A landmark of the downtown core, London’s Victoria Park, could be caught in a development crunch as city hall mulls designs for the area that would allow towers up to 35 storeys to border the park on two sides and close by a third.
Squaring the vision of a popular park and political goals for greater intensification — inward and upward growth to help curb costly urban sprawl — may be a tall task. Despite zoning that allows for towers between two and 35 storeys around the park, many residents aren’t pleased with the thought of intense highrises overlooking a beloved park.
“I don’t think we can just wake up one day and decide to turn Victoria Park into a mini Central Park,” said Ward 13 Coun. Arielle Kayabaga, whose ward includes the downtown.
“It should be left as a place where you can still breathe, with the park still accessible, not shadowed by these tall buildings.”
An Auburn Developments proposal for a 17-storey tower at Wellington and Wolfe streets prompted concern, and politicians directed staff to begin a larger review of the area around the park. The application remains on hold, staff say.
That launched a process to craft a “secondary plan” to find common ground between overlapping policies and visions for the park — guiding documents for surrounding heritage conservation districts, downtown plans and the London Plan — and hammer out a path for future development.
Right now, zoning allows for higher buildings around the south end of the park — that’s where those 90-metre, 30-or-more-storey buildings are contemplated — and lower around the north side, surrounded by three- to five-storey zones.
Kate Rapson with the Woodfield Community Association said neighbours want to avoid creating “a fishbowl” out of Victoria Park.
“I know it’s an attractive area for development, sure people would love to overlook the park, but I think there’s a way to do that without putting 30-storey buildings ringing it,” she said. “I’m not sure people even understand what four or five building blocks (of that height) would look like. It’s intense.”
But the Victoria Park also borders a potential future rapid transit corridor along Clarence Street, where greater density would be expected and encouraged. And the London Plan, the city’s blueprint for growth, has set a goal of 45 per cent of all new residential development to be infill.
Shawna Lewkowitz, president of the Urban League of London, an umbrella group for neighbourhood organizations, said it’s crucial that local residents and community leaders weigh in on the future of the area.
“It’s really, really important that we get it right. Many residents of London use that area for different things. It’s a place of beauty, it’s a place of culture, and it’s also a place where people live in the surrounding areas,” she said.
“I think it’s important their voices are heard, while also recognizing the importance of density.”
What might a compromise look like?
Kayabaga suggests mid-rise residential units to better integrate into the neighbourhood, and Rapson says neighbours may be willing to accept highrises on Clarence Street if the zoning permits only shorter buildings on other sides of the park.
She argued that empty lots ,such as parking lots, should be earmarked for development before other properties, especially those with heritage structures. Rapson said she’s “hoping, hoping” the secondary plan will prescribe appropriate development for the area.
“It’s going to have some teeth, whatever they come up with, that speaks to what should happen. We can’t just do whatever people want to do.”
Residents can have their say at a public meeting later this month. City staff say a draft secondary plan is expected to be shared at that meeting, with a final version going to council early in 2019.