By Murray Tucker
The day I’ve been dreading for the last couple of years has finally arrived. Actually, it arrived in early May.
Workers started felling trees for the Solstice Condos phase I condominium development on Gordon Street, just north of Arkell Road. It took about two days to cut them all down, and another couple to mulch or cart them away. It took many years to grow them.
The undeveloped site was part of a forested and wetland area that connected to Preservation Park and provided a habitat for many animals, including deer. You could drive along either Edinburgh Road or Gordon Street and often see deer grazing in the area. Soon you’ll see a building that purports to emulate the design style of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, a man who often takes first prize for bafflement when it comes to making sense of what his designs were trying to achieve.
The design of this development has changed over the years. The proposal to chop into a forest was originally sold to council with the idea that it would be “high end.” Called Serene, it was aimed at upper-income retirees. When it didn’t sell quickly enough, it was converted to a “low-end” absentee landlord building, designed for rental to students. The name was then changed to Solstice. Various iterations of the Mondrian look have been put forward, which essentially means the exterior will be in jarring primary colours and won’t blend into the environment.
The condominium is being sold to potential investors as an opportunity to make an annual 40 per cent return on investment. To say the numbers are interesting is to do a disservice to the word “interesting.”
I can’t buy into the developer’s accounting approach. Needless to say, this is another non-Guelph developer. The goal is to make money. Undoubtedly Solstice will. I doubt, however, whether investors will meet their expectations, given that the student rental market is already saturated in Guelph.
What will happen to the building if investors start losing money or being disappointed about their return on investment? Might a beautiful natural area become another property with garbage and abandoned furniture at the end of each semester?
What this development says about Guelph council’s approach to building is also interesting. This council professes to believe in building smart, and even has an urban forest management plan.
The idea of the plan is to “maximize the health and size of its urban forest.” Council also has an urban design action plan, which supports high-quality contemporary architecture — and trees. To quote the urban plan: “The value of trees to a city, not just in natural heritage areas, but everywhere, cannot be overestimated.”
The Solstice development will ultimately result in a reduction of about 1,000 mature trees. It’s interesting that our politicians talk about trees, but have no problem approving a project that will cut down so many mature ones. No amount of replanting is going to make a difference to our city canopy, or the climate, in our lifetime.
The effect that Solstice will have on wildlife is perhaps the worst element of the project. The area is home to numerous mammals and birds. It connects green spaces and allows animals to migrate from one to the other. Bit by bit, we are cutting off their ability to move, while impeding our own by increasing congestion and by multiplying cars on the road and traffic lights on adjacent streets.
This is, quite simply, for me, the most troubling development decision I have ever seen in Guelph.
I envision wildlife scouts on the upper floors of the condominium texting collision results to tenants on the lower floors so they can fire up their barbecues in time to take advantage of the roadkill. With any luck, a student tenant will be studying to be a butcher — lucky days for all at Solstice. Not so lucky for those of us who appreciate wildlife and green space; even less lucky for the trees that have already been lost and the animals that will be affected in the future.
We should make note of which politicians supported this proposal and ensure we make our voices heard in the upcoming provincial and municipal elections.
It’s too late to stop Solstice phase 1 and 2, but perhaps there is time to stop any future developments that emulate this destruction of green space, wetlands, and wildlife habitat. I’m sure that not even Mondrian would want his name and design ideas associated with such an assault on nature.
Murray Tucker is a member of the Guelph Mercury’s community editorial board.