BALTZ: Five Reasons Intensification Could Fail

Condos coming on the market in Wellington Village: too much of the same, at too high a price?

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The idea for this twinned Spacing Ottawa post originated on Twitter, after Alain Miguelez remarked that he liked the phrase “repairable Greber fragments,” a phrase someone had coined to describe areas of damage still persisting from the 1950s-era federal Greber plan for Ottawa.  I wondered: if state-of-the-art urban planning of more than 50 years ago caused such damage that pieces are still awaiting repair, might not future Ottawa residents rightly conclude the same about our current planning policies, particularly the current headlong rush towards “intensification” that is proposed to limit urban sprawl?

A half-century ago, a pressing problem was urban blight, and the certain cure was urban renewal, mainly effected by wholesale removal of “undesirable” neighbourhoods. Across North America, this is now almost universally considered to be a failed policy.  In Ottawa, we are nearing the fiftieth anniversary of the urban renewal of Lebreton Flats, yet this once highly-populated area still has only the recent War Museum and one undistinguished residential building.  Where is the vibrant urban development promised to have occurred long ago by yesterday’s planners? Other largely failed policies of the not-too-distant past were the demolition of many buildings, especially in Centretown, to provide “needed” downtown parking lots, and the Greenbelt, which did succeed in preserving greenspace but failed as an attempt to contain urban growth, long ago becoming a green gap.

Today’s problem is urban sprawl and overdependence on cars.  The sure cure, according to most of our current urban planners, is intensification—providing substantially more urban residential units through greatly increased building heights and density.  There is virtually no current discussion of whether Ottawa’s intensification policies will actually accomplish this goal.  Is it not possible that unforeseen problems could plague the current infatuation with intensification as a cure-all for sprawl as they did past planning policies?  How can we be sure that the current generation of urban planners is so much better at predicting the future that Ottawa residents will not eventually be looking back at the remnants of a failed intensification policy that did not cure sprawl as promised, but instead caused currently-unforeseen damage?

Unforeseen consequences are difficult to predict by definition, since they are those that even experts did not see coming or considered minor.  However, in keeping with this Spacing Ottawa assignment, I will make educated guesses at five things that could go wrong with current intensification policies.

1. The objective of intensification should be to limit sprawl and reduce automobile usage, not simply to create more units as an end in itself.  Virtually all intensification in Ottawa now consists of condos, which mainly attract young professionals and older residents who are downsizing.  Yet, the most intensive car usage is by families with working adults and young children.  If, for example, the pattern of development encouraged by Ottawa’s intensification policies results in proportionally less housing for families within the urban area, then the demographic with the most automobile usage will be driven to the suburbs or beyond for suitable housing, perversely increasing car usage and sprawl overall.

2.  The intensification gold rush is encouraging developers to erect condo towers as quickly as possible to cash in on profits before the market changes or new zoning regulations are adopted.  While some new buildings are well designed, the large majority are architecturally undistinguished at best.  Will current policies be remembered mainly for making Ottawa uglier? Will these condo buildings (and the surrounding neighbourhoods) become undesirable and drive people away? Parts of cities can be depopulated, as major American cities have learned.

3. Ottawa lacks an overall zoning bylaw that implements intensification. So, intensification today is mainly being implemented on a lot-by-lot basis, with developers pursuing substantial upzoning at individual building sites. The cumulative effect could be significant damage to the urban fabric that is not evident when making each individual decision, such as the loss of valued streetscapes and neighbourhoods.  Will intensification leave a legacy of substantial cumulative damage?

4.  Land prices in areas where intensification is happening are skyrocketing.  New units are largely high-priced.  Will intensification come to be seen as a major factor in making large parts of the urban core unaffordable for most?

5.  Another fallout of ad hoc rezoning to allow intensification is that planners and Councillors are continually making decisions that increase the value of properties substantially, often by millions of dollars virtually overnight. Without a clear set of zoning rules that implement intensification, which Ottawa completely lacks, city planners essentially negotiate the rezoning of each individual property behind closed doors. It is too easy for this process to be corrupted, including by Councillors who rely on developers for much or most of their campaign funds, ignoring planning principles for politics.

