Trees and grass with that playground? Swap you for it.


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Listening to the repetitive clanging of machines boring through bedrock it can seem that the condo developments along Richmond and Wellington Roads are never-ending. But along with the noise and dust, urban infill can also mean exciting possibilities, and can be used as a creative opportunity for changes within a community. Most recently, development options are being proposed for the Soeurs de la Visitation convent at 114 Richmond Road. This large, cloistered, very green looking area stretches from Richmond Road to Byron Avenue and is a mystery to local residents who have only air photos and glances at buildings and hundred year old trees to identify the heritage and natural value of the site. Immediately adjacent to the site is Hilson Public School with its treeless schoolyard separated from busy Richmond Road by a chain link fence. These two properties, side by side, green space and concrete. According to the current proposal the green space will be developed and the concrete will continue to be a children’s playground. Imagine if this could be different.

Ashcroft is proposing a multi-building development on the convent land and is currently in the phase of seeking community input and support for the project. A large gathering of concerned residents attended a meeting in February to learn about the proposal. Many concerns were raised over height (Ashcroft is proposing a 8-10 storey building on the site), loss of local green space (the site has many hundred-year old trees that will not be preserved with the current proposal) and access (current ideas propose cutting a driveway through the Byron Tramway, a local bicycle and walking path).

The Soeurs de la Visitation site is an exciting one with the potential to contribute something wonderful to the local community. In order for this to happen, and still allow the developer to build a successful project, creative solutions must be sought that address both the citizen’s concerns and are in the best interest of the developer.

One creative and innovative proposal that has come to my attention (beginning with comment #24) is the possibility of a land exchange agreement between the developer Ashcroft and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board to exchange a portion of the green convent lands to the south of the existing convent structure for the school yards to the north of Hilson Public School along Richmond Road. The swap would see the valuable green space become Hilson’s school yard, and the land along Richmond become developable land for Ashcroft.

Land exchanges are frequently done in urban land use planning in Ottawa. In fact, it is written in the Greenspace Master Plan that: “Lands or interest in land can be traded to achieve mutual interests, and net differences in values can then be settled.”

A land exchange in this circumstance has numerous advantages for both local citizens and the developer and would address many of the concerns raised at the public meeting.

A land exchange on this site would provide

  1. · A healthier and safer area for schoolchildren to play
  2. · Retaining of significant and historic green space on the site.
  3. · Greater development potential in a more appropriate location
  4. · A better transition to the existing community and a new greenspace for Westboro
  5. · Better access points for the proposed development (off of a signalized intersection)

Obstacles to this proposal are time and an unknown level of interest from both the developer and the Ottawa District School Board. Unless everyone agrees quickly to this proposal there is a chance that Ashcroft will think it is easier to go ahead with the planned proposal instead of exploring other options.

The next community meeting is being held this Wednesday March 10th 7pm to 9pm, at St George’s Church (415 Piccadilly Avenue). Ashcroft will be presenting preliminary concept plans at this meeting and listen to feedback from the community.

Innovative and creative solutions can make intensification work in an established urban area. Finding possibilities within urban planning where everyone wins are the key to building communities that are liveable and exciting. Let’s hope Ashcroft and the OCDSB sees it this way too.

4 comments

  1. Land swaps have to be perceived as desirable amongst many interested parties to work. I don’t think that is the case here.

    First, the school yard along Richmond is already green grass — look at the aerial photo or through the fence! To describe it as “concrete” and the convent lawn as “historic greenspace” won’t convince me. They are both grassy lawns. If a lot of the school site is paved in asphalt, that’s because that is the way the schoolboard and landscape architects wanted it. The school is quite new and was, if I recall correctly, the most expensive elementary school ever built in Ontario at the time. So if it was programmed to have a lot of paved yards and parking lots with few trees, that must be what the school board wanted. Why would they want to trade it for a bigger lawn?

    The schoolboard yard along Richmond is obviously a lot smaller than the convent lawn, maybe its only half as big … so why would Ashcroft value it as twice as valuable as the convent lawn? Finally, we have an example of a walled schoolyard/park a few blocks east of the site, behind St Francois church. Lovely park, lovely playground, lotsa grass and big trees … but it has always been plagued by being “out of sight” of passersby. The million dollar renovation to the surrounding historic wall includes lowering parts of it to improve sight into the park so it is not so isolated or welcoming to drug deals and other scary activities. (My kid went to St Francois from JrK to 6 and I am very familiar with the park).

    The neighbours backing onto the existing convent grounds might want it kept greenspace for their personal comfort, but I remain to be convinced there are other parties anxious to make a trade like this. However, a good trade might be made in asphalt rather than grass: the school parking lot is paved and used during the week days; the development residents and existing residents might want to use the lot for “guest parking” on weeknights and weekends. Maybe our cash-strapped schoolboard should be installing parking meters?

  2. Hi Eric,

    Thanks for pointing out that the school yard is in fact grass. This had been corrected in a different draft of the post but was missed upon submission.

    You make a good point about eyes on the yard and when speaking to a representative of the School board yesterday, they cautioned that this would be an important consideration if this idea were to be explored.

    I guess the school board would have been mindful of what it wanted as it designed the layout of the school and its facilities….but did they have anticipate that traffic along Richmond would already reflect the growth that was anticipated in the area by 2030? Or such an unapologetically intense development right next door?

    The point for me remains that there is a beautiful, treed yard on the Convent lands away from a high traffic roadway. Why not see if they want to swap?

    Oh and regarding size: the school yard along Richmond is of greater value so presumably Ashcroft could be convinced to trade a larger amount of land for it.

  3. The school yard on Richmond once was asphalt, fwiw. Anyone with a long memory probably still thinks of it being asphalt. At any rate, it’s not of the same calibre as the convent grounds.

    Ashcroft need not swap the entire grounds, just an equivalent amount.

  4. Such a swap might put some of the Ashcroft density on to Richmond Road where it more properly belongs (than along Byron) and such land may be of interest to Ashcroft if this swap could be easily accomplished. If however, the school were to take over the back half of the convent property, while the trees on the edge could be retained (including the Willow tree), the park like setting will change into a school playing field. The school will be using the land for soccer, football, etc, not for contemplative walks as it is currently being used. The site will be school property and may not be easily accessible to the public during school hours if for no other reasons than safety. Having the the back of the Convent as a school playing field is still more adaptive to the surrounding neighbourhood than what is being proposed even if it will not really be a public park. The question for the school board is whether they will have a problem with a mid-rise tower boardering the north side of the school. As well, if a development was to go to the edge of Hilson, the exit would be behind the building onto Hilson. There might be a safety concern with this. That being said, if all of these issues could be addressed, it could be an interesting solution to several community concerns.

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