LACAC fiddles while Cobourg's downtown heritage burns

First published: April 24, 2005

by Keith Oliver

Without question, the standing committee appointed by town council
to provide it with recommendations on matters of protecting and enhancing
Cobourg’s built-heritage, is clearly failing to do so. That committee is
Cobourg’s Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee, otherwise
know as LACAC.
The evidence I have is my recent experience attending and
presenting information to three separate LACAC meetings, two of them
special meetings called on 24 hours notice to accommodate the developer of
the Shoppers-Mr Sub project. Based on what I saw, I can say without
reservation, that meeting agendas are poorly constructed; the meetings
themselves are so badly run that they represent little more than pure
chaos; motions are voted on and later left to the secretary to define;
Planning Coordinator and town council liaison Councillor Dean McCaughey is
allowed to have undue influence; and as a result, all the LACAC
recommendations to council that I have witnessed regarding the Shoppers-Mr
Sub project have failed to effectively address the issues of building
massing and location, facade design, its relevant to existing buildings,
and the opportunity the Shoppers-Mr Sub project represents to contribute to
the restoration of the heritage character of King Street at its western
gateway entrance. What we are now headed for is a Brighton-like presence of
a bastardized mall-style Shoppers Drug, totally exposed to King Street over
a 127.5 foot wide open surface parking lot, accompanied by a 40 foot by 40
foot Mr Sub which represents a travesty of heritage design. The Shoppers-Mr
Sub project represents a direct assault on the downtown!

A case-in-point is the LACAC meeting of April 19, called on
several days notice to analyze and make recommendations to both town
council and the staff site development coordinating committee (whose
meeting was scheduled for 10:00 am the next day) on the final Mr Sub Site
Development proposal. The agenda, which to this day has not been posted on
the LACAC web-site, included four other unrelated matters that could have
waited until LACAC’s next regular meeting two weeks from now. The agenda
listed the Mr Sub project without indicating what action was expected.
Neither Staff Planner McGlashon or a representative of the developer were
present to explain the proposal and answer questions. Apparently the
chair, whose duty it is to form the agenda and run the meeting, thought
their presence unnecessary. The Mr Sub portion of the meeting concluded
with LACAC not thoroughly considering the evidence before it, and yet
approving the Mr Sub proposal with three minor, ill-defined and confused
recommendations, and basically left their implementation up to engineers or
to the developer.

Gail Rayment, the president of the local chapter of the
province-wide and well respected Architectural Conservancy of Ontario
(ACO), had submitted a proposed checklist to an earlier LACAC meeting with
the recommendation it be used to ensure that all aspects of the Heritage
District Guidelines were applied to such important projects as the
Shoppers-Mr Sub project. She asked for the status of the checklist proposal
and received an assurance that it would be considered at the next LACAC
meeting (too late to be applied to Mr Sub). In an earlier conversation with
one of the committee leaders I was told that he considered the checklist to
be an insult. Airline passengers do not think so as they wait patiently for
their highly-skilled pilots to apply their checklist prior to takeoff.

Following Mrs Rayment, I made a 10 minute presentation that
high-lighted the important issues I hoped LACAC would address, and referred
to letters from two CAUSE architects which find significant fault with the
Mr Sub proposal, a letter of
concern signed by 55 King Street merchants and building owners, and a
series of drawings and photographs which illustrated some of the unsolved
problems contained in the Mr Sub proposal. In addition I presented nine
recommendations to be applied to the Mr Sub proposal and the outlines of at
least two alternative compromise solutions. I asked that my more detailed
22 page submission and the contributions made by others at the meeting, be
received for information purposes, and that the decision on the Mr Sub
proposal be delayed until the next regular LACAC meeting two weeks hence
which could have Planner McGlashon and a representative of Craft
Development present.

What followed was one of the most chaotic meetings of a
deliberative committee that I have ever witnessed. Issues were randomly
raised by committee members, discussed, unqualified opinions were given as
fact, and many important issues were lost and ultimately ignored. There was
a brief discussion as to whether or not combining the two separate Shoppers
and Mr Sub properties, as Craft proposed to do, meant that the approved
site development agreement with Shoppers could be reopened. Staff responded
that it would be up to council to decide on such an action. This should
have been obvious given LACAC’s mandate. In failing to recommend to council
that negotiations with Shoppers be reopened, if only to tone down the
violent red of their standard mall facade, and stop them from inserting a
clause into the forth-coming deed (combining Mr Sub with Shoppers), a legal
condition that will prevent any further commercial development along the
127.5 feet of their open surface parking lot that meets the King Street
sidewalk, LACAC lost a legitimate opportunity to modify Shoppers’ demand
for maximum exposure of its mall type front and signage to our 200 year lod
commercial street. LACAC did not discuss and vote on the issue, it simply
forgot about it.

And so this painful to watch and totally disorganized meeting
proceeded through at least twice as many gaffs as I have described.
Principle among these were Councillor McCaughey’s attempt to sway the
meeting by presenting 18 photographs of King Street buildings that were
meant to support his opinion that “anything goes on King Street”. The
photographs were all wide-angle shots and completely distorted. “Just look
at the windows”, he said, “there are all kinds of them!” McCaughey then
went lightly-tripping through the three page critique of the Mr Sub
building offered by CAUSE coordinating architect Phillip Carter, ignoring
or dismissing Carter’s many detailed recommendations as having been dealt
with in the final Mr Sub proposal. Three of the obvious ones had. Among the
most important ones that were ignored was one that deals with facade
proportions and scale. This more sophisticated aspect of heritage design
completely eluded McCaughey. The councilor demonstrated to all that he
simply does not know when he does not know … a dangerous combination.

The letter from CAUSE architect Bill Birdsell was ignored.

The process for the approval of the Mr Sub project continues at
break-neck speed. In anywhere from three to six weeks the Mr Sub Site
Development Agreement will be before town council for final approval. In a
meeting with legislative staff at nine o’clock the day after the LACAC
comedy, Barry Gutteridge from ACO, Deputy Mayor Spooner and I, were
assured that revisions could still be made to the Mr Sub proposal, and that
it is not uncommon to do so, even at this late stage.

The question is, where will these much needed revisions, if not
total redesign, come from? Who will be involved in the constructive debate
over the possible compromise options that, unlike the present proposal,
conform to the heritage district guidelines? Certainly not the present
totally discredited LACAC!

There is also another glaring need for a “revision”. The chair of
LACAC should resign immediately and the committee temporarily be disbanded.
Councillor McCaughey, who appointed the present LACAC, should be replaced
and given a course on the nature and importance of independent citizen
advisory committees, and how not to interfere in their work with his own
agenda. Three specific LACAC members should be reappointed, one of whom
represents a long history of involvement, an important recourse for any
committee. The remaining three should be individuals who are knowledgeable
and skilled in matters of built-heritage. That does not include myself.

The process of approving the Shoppers-Mr Sub combined project
should be put on hold until these matters are sorted out. This project is
too important to the future of King Street. If someone tells you this can’t
be done … fire them! … you’re getting bad advice!

I thought long and hard about writing this article. I have two
friends on LACAC and I hope they will not be personally offended. I value
friendship and I believe they have done the best job they can and are a
model for others in the time and energy they have devoted to this
important, if not flawed, committee.

Finally, the problem here, as always, is leadership. Will town
council have the courage to lead on this one? Will council step in and save
Cobourg from becoming bedfellows with Brighton in the built-heritage
palliative care ward? As always, in my ever optimistic mode, I trust town
council will, in the end, do the right thing … and the right thing to do
is to fire LACAC!

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