How does the Official Plan guide urban design?

An architectural drawing of Homestead’s proposed 23-storey building bordering King, Queen and Ontario Streets.

An architectural drawing of Homestead’s proposed 23-storey building bordering King, Queen and Ontario Streets.

How does the Official Plan guide urban design?

Despite the acute housing shortage in the City of Kingston, some local leaders protest against any type of new multi-story development proposal, clinging to the argument that there should be no variances to the City’s Official Plan — a Plan which dates back to 2010.  These arguments are weak at best, and quite often very misleading. The Official Plan actually allows for taller buildings with an acceptable Urban Design Plan and, as such, it is not being 'overturned' or 'varied' by  the current development proposals.

The following memo by Michael Keene provides a factual context to better evaluate these so called ‘official plan arguments for the status quo’.

Kingston’s Official Plan and Building Heights

Much of the recent debate surrounding height in Kingston has been centered around the Downtown & Harbour and Williamsville areas. Each of these areas has unique policies which regulate building heights. In this article we will discuss how the Official Plan regulates height for both the Downtown & Harbour and Williamsville areas, followed by a brief discussion of how this impacts the zoning by-law.

The current Official Plan was approved in 2010 and underwent a five-year review which was approved by Council and approved by Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing in 2017. Certain sections of the updates included in the 5-year review, known as Official Plan Amendment 50 (OPA 50), have been appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board (now the Local Planning Area Tribunal) and are therefore not in force and effect.

In general, the Official Plan encourages height where it can be demonstrated to be compatible with the surrounding area. The height policies of the Official Plan allow height to be determined on a site by site basis. These policies have remained unchanged in OPA 50, therefore the policies discussed below regarding height are still in effect.

The following is a brief list of definitions which are important for discussing how the Official Plan addresses building height.

  • Building Height: is the vertical distance from the ground to the peak of the roof of a building, sometimes expressed as a number of storeys.

  • Streetwall: is a term which refers to the wall(s) of a building which are located immediately adjacent to and along a public street

  • Angular Plane: is an imaginary flat surface which projects over a lot, at an inclined angle from a defined point, typically used to ensure that building height is stepped back from the streetwall

Downtown & Harbour Area

The Official Plan breaks down the Downtown & Harbour area into three cultural character areas: 1) Market Square Heritage Conservation District; 2) Lower Princess Street Heritage Character Area; and, 3) North Block. Section 10A.4.6 of the official plan contemplates general height provisions for new buildings in these areas, as follows:

  • In the Market Square Heritage Conservation District, the maximum permitted height is that of the highest existing building on a given block, while the minimum permitted building height is 8.5 metres (the height of a typical 2 storey building).

  • In the Lower Princess Street Heritage Character Area and parts of the Central-Business District (CBD), street wall buildings are subject to a build-to-plane of 17 metres and a minimum height of a building is 8.5 metres (or 2 storeys). There is no maximum building height.

  • The North Block is subject to the same policies as the Lower Princess Street Heritage Character Area, as well as a maximum height of 25.5 metres (after employing angular plane setbacks).

The Official Plan further expands upon these general height provisions for new buildings by permitting taller buildings on a site-by-site basis where they can be demonstrated to be compatible. Section 10A.4.7 of the Plan states that the general height provisions of Section 10A.4.6 will not apply if the applicant prepares an urban design study for their site which demonstrates the compatibility of their proposed development with the surrounding area. An urban design study addresses a wide range of matters relating to the massing and design of a proposed building, including any potential impacts on the surrounding neighbourhood.

Section 10A.4.6 and Section 10A.4.7 of the Official Plan work in tandem to provide a two-pronged approach to regulating height in the Downtown & Harbour area. Section 10A.4.6 outlines permitted building heights which can be accommodated without a detailed compatibility analysis. In general, these height provisions allow buildings which maintain the average height for a given area. Section 10A.4.7 provides the opportunity for taller buildings to be constructed but requires that a higher level of support to demonstrate that a taller building would be appropriate on the site. The intent of this policy is to recognize that taller buildings are necessary to accommodate growth in the City, but that the height and design of each such building should be given detailed consideration in the context of the development site.

As a result of the policies of Sections 10A.4.6 and 10A.4.7, the Official Plan ultimately has no maximum building height for the Downtown & Harbour Area. That being said, a high level of analysis and justification must be provided to demonstrate compatibility for buildings which are proposed to be taller than the existing average. In this manner, the Official Plan provides the opportunity for the City to contemplate taller building heights. As such, where a detailed urban design study is provided, an Official Plan Amendment is not required to permit taller buildings in the Downtown & Harbour Area. This has been the case in all recent applications for increased height in the City’s downtown.


