Peterborough Editorial: Apartment tower plan pushes downtown ceiling

The mysterious developer whose unsolicited bid to buy Victoria Park and historic Peterborough County buildings in the city center surfaced last week with a surprise even bigger than his identity.

Kevin J. MacDonald and his company, Clear Global, want to build a 30-story apartment tower atop what is called Courthouse Hill, already the highest point in downtown Peterborough.

It would be twice as tall as the next tallest buildings in or around the core – the Citi Center apartment complex at Charlotte and Bethune streets.

MacDonald is also planning an eight-story adjoining building for a total of 400 apartments, three times the scale of the recently completed Y Lofts redevelopment. Y Lofts is the largest downtown housing development in the past 50 years.

Clear Global’s plan aligns with what City Hall and the province’s growth strategy want for downtown Peterborough: much higher housing density to take advantage of existing services and transit routes .

But the proposal comes with unanswered questions. Some are day-to-day planning issues – would the water and sewer utilities be able to handle the load, what would the impact on traffic look like, does the fire department have equipment to achieve a apartment on the 30th floor.

There is also a question of heritage. MacDonald said he would preserve the 180-year-old County Courthouse, the Municipal Building addition and the former site of historic Peterborough Jail. He would like the city to own Victoria Park, the largest green space in the city center and a staple of Water and Murray streets since 1848.

This overall promise will need to be checked, but if the new development can be placed in the highest eastern part of the property without impeding the heritage buildings, it could fly.

Then there is the issue of height.

Downtown needs housing, but not everyone likes tall buildings. There are valid concerns if they are too massive, shade the surrounding area too much, or create congestion.

In Peterborough, the prominence of the historic Market Hall clock tower is also an issue. The rule of thumb is that no building should block the view from anywhere in the core, or replace it as the dominant element of the skyline.

Clock tower obliteration shouldn’t be an issue with the Courthouse Hill site, but the “sore thumb” factor will be raised. This building would stand out. Not just George and Water streets. Rising from the hill, it would be a focal point from anywhere in the city.

Height issues nearly killed 19- and 23-story towers in downtown Kingston that had the city’s support but were opposed by heritage groups and citizens. The province’s Ontario Lands Tribunal recently overturned an earlier decision and upheld it.

However, there is a chance that none of these concerns will come into play.

Clear Global has done nothing like a project on this scale. MacDonald redeveloped the old Greyhound bus station on Simcoe Street and bought and demolished St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church for the purpose of building housing.

These projects seem to be the whole story of Clear Global’s development. It is not a resume that suggests the ability to manage a project of this size.

And Clear Global’s offer to buy the site was not accepted by Peterborough County, making the announcement of the project forced and premature.

More housing in the city center would be welcome. A tower on Courthouse Hill wouldn’t need to be 30 stories to meet much of the needs, and chances are it won’t.

About Jermaine Chase

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