A twin-tower, 400-unit highrise development could soon loom over Victoria Park, in what is now a parking lot beside Centennial Hall.
GWL Realty Advisors, a real estate company owned by Great-West Lifeco, is seeking approval from the city to build 18- and 12-storey towers at 556 Wellington St. Renderings in a notice of application posted Wednesday on the city’s website show a stylish, stepped back design in a nod to the heritage of the area, with commercial space on the main floor and a large parking garage to the rear.
The application landed at city hall before a draft secondary plan for development around the park, often referred to as the city’s “crowning jewel,” was approved.
If the plan was in place, towers on the north part of the parking lot would have been limited to 12 storeys.
The site is now zoned to allow an even taller residential tower, up to 26 stories, meaning the twin-tower project may face little opposition, neighbourhood community groups and the planning consultant for GWL say.
“It is zoned for it, it would be hard to change that. They can go tall and narrow, or short and fat but the 18-storey density is allowed,” said Mary Ann Hodge, founder of Friends of Victoria Park.
Kate Rapson, chairperson of the Woodfield Community Association, was even more blunt.
“There is nothing we can do, it is zoned. We are hoping to add some green space around it.”
But GWL still wants to work with area groups to refine the plan, said Greg Priamo, partner in Zelinka Priamo, the private planning firm working with the company that owns the parking lot.
“It is a great location where people can live close to downtown, close to the park, it is very desirable,” he said. “It will be a real asset, a real positive attribute to the inventory of housing downtown.”
Great-West Lifeco is the parent company of what is now known as Canada Life, formerly called London Life.
Both Rapson and Hodge would like to see residential units on the street level and have concerns the parking garage, with 572 spaces, would be accessed by Wolfe Street, leading to traffic woes on the narrow road.
“We hope to provide feedback, we want dialogue with Great West on this,” Rapson said.
Priamo said GWL is working with the city to make a “strong architectural statement” with the design that the city wants for all buildings around Victoria Park.
“It is looking to challenge the development industry to come up with building designs worthy of being present around the central park in the city. This is a very good expression of that.”
City council’s planning and environment committee will discuss the application at an upcoming meeting, but a date has not been set.
The twin tower proposal comes as Auburn Developments has been fighting a seven-year battle to build a 17-storey residential tower at 560 Wellington – literally across Wolfe Street from the site owned by GWL.
The Auburn proposal started as a 22-storey tower but was scaled back amid opposition from neighborhood groups. It is now on hold until the city reviews all building around the park, as that site needs to be rezoned. That review is suggesting the Auburn site be limited to eight storeys.
Hodge said the proposal by the GWL does not alter the Friends of Victoria Park’s view on the Auburn development, saying two tower developments next to each other would overwhelm the streetscape.
“If we are talking about conserving the heritage elements of the park, having a buffer zone before the (Great West) highrise would be ideal.
The twin tower proposal may get a speedier green light because the site doesn’t need to be rezoned.
But Hodge believes there may be an opportunity to alter the plan, to maintain the heritage feel of the area.
“There are elements of the proposal we have concerns with, we need to maintain the historic streetscape of Wolfe Street,” she said.
“It would be nice if that development could match the existing street lines. The developer has said he will talk to us.”
Jenny Grainger, chairperson of the London branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, said she’s concerned about the scale and look of the project.
“The design is not compatible with the West Woodfield Heritage Conservation District. No doubt the base is meant to be a tribute to the surrounding heritage buildings, to look traditional and fit in. Actually, it’s a bizarre hodgepodge of different looks. With the tiers, it looks like a wedding cake made out of children’s building blocks,” she said.
“The ACO continues to advocate for mid and highrise structures to be built on surface parking lots downtown farther from Victoria Park.”
The 18-storey tower would front on Wellington and the 12-storey tower to the rear of the site would be seven floors of residential on top of a five-floor parking garage.
While the land is zoned for the development, the proposal must still receive a heritage alteration permit and must be the subject of public site plan meetings.
The city is developing new rules around how the land around Victoria Park will be built, with an eye to preserving heritage and increasing intensification. The application by GWL is getting under the wire before the draft secondary plan is approved, meaning current zoning rules apply.
“I believe because they applied prior to the policy document, (new building restrictions) would not apply to their proposal. They can build as per the approved zoning on the site,” said Dan Fitzgerald, planner with the city.
The secondary plan, to be part of the city’s official plan, would have allowed building up to 20 storeys for the south part of the parking lot north of Centennial Hall. But the north part of the parking lot would have allowed 12 storeys, six fewer than the GWL proposal.
North of Wolfe Street, the Auburn site, heights up to eight storeys would be allowed.