Developing a Better Plan for Developers

[27-May-2013] Click here to view the original article.

Ottawa Citizen — Overheard on a Bridgehead Coffeehouse patio last weekend: “Politicians are bought and sold by the developers in this town.”

It’s not the first time such a charge has been hurled against councillors and the city planning staff, and it’s not likely to be the last. Two-and-a-half years into this term of council, and the city still has a public-relations nightmare on its hands when it comes to intensification.

“I’m quite distressed to hear that people think the planning department is in the pocket of the developer,” says Coun. Peter Hume, who chairs the planning committee.

“We’re trying to be the honest broker. We’re not going to say the community is always right, but nor do we want to be in a spot where we say that everything the developer wants is what we’re going to approve.”

The problem is that it seems as if developers almost always get what they want over the protestations of communities. Take Little Italy, where a rash of 40-plus storey towers have recently been approved for Carling Avenue. What kind of intensification program calls for the city’s tallest condo towers to be located across from a vast, federally owned farm? It makes no sense.

Hume — and other city officials — have admitted that the way the Carling Avenue sites and surrounding properties have been rezoned was a mess, and that gaping holes in city planning policies allowed developers to win approvals for much taller buildings than anyone expected.

But the planning chair says that’s about to change with the revamping of the city’s official plan, the blueprint for how the city should be developed over the coming years. The official plan — or OP, as it’s referred to — is full of contradictions that have allowed developers to successfully argue for rezonings that don’t seem to fall in line with other parts of the plan.

Take Richcraft Homes’ current rezoning application for 560 Rideau St. (A little Planning 101: The zoning bylaw designates, among other things, exactly how high buildings can be in certain locations. So when developers want to build taller-than-called-for towers, they apply for a “rezoning” using stated policies in the OP as their underlying argument, such as section 2.2.2, which calls for promoting “an efficient land-use pattern within the urban area through intensification of locations that are strategically aligned with the transportation network …”)

The section of Rideau Street in question is designated as “traditional mainstreet” in the OP, which calls for maximum heights of six storeys. Several years back, the property owners appealed the zoning to the Ontario Municipal Board and won approval for nine storeys at 560 Rideau.

But that’s not quite enough for Richcraft. The company, which owns virtually the entire block on Rideau from Cobourg to Charlotte streets, wants to rearrange the nine storeys into what its architect and planning consultants say would be a more attractive layout that would include a seven-storey building, some townhouses and an 18-storey tower — that’s triple the height that was originally designated under the OP. (And Richcraft isn’t just looking to rearrange its allowed building space, but also wants a 20-per-cent increase in density to boot.)

Perhaps what Richcraft’s architect is proposing would indeed be a better design than a solid block of condos at nine storeys (although even the architect says that Richcraft is committed to building something attractive, no matter the height). But the subjective discussion over what may or may not be good design is almost beside the point. The fact is, an 18-storey tower is certainly not what the community was expecting.

No wonder people are upset. There’s no official policy or other city plan that calls for an 18-storey tower on what is essentially an empty lot at 560 Rideau. But there are loopholes and contradictions in the OP that allow Richcraft and their associates to validly argue for those extra storeys.

Developers looking for — and getting — properties rezoned to soaring heights is not a new scenario in Ottawa. But Hume says that a year from now, it might be a thing of the past.

That’s because the official plan is being overhauled to remove the ambiguities that have led to so many taller-than-expected buildings, says the planning chair.

The last time the city reviewed the OP, city officials didn’t change the zoning rules to reflect what the planning blueprint called for. That was a huge mistake.

“We naively thought that we would set these broad categories where proponents would have flexibility, where communities would have an opportunity to shape buildings, and it would result in better urban design because everyone would be involved in the rezoning process,” says Hume.

“We know how well that worked out for us. It didn’t.”

The councillor hopes that future developments roll out at as smoothly as the Upper West 25-storey condo project in Westboro. The property on the Ottawa River was zoned years ago, possibly before amalgamation. It might have been controversial when the rezoning was first discussed, but the project has hardly caused a ripple now that Minto and Canderel have started development. Maybe it’s because the tower isn’t being plunked down on a residential street, or that we’re all getting used to taller buildings, or that the site was rezoned so long ago that everyone forgot about it. But whatever the reason, Upper West seems to be moving along with nary a public meeting that sees residents yelling and shaking their heads in disgust.

Whether the revamping of the OP can provide certainty in planning as Hume and Mayor Jim Watson have been promising is still to be seen. The draft of the new-and-improved OP is expected to be tabled at planning committee late next month.

In the meantime, Richcraft is still contemplating whether it wants to move ahead with 18 storeys. Hume says the developer’s plan is not a done deal, claiming that “there’s nothing that requires us to give them extra height.”

If Richcraft does decide to build a block’s worth of nine-storey condo buildings on Rideau Street, it would not only please the community — although likely not every individual — but it would shock city watchers who’ve seen dozens of applications for taller-than-allowed buildings come through the planning department.

And if Richcraft presses ahead with an application for an 18-storey tower, well, that’s completely within their purview. But it is the kind of thing that leads to over-the-top cynicism about who’s really running this town.

Joanne Chianello