The infill wars: a case study from Old Ottawa South

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Images by Old Ottawa South Community Association – first is of 71 Hopewell as it appeared last year; second is a photoshopped image of what it is expected to look like after re-development.


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Spacing Ottawa contributor Alain Miguelez is a planner with the City of Ottawa. In late 2009, the City’s Planning Department received an application for site plan control approval to allow three townhouses to be developed in replacement of a small detached home at 71 Hopewell Ave., in Old Ottawa South. Coincidentally, on October 28th 2009 Council approved updates to the Urban Design Guidelines for Low-Medium Density Infill Housing. In the following piece Alain takes us behind the scenes to to find what actually happened with this application – and explains how it was that City staff made the recommendation they did.
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The proposal, at first glance, was one of those dime-a-dozen that we have processed in the past five years. As staff, we weren’t surprised by the front-garage approach – in fact, we were starting to notice how these new garage-front infills were starting to spread in old established neighbourhoods. On some streets there are even consolidated stretches of these. In this case, though, the lot was so narrow that the two edge units couldn’t get a front door facing the street – the front door was accessible by a narrow walkway along the side.

We indicated to the proponent that we wanted to explore other options for parking, entrances and front doors. In our minds, the proposal did not meet the intent of the Design Guidelines, which state throughout its pages (among other things) that front doors, rather than garages, must be the predominant element on facades. In fact, front garages are to be avoided where possible.

We were met with resistance, although the architect did sketch out a model with a central carriageway, something we suggested. Meanwhile, the City Councillor started receiving calls and decided to convene a public meeting. Staff attended, as did about 50 people from the neighbourhood. It was a good debate. It dealt with substance, which was refreshing. Key questions were tackled, like “Do we punish the public realm for the benefit of private space?”, “Why deprive people of back yards?”, “Who’d want parked cars on the other side of their fence?” “What about street trees, how will they grow if all we are left with is asphalt in front?” and so on . At the end of the evening, a show of hands picked the carriageway approach as the clear favourite.

Still, the proponent stuck to his plans. In his mind, nobody would buy a house with a central carriageway and rear parking (never mind that dozens of the older carriageway houses remain here in Ottawa and they are lovingly restored by appreciative owners). The one ace in his deck is that the proposal met the zoning by-law to the tee. Not a single minor variance needed. So, the question we faced as staff was whether we could refuse a site plan that didn’t meet the intent of our design guidelines even if it was in absolute conformity with the zoning rules.

The proponent retained a lawyer who is well known in municipal law circles for being extremely sharp, deeply experienced, and aggressive. He forcefully made the point to us that if we weren’t happy with our zoning by-law, it was up to us to change it, but we shouldn’t punish his client who was following the rules. We struggled.

We finally decided to take a report to Planning Committee where we described why we didn’t think this site plan was appropriate under the Guidelines, but “submitting it” (rather than “recommending it”) for approval on the basis of its conformity with the zoning.

It was a long and interesting session. Community representatives made excellent presentations about the character of their neighbourhood. There was again actual debate about the pros and cons of the two approaches. The meeting had its humourous moments, with the proponent’s lawyer even calleing me out on the floor of Committee, saying he’d be delighted to put me on the stand at the Ontario Municipal Board. Personally, I was and remain pretty relaxed about being able to wipe the grin off his face at the Board, had the day ever dawned. In one version of a perfect world, we would’ve had a hearing where we would’ve debated whether, if the two approaches were permitted under the zoning and one was more congruent with the Design Guidelines than the other, why would we not take the better one?

Planning Committee sent the file back to staff with the instruction to return with a design that would be more compatible with the Guidelines. It was not to be. The proponent would not budge. In fact, they appealed the City’s non-decision to the OMB. So the ball was in our court: go all the way, or buckle?

Our Legal colleagues didn’t think we could win. There is no Ottawa case law for refusing a site plan that is in strict conformity with the zoning by-law. And when the generals who are supposed to lead you into battle don’t believe in victory, you’re not off to a good start. Which is why, at Planning Committee on January 25th, we “held our noses” and returned with the same report. Committee approved the plan.

But the story doesn’t end there. What the proponent’s lawyer recommended actually makes lots of sense. If current zoning permits the type of development that we don’t see as representing the future of our older neighbourhoods, we have to change it. This is exactly what the Department is embarking upon.

