. 4 open house, Sue Fortin-Smith of St. Thomas, a registered professional planner and former chair of the city’s Municipal Heritage Committee, stressed should council vote to reverse the OMB decision, an appeal would be filed to ELTO “to uphold the aforementioned law.”
Fortin-Smith continued, “We will also request the time schedule needed for my colleagues and I to complete a socio/cultural impact assessment of the proposed government intervention.”
Following Monday’s council meeting, Loewith said work would be starting immediately on the residential development, to be known as Alma College Square.
“You’re going to see things this week happening.”
However the following day, Graves suggested there may be some risk involved at this stage.
“I don’t know what further cleanup has to be done on the property, but technically the holding zone is still in place for the property. That’s the planning holding zone and they will not be lifted until the tribunal deals with the matter.
“They can do whatever they like but they are going to risk whatever investment they put in prior to having all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted. So it’s a matter of risk I guess.”
As to the future of the amphitheatre and the main gate to the property off Moore Street, Graves says they will be the subject of a heritage easement.
“We, along with Patriot Properties, will start to develop the parameters around both the heritage designation and heritage easement.
“Those don’t go to the lands tribunal, they are done locally in the municipality. That work will begin as soon as possible.”
Developer Gino Reale, who purchased the property from the Zubick family of London in March, 2016, indicated he hoped to revitalize the amphitheatre so that interested parties can breathe life back into the unique setting.
Loewith is all for retention and restoration of the amphitheatre but it would only be for the use of Alma College Square residents and invited guests.
Any other use would have to be “organized through our management,” stresses Loewith.
When questioned about who would have access to the amphitheatre, Graves says “That would not be part of the designation. But I suppose it would be part of the overall strategy for the site. That conversation will take place at some point.”
Back in February of this year Loewith told members of council, “I think it (the amphitheatre) should be used by everybody in the community. That’s part of the history of the community and that should be for everybody.”
Now it appears the last vestige of Alma College could very well be off limits to the general public.
Questions and comments may be emailed to: City Scope
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