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Developer pulls out of Clock Tower project, readies historic properties for sale

'There’s an economics that comes into play for a developer. You have to be able to make it work. To renovate and to do what was there before (at the Clock Tower) doesn’t work,' the Forrest Group spokesperson says

The developer of Newmarket’s historic Clock Tower building and adjacent Main Street South heritage buildings will put its entire swath of downtown properties up for sale once it completes restoration work.

“We’re stripping out the interiors of those buildings and we’re doing restoration, we’re working with a heritage architect and heritage contractor, who we’ve worked with in the past and, following that, we’ll be selling those buildings,” the Forrest Group’s vice-president of operations Colleen Forrest told NewmarketToday.

The long-stalled Clock Tower development project, which includes Newmarket’s landmark circa 1914-1915 clock tower building at 180 Main St. S., and adjacent historic buildings at 184 to 194 Main St. S., revved up last week as work began on the properties to ready them for the real estate market.

The Forrest Group has submitted its restoration plans to the Town of Newmarket and are waiting to get the necessary approvals from the town’s heritage advisory committee. In the meantime, passersby will notice Lions Demolition and Excavation employees at work gutting the interiors of the derelict Main Street South storefronts.

Forrest said the work is expected to take about five months to complete and the developer will use local real estate brokers once the properties hit the market.

“We’re comfortable with how we’re proceeding forward,” Forrest said. “There’s an economics that comes into play for a developer. You have to be able to make it work. To renovate and to do what was there before (at the clock tower) doesn’t work.”

The developer’s original development proposal was rejected by Newmarket council, which included an application to build up to a seven-storey condo tower with 165 residential units at the corner of Main Street South and Park Avenue.

“The Clock Tower building, itself, has some added challenges around parking and limited uses to what we could do with that building and, as much we enjoyed doing work in Newmarket, that one just didn’t work out for us,” Forrest said. “It’s the best exit plan we can get for our partners because we can’t continue to pour money into the project.”

Over the years, the Clock Tower project saw Ontario Municipal Board appeals and a court action, ending in spring 2018 with a settlement between the town and the Forrest Group.

Included in the May 2, 2018 minutes of settlement is up to $100,000 the town undertook to provide to the Forrest Group, on behalf of Main Street Clock Inc., to help pay for its planned facade, interior and exterior improvements to the heritage-protected properties at 180, 184, 188 and 194 Main St., providing the projects meet with the approval of the Heritage Newmarket Advisory Committee.

The developer has applied for the funding through the Newmarket Downtown Development Committee, according to the committee’s March 29, 2019 agenda. The proposed plans for the properties are now being considered by heritage committee members.

In a letter dated May 18, 2018, town treasurer Mike Mayes confirms that $100,000 will be held in a reserve account for the exclusive use of the developer that can be used within five years from the date of the letter.

Mayes writes “...the Town will support Main Street Clock Inc.’s application to the Newmarket Downtown Development Committee and will ensure that sufficient funds are available for the programs, including the facade improvement and restoration program for 180, 184, 188 and 194 Main St., as well as its interior renovation and improvement program on the same properties”.

Newmarket Mayor John Taylor said Tuesday he anticipated the possibility of a sale of the properties, but that doesn’t change anything from the town’s perspective.

“The way we look at it is, we had a settlement which provided us with an agreement, which, I believe, was very beneficial to the town,” Taylor said. “That agreement saved the town about half a million (in legal fees), the all-important clock tower is protected within the heritage district conservation bylaw, and any future work will be subject to all the heritage guidelines.”

Taylor also said that the $100,000 the town undertook to provide to the developer advances the rebuilding of those buildings and bringing them back to productive use.

“It still continues to be a good news story for Newmarket,” he said. “It improves the buildings, the street looks better, the entire street succeeds, the assessment value goes up and, quite frankly, we get better taxes in the long run.”

On the issue of parking challenges, Taylor said about 10 or 15 years ago, he doesn’t remember too many businesses on Main Street complaining about a lack of parking. He admits that parking is a challenge downtown and that it’s something council is committed to addressing through smart-city type of technology, such as digital wayfinding.

“After having those storefronts boarded up and the Clock Tower inactive and degrading for the last couple of years, I’m very excited and pleased to see work move forward,” Taylor said. “I’m sure once the restorations are done, there’s going to be a great deal of interest in those properties because our Main Street is a very successful Main Street and a very attractive one.”

One of the buildings, at 184 Main St. S., is known as the Charles Hargrave Simpson Building. It was built circa 1850 and was the home of Ontario’s first female druggist, Anne Mary Simpson, who ran an apothecary there from 1886 to 1914.

“This currently pitiful but once historic building must be restored and loved again,” said Richard MacLeod in his Remember This? April 13 column at NewmarketToday. “The building is a heritage site for the very fact that Ontario’s first female druggist maintained a shop there against all odds, and the memories of the various businesses that have called it home should guarantee that someone will step forward and rescue this historic soul.”

The Clock Tower, designated a heritage property under the Ontario Heritage Act, was built between 1914 and 1915 in what’s known as Italianate style. A mostly cosmetic addition was completed in 1956. It was also formerly known as the Newmarket Federal Building and the Newmarket Post Office, until it was converted into a retirement residence in 2001 and renamed the Clock Tower Inn.

The building is a prominent Newmarket landmark and is noted for stylistic elements that single it out as a rare example among contemporary post offices. The tower bell has always functioned as the town bell, according to town heritage documents.

For her part, Forrest said that she’s had some “fabulous conversations” with people in Newmarket, but there are some urban myths about the clock tower area that are not true.

“I’m going to say something else to you, which is really important for people in Newmarket to understand. ...There are a lot of urban myths about that area, one of which is that there is a river beneath (the property), and there is not a river beneath there,” she said. “We provided reports to the town that actually were posted on the town website, but it’s important for people to understand because somebody else is going to come along who’s going to want to do some things and it behooves everybody to understand what’s really going on.”

On that front, Taylor said any water that’s present at the site doesn’t preclude underground parking but, rather, the business model there doesn’t support it.

“If the building is renovated within the existing structure, it’s not needed,” he said. “The impediment was a seven-storey building in a heritage conservation district.”

A staff report on the Forrest Group’s heritage permit application for facade restoration on the 184 to 194 Main St. buildings is expected to come before council at its April 29 committee of the whole meeting.

You can view more details about the proposal currently being reviewed by the town’s Lower Main Street South Heritage Conservation District Advisory Group, which was posted to the town website Tuesday afternoon.


Kim Champion

About the Author: Kim Champion

Kim Champion is a veteran journalist and editor who covers Newmarket and issues that impact York Region.
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