To sum up the Hopewell story: Many may have jumped to the conclusion that the Planning Department caved in by returning to Planning Committee with an unchanged plan for 71 Hopewell and saying it should be approved. But a lot more was accomplished than met the eye.

Starting February 7th there will be a series of public open houses to specifically address the shape and form of future infill in the central five wards (12-13-14-15-17) where Ottawa’s pre-car neighbourhoods are located. These wards being the centre of the city, and because of the age and make-up of their built fabric, they need to be looked at specifically. These central wards constitute what will one day consolidate as the true “pedestrian city” – they are compact, they are dense, and they already function (or are able to function) as pedestrian precincts. However, it wouldn’t take much, in some parts, to tip a street over to one side or the other. We want to make sure we understand the outcomes of the options in front of us in terms of built form.

More information is available at www.ottawa.ca/infill. In this material, you’ll be able to see what our urban design colleagues have found when they studied five years’ worth of infill, and some of the options we might consider in order to change course. An interesting related post by Erin O’Connell appeared in Spacing a few months ago.

We’d love to hear your views at an open house!

5 comments

  1. This is a surprisingly candid posting. A good insight into how the system works.

    Unfortunately, this highlights the problem with specific definitions – people immediately look for ways to meet the letter of the law while disregarding its original intent. The alternative is worse… vague definitions that are then interpreted on a case by case basis, usually inconsistently.

    While this one is a disappointment, it appears that the City is taking the right approach. Fix the zoning to better define what is desired.

  2. It is a good thing that the City is thinking about addressing the disconnect between the zoning bylaw and the various policies and guidelines that aren’t enforceable, like the infill design guidelines. This is not new, though. The Hintonburg Comm Assn submitted comments to this effect years ago when the guidelines were being developed, to no avail. It’s the same sort of issue I encountered again and again over the 6 years I was chair of the City’s Built Heritage Advisory Committee, until I finally gave up and stepped down last summer. It was too frustrating delong with senior planning staff that put heritage and jenN design at the bottom of the priority list. This initiative sounds good on paper, and I will be there. However, I don’t have high hopes since we’ve heard this all before. Really, you don’t need a Masters degree in planning to see the obvious solution. If the city does not want facades dominated by garages, then put that in the zoning bylaw an official plan, without qualifying language and weasel words allowing every development to be an exception to the “rules.” Virtually all of the problems with the city’s planning process come down to a badly written zoning bylaw that does not achieve what is intended and a very vague official plan that does not give clear unequivocal guidance for planning decisions.

  3. You can learn more about 71 Hopewell and the actions taken by residents of Old Ottawa South on the OSCA website at http://www.oldottawasouth.ca and searching “71 Hopewell” or “infill”. The presentations several neighbours gave are posted there, and letters to the City that may help guide others in their comments to the Infill Study. This is a very important issue: everyone should try to attend one of the public consultations, or at least send comments!

  4. It never ceases to amaze me when class and greed come to loggerheads. Greed almost always wins. My view of allowing new structures to be built should quite simply be put as ‘must match the neighbourhood class and receive approval from all visible neighbours’.
    Here we see a developer that wants to make some money up against the people who live in the area and who feel their class and probably property value is being affected. Most people who live in the area appreciate its class and distinct character while the designers of these new buildings are obviously fresh out of design school and stretching their skills. While the proposal for 71 Hopewell does not really fit, there are some, much worse, that have also found their way into the neighbourhood.
    I put it much along the lines of having a pig farm built right next to your home; certainly it won’t be a pretty thing.
    What makes a neighbourhood of this class IS the buildings, they almost all fit in together, rustic, character giving, then suddenly someone who hasn’t got a clue about social respect and has access to computer-aided design software, changes things by introducing something that would not have been thought in the years when the neighbourhood was first being built. You can be sure that everyone on the profit side (who probably do not live in the area) is making more than a dollar without a care.

  5. This sounds much like Edmonton’s Mature Neighbourhood Overlay, which is designed to preserve some of the features of older neighbourhoods in the city. Among other things it requires that garage access must be from an alley if there is one servicing the lot. Obviously it’s not directly comparable but it is an example of how zoning can be used to protect specific amenities.

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