Playing hardball for the convent: power politics emerge from the cloister

Byron

Crane looming over Byron: are there more to come?

urbanist

Editor’s note: the following article is cross-posted from Spacing Ottawa contributor Chris Henschel’s personal blog, Bestboro, Best Wellington

My wife Allegra and I wrote a series of posts for SpacingOttawa.ca that chronicled our involvment in a condo development on Richmond Road, behind our house.

The project ended up falling through, but the experience of working with the developer was largely positive. Though I believe that the City’s height restrictions are too liberal (especially for the north side of a ‘traditional mainstreet’), the developer was more or less happy to stay within City bylaws, with minor variances. He was also a nice guy and was listening to what people were saying: we didn’t like parking at the back, so he put it all underground; we didn’t want an access off a dead-end sidestreet, so he proposed moving it to Wellington.

Economic concerns doomed the project. Residents were relieved. But our ongoing experience with the redevelopment of the Soeurs de la Visitation Convent currently being proposed by Ashcroft Homes inspires a more sober perspective: what might happen behind us if this style of developer comes knocking.

Ashcroft’s proposal for the Convent site doubles the permitted density and height prescribed in the City’s Official Plan and Secondary Plan. It crowds and overbears the historic convent building. It cuts a private access road through the Byron Linear Park. It has no useful public space and it threatens to gridlock traffic on Richmond Road (the City’s figures show that the proposal would push the neighbourhood to within a breath of its 2031 density targets).

The residents on surrounding streets that were invited to pre-consultations on the proposal see no trace of their input. The developer has filed with the Ontario Superior Court to quash a recommendation for heritage designation of the whole property that could strengthen the City’s hand when reviewing the plan.

Unlike the experience we had in our backyard, this one’s going to be a fight. A crowd of hundreds at a public meeting was inspired to repeated applause last week by a puckish local resident who revealed various ‘inconvenient truths’ about the proposal using creative 3-D renderings. This public meeting was Councillor Christine Leadman throwing down the gauntlet, challenging Ashcroft to meet City guidelines or fight. The lead architect, Roderick Lahey was there to pick it up and did so, announcing to the media that the consultation game was over and that final plans had been filed with the City.

This one is now all about power politics. The outcome will be determined not by back-and-forth with the community, but by the actions of the allies that line up on either side of this issue (Lahey: “We would have come to the community with the revised proposal, but we saw no point after we saw what was happening with the councilor (Christine Leadman)”).

The community and Leadman stand together. Which side will City Planning Staff staff take? Will Parks and Recreation oppose the destruction of park land? Will the City’s Bylaw Enforcement Branch play hardball or cave to Ashcroft and issue permits for the destruction of distinctive trees on the site? How will the Ontario Municipal Board, if called upon, view the reasonableness of the City’s planning requirements and Ashcroft’s alternative view? Or will Council support a heritage designation for the whole site that will leave Ashcroft unable to appeal to the OMB?

Both sides are now in full campaign mode, with the initial focus on an April 14 Council meeting where the heritage designation of the site will be decided.

Our first blog post on the development proposal in ‘our backyard’ offered a perspective that I think applies equally here. Except this time, things don’t look so rosy.

We are ready to engage with the developer to address our interests and so far he has reciprocated. It occurs to me that this process will not so much be a test of our support for traditional mainstreets and urban intensification but rather a test of whether the City and developers are really committed to sensitive development that fits the surrounding community and neighbourhoods. We are urbanists with fair interests. If adjacent development won’t work for us, it won’t work for anybody.

The gathering storm over the Convent site looks less like it’s going go be about traditional mainstreets and intensification and more about making money and fighting for community values and identity.

photo by Mike Gifford

6 comments

  1. “Will Parks and Recreation oppose the destruction of park land?”

    What parkland?? This has been a walled-in private property for ages. When was it ever open to the public?

  2. Though I believe that the City’s height restrictions are too liberal (especially for the north side of a ‘traditional mainstreet’)

    = = =
    Isn’t the north side exactly the side where shadows are less of an issue (to the extent that they are at all)?

  3. Response to Mike: When I referred to destruction of parkland I was referring to the Bryon Linear Tramway Park that would be bisected by a private road for the site.

    Response to W MClean: It is on the North side of the street that tall buildings impact residents behind the building (by blocking their southern exposure). Buildings on the South side, unless they are really too tall, don’t shade the far side of the street.

    But you are right that a building on the north side would not cast a shadow on the sidewalk.

    chris.

  4. What is your solution then, Chris? Leave this largely unused and inaccessible parcel as is – deadspace? Or develop it, even if imperfectly, and increase the density of what is still a fairly low density neighbourhood? If we can’t infill Westboro, on the transitway, let’s just drop the charade and look to Kanata and Carp and the rest to provide space to grow. Look, I like good development, smart development – well massed and placed buildings, that present a human-scaled front to the street, good private-public interaction, etc – but I would prefer so-so high density development over what is there now: nothing but vacant, unused private land within 3 minutes of good transit. But again, if there is a better solution that will result in development now versus waiting another decade for a better plan to come along, I’d love to hear it and would definitely support it.

  5. Response to Mike:

    The answer is simple: follow the City guidelines for the site: https://docs.google.com/fileview?id=0Bzqn53hUqLSsNjFjYTIyMTItNmM3NS00MzgwLThiOTctMDM3MzM4YTZmMGRh&hl=en

    Page 6 even has a concept map for the site.

    Despite being in posession of these guidelines when it purchased the site, Ashcroft plans to double the density and height and block the viewscapes to the convent.

    Also look at slide 15 from Councillor Leadman’s presentation about the site (density) – Westboro is already exceeding its 2021 targets for intensification and this proposal puts it near its 2031 target. The transportation infrastructure is not there to support this. Island Park and Richmond Roads are already quite bad.

    http://www.kitchissippiward.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Sisters114Richmond-presentation.pdf

  6. City Counil today approved heritage designation for the entire convent property by a vote of 5-2.

    Development applications will now have to be reviewed by the Ottawa Built Heritage Advisory Committee and the Planning and Environment Committee.

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