I'd like to thank the Meaford Independent for its balanced coverage of this issue. Of those who approached the microphone on February 2, an equal number spoke in favour of and against the requested height increase. Those against included three owners of buildings in that stretch of Sykes Street.
The Municipality is accepting letters from the public with comments on this issue until the decision is made. I urge everyone who has a position on the height increase and the demolition of these four buildings to get your letters in to the Director of Legislative Services/Clerk (firstname.lastname@example.org) and c.c. Planner Liz Buckton (email@example.com), as soon as possible. A planning department report to Council could be presented as early as March 22.
The immediate issue being decided is an increase in height downtown, well above the maximums prescribed in our recently amended Official Plan – and well above any building in the block. John Kerr's letter published here on behalf of ACO - Heritage Meaford originally contained images modified from the architect's renderings which demonstrate the true heights requested. You can see these images here:
Beyond the height issue, the plans explicitly call for demolition of 47 percent of that block of Sykes Street. As Mr. Toncic said at the meeting, "I want to make this small town great again and remove any obstacles that are in its way."
The default, or easy, approach is the same one that has been used for decades in communities across Ontario. Tear it down and clean the slate. (And regret what you've lost later.)
At one point during his speech on February 2, Mr. Toncic held up a sign that hangs in the office of his firm (which deals in employee benefits, insurance and investment products – not commercial developments.) It shows an older, neglected home that has been transformed and freshened. The message on the sign: "Vision is looking beyond the obvious... success is doing something about it."
That's exactly what would transform this development concept from a mock-historical, faux-heritage, cookie-cutter suburban block you'll find every few miles in the GTA into something that retains what truly makes Meaford unique. By looking beyond the obvious, this CAN be a success.
Communities, such as Niagara by the Lake, that have had the foresight to not take the easy way out have succeeded, and the local communities Mr. Toncic held up as more successful than Meaford (Owen Sound and Collingwood) all incorporate strong heritage elements into their economic development policies.
This is not a case of "your for us or you're against us", though it's consistently cast as such by the developer and others. (The previous survey in this publication fell into the same trap of polarizing opinion, and while the more recent survey offers more options, it still leads most people to choose "all" or "none".)
I believe developing our downtown is important. I applaud the efforts to increase residential units in downtown. Bringing in a "cheese factory" (as Mr. Toncic suggests) would be fantastic.
But, to do this, do we need to increase height well beyond what's been established after years of careful planning? Do we need to rip out a huge chunk of the unique heritage assets Council has just gone to great expense to protect? If this plan proceeds as presented, it makes a mockery of Meaford's entire planning process.
As many have noted, beyond destroying an invaluable economic asset, we risk being left with an empty pit. If Mr. Toncic could point to other successful developments that he's undertaken, this would stand in his favour. But even if he could, I'm sure the Admiral Collingwood developer in Collingwood had all the best intentions. As I'm sure Mr. Toncic would not deny, economic interests drive economic decisions.
We have our own experience with this – a swath of barren land where houses once stood and massive willows shaded the path along the Bighead; an empty lot on the harbour-front where until recently, a sturdy historical commercial property stood.
As the Editor has written, we need the facts before we can make a decision. Is it economically feasible to retain and incorporate the existing authentic façades into the new development? Heritage Meaford, which is a branch of The Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, can help provide a balanced, informed opinion, and is currently reaching out to local restoration masons and heritage architects who can provide expert advice.
During the February 2 meeting, Mr. Toncic continually admonished those who believe heritage has a place in our economy. "Rather than saying no, no, no... say maybe."
I suggest, respectfully, that he take this advice to heart.
Meaford, Ontario resident for 23 years