What should be done?  At the very least, two changes should be made.  First, intensification policy needs to be based on evidence, not wishful thinking.  The City should provide metrics that go beyond numbers of new units, and should have to show explicitly that there is a significant beneficial effect on sprawl, car usage, and infrastructure costs.  Second, the City must stop implementing intensification lot-by-lot, through negotiations done behind closed doors.  There instead has to be an overall rational plan, implemented by zoning that was decided upon transparently.  Unless the way Ottawa is intensifying is improved and rationalized, it risks being yet another failed planning legacy, and it risks being rejected by the electorate.

19 comments

  1. Good article. The “behind closed doors” thing is appalling. Neighbourhoods should be advised as soon as a developer asks for rezoning or variances, and be part of the discussion from the beginning. The province’s 16-day warning for Committee of Adjustment hearings is a joke – who can get prepared to contest an initiative crafted behind closed doors in 16 days?

  2. Neighbourhoods should be advised as soon as a developer asks for rezoning or variances, and be part of the discussion from the beginning.

    Why?

  3. 16 days should be more than enough time.  Community activists trot out the same objections for every development.  You know what they are….”the new house does not have a front porch – this will destroy the character of the neighborhood” or “the new condo will cause congestion and destroy the neighborhood”.  We all know that the concerns are exaggerated and the world will not come to an end if someone builds a house without a front porch.

  4. Here’s a convenient form:

    I/we object

    [ ] on our own behalf
    [ ] on behalf of the “community”, on a self-appointed basis

    to (insert name or description of objected-to thing here):

    _________________________________

    based on (check all which apply):

    [ ] property values!
    [ ] traffic!
    [ ] pollution!
    [ ] noise!
    [ ] green/open space! (circle one or both)
    [ ] shadows!
    [ ] privacy!
    [ ] crime!
    [ ] too tall!
    [ ] too dense!
    [ ] character of the neighbourhood!
    [ ] think about the children!
    [ ] other! (Please specify) ____________

  5. Thoughtful piece. I certainly don’t read it as NIMBYism, but rather as an invitation to think about unintended consequences.

    I do like much of the condo development we’ve seen in so far as their tendency is to meet the street with retail, interacting with passers-by.

    But there is no question that they are going after a fairly narrow market segment of middle to upper-middle class childless professionals. The danger is that neighbourhoods can easily suffer when they because the preserve of one demographic – especially a well-off demographic, in part because as a class they have the mobility to leave relatively quickly when another area becomes trendier — leaving vacancies and run-down properties in their wake.

    I would like to see the developers begin to build and market more family-friendly condo units in the near-suburbs, close to next-generation transit nodes. Europeans, New Yorkers, families all over the world in fact, do just fine living in apartment buildings with their children, and as long as the building is close to a good park, it’s a healthier lifestyle for kids than being driven around in the vast expanses of the burbs or being dumped in a sterile bit of fenced-in back-yard lawn, those mini-prisons for kids.

    In fact, if we get Light Rail right over the next few years, I predict this is the kind of development we will see.

  6. “Land prices in areas where intensification is happening are skyrocketing.”

    I think you have that backwards. Intensification is happening in areas where land prices are skyrocketing. Or else it wouldn’t be happening, because 900 sq. ft. condos that cost $400,000 aren’t such a great deal if you can buy a decent house in the neighbourhood for $250,000. But when houses cost $700,000, that $400,000 condo becomes an affordable way to move into a desirable area. On teh other hand, not building condo towers in areas like Westboro and the Glebe in order to avoid “bad” intensification will drive house prices higher and higher, preserving the neighbourhood’s built character while making it unaffordable to all but the wealthy (see Kitsalano in Vancouver). that tradeoff can be made, but one should never expect that shutting off supply in the face of strong demand will lead to lower prices.

    I agree with you and Jim Dixon, however–I wonder how many childless professionals there are in Ottawa to buy all these small urban condos. I’d love to see a forward-thinking architect or developer take a crack at designing kid/family-friendly condos for downtown. Think Battery Park City for Centretown!

  7. There are two ugly, imprecise words being thrown around a lot: NIMBY and Intensification. The first is a problem because it’s a broad-brush pejorative that dismisses any and all criticism of urban planning policy as selfish me-first whining. The second is a problem because it strips the nuances from the discussion of what kind of city we want and makes us choose from binary options: either “more intense / dense” or “not more intense / dense”.