The Williamsville Main Street is generally recognized as the section of Princess Street between the western edge of the Downtown Central Business District and the Bath Road/Concession Street intersection. The Official Plan recognizes this area as a major component of the Princess Street Corridor, an area intended for development and sustainable growth. Through development, Williamsville has the opportunity to become a gateway into the historic downtown core of the City. The Williamsville Main Street is broken down into three character areas, as follows: 1) Area 1 – City Destination (Bath Road/Concession Street to Macdonnell Street); 2) Area 2 – Community Destination (Macdonnell Street to Alfred Street); and, 3) Area 3 – The Gateway (Alfred Street to Division Street). The Official Plan provides policy direction for permitted building heights in each of these areas.

  • In Area 1 – City Destination, the Official Plan states that taller buildings should be located at the corner of Bath Road/Concession Street and Princess Street. No maximum or minimum building heights are provided for this area.

  • In Area 2 – Community Destination, the Official Plan notes that some sites in this area may be suitable for buildings over six (6) storeys. The Plan does not expand upon this provision and does not provide any other policy direction for maximum or minimum building heights.

  • In Area 3 – The Gateway, the Official Plan states that new development need to fit with the existing context. In general, this area has building heights ranging from two (2) to six (6) storeys. Again, no maximum or minimum building heights are provided for the area.

Section 10E.1.29 in the Official Plan further expands on these area-specific policies. Section 10E.1.29 states that all buildings in the Williamsville Main Street should have a minimum height of 3 storeys and a continuous streetwall between 3 to 4 storeys. In general, buildings will be up to 6 storeys tall, however buildings which provide a positive contribution to the community may be taller than 6 storeys. Furthermore, in instances where it can be demonstrated there will be minimal impacts on the next-door properties, buildings may be built up to a maximum of 10 storeys. In all cases, buildings taller than 6 storeys must be shown to be compatible with the surrounding area through an urban design study.

In addition to the general height policies of Section 10E.1.29, Sections 10E.1.34 and 10E.1.35 require that all new development fit within various angular planes to ensure that upper storeys are stepped back from the streetwall. The angular plane requirements do not apply to developments which can demonstrate a building is compatible with the surrounding area through an urban design study.   

To summarize, in cases where an urban design study is provided which can demonstrate compatibility of the proposed development, the Official Plan permits buildings up to 10 storeys in the Williamsville Mainstreet Area. Any building greater than 6 storeys tall must provide an urban design study to demonstrate that it will be compatible with the surrounding area. As such, an official plan amendment would only be an absolute requirement for a development which exceeds 10 storeys in height.

Zoning By-law

When considering increased height for new buildings in Kingston, an urban planner must address how the building complies with the zoning by-law. A zoning by-law is a tool which implements the intent and the vision of the Official Plan by providing more detailed parameters within which a new development must fit. This often includes provisions which regulate the types of uses which are permitted on a given site, building heights, required yard areas, and required parking ratios, among other things. If a development does not fit within the parameters outlined in the zoning by-law, a zoning by-law amendment is required.

In Kingston, there are five zoning by-laws which apply to different areas of the City. These zoning by-laws are all outdated and much older than the current Official Plan. For example, the newest zoning by-law, Cataraqui North Zoning By-law 97-102, was passed 21 years ago in 1997. Due to the age of the five zoning by-laws, their provisions often do not reflect the intent and vision of the current Official Plan.

As land use planners, when we assess the appropriateness of a development on a given site, we first examine the policies of the Official Plan for that area. We then review the provisions of the relevant zoning by-law in the context of the Official Plan policies. In many cases, certain aspects of the zoning by-law simply are not consistent with the Official Plan. For example, the current Official Plan might identify that a given area is appropriate for 10-storey buildings, but the relevant outdated zoning by-law might only permit 2-storey buildings. In these instances, we would propose an amendment to the zoning by-law to permit a development which is appropriate for the site and conforms to the policies of the Official Plan and the long-term vision for the growth of the City.

When it comes to matters of building height, the zoning by-laws often do not reflect the intent of the Official Plan. As a result, it is may be necessary to amend the relevant zoning by-law to permit a development which is actually consistent with the policies and vision of the Official Plan.


Michael Keene, MCIP RPP

Associate Director, Planning + Development


Fotenn is an award-winning planning, urban design, and landscape architecture firm with offices in, Ottawa, Kingston and Toronto. Established in 1992, Fotenn has more than 30 planning, landscape architecture, architecture and urban design staff engaged in projects across the country. Fotenn maintains a balance of public and private work ranging from individuals and large private sector firms to all three levels of government.

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