Don't like the Château Laurier addition? Blame your councillor

View of proposed Château Laurier addition from Major's Hill Park / Larco Investments

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Council abdicated political responsibility by approving it, sight unseen

CBC NEWS, By Joanne Chianello

If you hate the latest version of the Château Laurier hotel addition, and if you believe the much-maligned modernist new wing will ruin our beloved heritage building, don't blame the architect — blame your councillor.

Because it's our elected officials, at least the ones in power last term, who gave this basic design the green light last summer, sight unseen. They issued the hotel owner a heritage permit last June and hoped to wash their hands of the controversial file before the fall election.

If they try to tell you they didn't have a choice, don't buy it. Council almost always has the right to say no; they just lack the political courage to do so.

'Too boxy,' says mayor

On Monday, Mayor Jim Watson said that he was "still underwhelmed" by the fifth version — and almost certainly the final one — of the hotel addition, which was made public a couple weeks ago.

"I still think it looks too boxy," he told reporters, although he added that "it looks pretty good" from Major's Hill Park.

The mayor gave the hotel's owners, Larco Investments, and the architect, Toronto-based Peter Clewes, props for making improvements  — it's smaller and less imposing than the original version revealed almost three years ago — but wasn't won over.

"I think they've been a little tone-deaf to the overarching agreement that it looks like a sea-ship container," said Watson.

That's a valid position, whether you agree with it or not.

But the mayor also said this: "We can go on forever and nothing gets done. At some point, the project has to go ahead."

Actually, it doesn't. The city's built-heritage subcommittee and council could have voted against the plans. It might have been messy, the decision may have been appealed, but if they didn't believe the addition was good enough, they could have — and should have — rejected it.

Council approved design without seeing final version

Instead, at its second-last meeting before the summer break in 2018, council approved the Château addition, but with caveats. One of those caveats? Change the design.

The three changes required were:

  •  Increasing the use of Indiana limestone and reducing the glass to limit contrast with the hotel.
  •  Breaking up the uniformity of some of the angles.
  •  Using window patterns and other geometric details that "are specifically drawn from, and relate to, the existing Château Laurier's elements."

The architect can certainly argue he met these requirements — the city's planning staff believe he did, as they approved the plan.

And while the mayor may not like it, nor many other folks, what can be done about it at the point? Virtually nothing.

The new plans will be discussed Monday at the built-heritage subcommittee, but they won't be voting on it. On June 13, planning committee will vote for the so-called "site plan," but it has no authority to take heritage issues into consideration.

If that committee votes against this plan, which is more about zoning than heritage compatibility, the owners could appeal the decision to the province and would very likely win.

Council abdicated political responsibility

Last summer, council had to make some sort of decision.

Because the Château Laurier is a designated Ontario heritage building and a national historic site, any changes fall under the Ontario Heritage Act. The legislation stipulates that the owners are owed a decision within 90 days of filing their application to alter a heritage building.

To be fair to Larco, the company worked on this file with city officials for years, and responded to a number of requests for changes, including shrinking the number of storeys from 12 to seven — with the top two floors stepped back — and reducing the number of additional hotel rooms from 218 to 147.

Still, by the time this file got to council last June, by law, it had to make a decision by Aug. 7, 2018.

Few councillors seemed to like the plan. Watson said he wouldn't have voted for the designs shown last summer, yet approved the plan based on some other designs he didn't see. The rest of council followed suit.

What would have happened if they had voted it down? Perhaps the Château Laurier owners would have started over — after all, this latest design is a tweaked version of the original vision, which few seemed to like.  And what many critics and regular folks alike were looking for was a do-over, not a series of tweaks.

Or perhaps Larco would have thrown up its hands and appealed the decision. We'll never know.

Because instead of protecting one of the most iconic views in our capital, instead of standing on principle and demanding the best for our city, council rolled over for a compromise few seem to like, let alone love.

And the Château Laurier is a building that we all deserve to keep loving. If you don't once the construction is done, blame your councillor.