London development:Proposed 28-storey riverfront highrise in doubt

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A landmark downtown London development proposal may be in doubt.

The 28-storey highrise proposed for 50 King St., a riverfront site regarded as perhaps the core’s finest piece of real estate, is in limbo after the Middlesex County government that owns the site overlooking London’s historic birthplace refused to commit to building the tower.

“Council has a myriad of options available for the use of the 50 King Street property,” Bill Rayburn, the county’s chief administrator, said by email.

“Council has not made a decision at this point on which of the options they will pursue. Administratively, we continue to gather information in support of a future council decision on the appropriate use of the property. I don’t have a timeline for a decision on the option that will be chosen.”

That’s a drastic change in tone for the county, which aggressively had pushed the site for a residential tower since 2015, when Rayburn said the county wanted a partnership with a private developer to build and manage the project and council had no intention of constructing a “B-class building.”

“It has to be transformational. It’s the No. 1 piece of real estate in this area,” he said two years ago.

The site, now occupied by the Middlesex-London health unit, is next to the historic Middlesex County courthouse and jail, with a prized view of the Thames.

As recently as this spring, the county had touted the highrise project on its website, saying it wants to build a “landmark” project that “will redefine how people think about Southwestern Ontario.”

The site, according to the county, has been “central to the development of London, the county and Southwestern Ontario.”

Middlesex won rezoning of the site for a highrise, and objections to the tower filed with the Ontario Municipal Board have been dropped, meaning there’s a green light to build.

But county officials refused to discuss why they’re now exploring “options.”

“It is all in-camera stuff and (county) council has not decided, one way or the other. They have not decided where we are going” with developing the site, said Middlesex County Warden Don Shipway, adding a highrise remains one of those options.

“It takes a lot of planning to do this stuff. We have not gotten to that stage,” he said.

Both Shipway and Rayburn were mum on why Middlesex is now downplaying a residential development, declining comment on what’s changed for the county.

“It depends on a lot of different things. County council has not decided what they want to do,” said Shipway.

But rumblings in the city’s development community suggest the price tag for building may be too steep for the county and the business case may not be strong enough.

In addition, the public health unit, a tenant on the site, has withdrawn requests for proposals looking for a new headquarters, throwing in doubt whether it will move, business sources have told The Free Press.

But that’s just not true — only that some sites were rejected, but the search continues, said Laura Di Cesare, the health unit’s acting chief executive.

“The Middlesex-London Health Unit has been involved in an extensive request for proposals (RFP) process for a future location; that process remains ongoing. Those sites that are no longer being considered have been notified. For those sites still being considered, the health unit remains actively engaged in the process with those proponents,” she wrote in an email.

Much has changed in the marketplace over the last year that affects building, said Aina DeViet, deputy mayor of Middlesex Centre.

“The world has changed since a year ago, interest rates have changed, funding has changed, factors change all the time,” she said.

“I have spoken with developers who have said they would not build this building, the market is saturated.”

The city now has more than 10 proposals for residential highrise towers in the downtown area.

Coun. Tanya Park, who represents downtown, said she’s concerned the site may not get a development that benefits the core.

“With the zoning that was allowed, there was a lot of optimism about that. It was a very good land-use application they submitted. I am disappointed to hear this,” she said.

Janette MacDonald, chief executive of the Downtown London business group, held out hope that if a highrise isn’t built, another major development will rise at the prime location.

“I’d like to see what goes there, it could be fantastic,” she said. “But we need a highrise, we need (housing) density. It is a beautiful site and something extraordinary could be there.”

Strathroy-Caradoc Mayor Joanne Vanderheyden, who also sits on the health unit’s board and county council, said county politicians can’t speak to what’s happening or not happening with 50 King St., because all the information they’ve had has been behind closed doors.

“We have not made any decisions, we are talking things through. Any organization would have to look at doing what is in the best interest of all concerned,” she said.

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