Town approves former WMS development project
After a long wait, Woodstock council cleared the way for developers to turn the former Woodstock Middle School and its property into an expansive apartment complex.
In a special meeting at 4 p.m. Friday, Jan. 12, council unanimously passed a motion to rezone the property at the corner of Elm, Green and Orange streets from institutional to R3, multi-unit residential.
The motion will allow Belleterre Real Estate Properties and Emmett Properties Group to begin their plans to repurpose the former school into an apartment building housing 30 to 36 units.
The plan also calls for the construction of a 20-unit apartment building at the site of the former school’s outdoor basketball court.
While council imposed development restrictions to address some issues raised during a late October public meeting, the town and developer failed to reach an agreement surrounding the greenspace stretching along Orange Street, which neighbours wanted to be protected.
“There’s no protected space,” explained Mayor Trina Jones.
However, she noted development restrictions requiring access to the apartment complex from Green Street only could provide some protection of the green space.
Jones said that if town residents show an interest, council could revisit the greenspace issue to consider purchasing that portion of the property and subdividing it.
As it stands, she continued, Belleterre owns the entire property and is under no obligation to maintain the green space.
Coun. Christa MacCartney said she understood the town couldn’t mandate protection of the greenspace in the bylaw but hopes it can move towards an agreement with the developer in the future.
Deputy Mayor Mark Rogers said that, in hindsight, he wished residents had approached council years ago, following the school’s closure, to advise it of the importance they placed on the green space.
“Town could have gone to the province to acquire the greenspace,” he said.
Rogers welcomed the project, adding that everyone around the table worked hard to finalize a good deal for the developers and the town.
Mayor Jones, who, like Rogers, served on council when discussions with Belleterre began, agreed town officials spent a lot of time weighing all issues surrounding the development.
She said it allowed a “badly needed” project to move forward.
Woodstock CAO and Director of Planning and Development Andrew Garnett greeted council’s decision with enthusiasm, saying it provides needed housing, including affordable housing.
During an open house in early October, Blair Martin of Belleterre and Lucky Balakrishnan of Emmett Properties estimated tentative rental costs, based on information at that time, would range from a monthly rent of $700 to $1,070 for affordable units and $819 to $1,485 for market units.
Under the government affordable housing program, developers can apply for rental costs of a percentage of their units to be subsidized by the provincial government.
Deputy Mayor Rogers noted before Friday’s special meeting that the government’s affordable housing program differs from low-income housing programs.
While the developers are based in Toronto, Martin is a New Brunswick native and headed other significant developments in the province.
Garnett said the developer earned a solid reputation within the province.
“The Belleterre group has done great work in other communities,” Garnett said.
The rezoning amendments require the grading of parking lots to ensure no increase in stormwater runoff and be appropriately tied into the nearest stormwater sewer.
Parking lots must be paved and curbed before any occupancy.
Garnett said the former school property is huge, creating little difficulty for the developers to provide ample parking for the 50 or more apartment units.
Under the bylaw amendment, the developer must submit a landscaping plan before the town issues a building permit.
Jones said the town could not require the developer to go ahead with the massive undertaking but noted the deterioration of the school would continue either way. She said Belleterre’s proposal presented the town’s best opportunity to save a historic building and provide needed housing.
During the October open house, Martin said the developers are considering opening a daycare on the bottom floor of the converted school.
Jones said the town’s zoning amendment doesn’t address that issue, noting the developer must meet stringent provincial regulations to proceed with its daycare plan.
During the October open house, Martin acknowledged repurposing the long-closed school is a massive and expensive undertaking. While asbestos removal is always difficult, he cited mould as the biggest challenge for the project.
Martin said his company faced similar projects in the past and has worked with contractors experienced in dealing with hazardous materials.
During the open house, the developers said they tentatively hoped to begin work in the spring of 2023, but that was before the three-month delay for the town’s final approval.
Martin’s early estimate suggested a target of late 2024 to complete the remediation of the school building, but acknowledged that could be delayed.
Jim Dumville, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, River Valley Sun