    That’s why I use SIMBY (Smart In My Back Yard) as a way to describe myself, and prefer to talk about urban diversification rather than intensification. Why “diversifiction”? Because to me the enemy is not just uncontrolled sprawl; the enemy is the one-size-fits-all cookie cutter developments that you get whenever a City abdicates its responsibility as the guiding hand of development.

    Cookie cutter condos are just as bad as cookie cutter suburban McMansions *if that’s all we’re building*.

  8. “…intensification policy needs to be based on evidence, not wishful thinking” – What an ironic statement to conclude with, given how much of this article is conjecture.

    • William I read the piece as the author counseling caution on the basis of what might happen; looking into the future and speculating as to what it might look like. That’s what he was asked to do.

      To me an argument that calls for more evidence before conclusions can be made is actually arguing *against* conjecture – if we agree that conjecture means “coming to a conclusion based on incomplete information”.

  9. It’s hard to promote intensification in cities like Ottawa because houses in the suburbs in Ottawa are so cheap. A pretty decent detached house in the suburbs of Ottawa, no more than a 30 minute commute from downtown can be had for about $300000-400000 whereas a typical 2 bedroom Ottawa condo near downtown might cost about that much, have only 700-1000sq ft and have expensive monthly maintenance fees. High rise condominiums are much more expensive to build than houses in the suburbs per sq ft, so they make sense in cities like Toronto or Vancouver where land is expensive, but where land is cheap such as in Ottawa they will never be very popular. I think that if a city like Ottawa wants to reduce urban sprawl, it is better off promoting medium density housing (townhouses and condos no greater than 4 stories) because this sort of housing is much cheaper to build than high rise condos, and it is much easier to provide larger units for families this way.

  10. Do you have any idea how damaging articles like these can be to community and economic development? That they crop up in official, political and business reports alike? It’s fun to blog but it also carries some responsibilities.

    I agree that it is important to base policy and conclusions on evidence. Unfortunately, sometimes the evidence cannot always offer an answer a highly subjective question… indeed, quite often it happens the other way around (finding the evidence to support your highly subjective opinion). I believe the leading questions asked in this article fall into this category.

    • HI William,

      I would say that both debaters put forward their cases forcefully but responsibly; they were clearly opinion pieces and argued as such. If it is now damaging to have opinions, civic life in this city is in a lot more trouble than this blog can hope to answer for.

  11. I don’t think it’s damaging to offer opinions, I think it’s damaging to use opinions irresponsibly, regardless of whether you’re talking about city politics, national health policy, climate change in an international forum or in fact any kind of political debate. I repeat that it’s ironic to point out the importance of evidence in an article that is, as Evan agrees, almost purely opinion.

    • William: Surely it’s not the first time you’ve run across the opinion that evidence is important?

      Anyway, we seem to be reading different articles: the one I read makes the point that nearly all intensification today is now condos aimed at a childless demographic; that land prices are skyrocketing in areas where condo development is taking place; that Ottawa lacks an overall zoning bylaw that implements intensification, that City council continues to make decisions that “increase the value of properties substantially, often by millions of dollars virtually overnight”, “the most intensive car usage is by families with working adults and young children” , etc.

      These seem to me to be statements that do try to set out the state of affairs as most would accept it to be; evidence, in other words, to support an argument made from them.

      I think the first step is to challenge any that are felt to *not* be accurate, if they can be found, and then present other evidence to the contrary.

      Then let’s take that evidence to make alternate, more persuasive arguments. Would love to hear yours, BTW –I think it’s time!

  12. You see, I was more surprised by statements of opinion presented as fact such as “it is too easy for this process to be corrupted, including by Councillors who rely on developers for much or most of their campaign funds, ignoring planning principles for politics.”

    That’s a very serious allegation.

    I wouldn’t want to wade in on this debate because I am not an urban policy expert and I don’t pretend to be one. I am simply offering my opinion on the article’s quality, drawing on my experience as a professional communicator of scientific and social research.

  13. Well, William, fair enough – you were surprised.

    But if you think the suggestion that elected officials can be corrupted by campaign donations is a stretch, I really don’t what to say; it’s as if we live in parallel universes, connected only by the strange wormhole in the time/space continuum that is the comments section of this post.

  14. William:

    What did you take this passage to mean? :

    “It is too easy for this process to be corrupted, including by Councillors who rely on developers for much or most of their campaign funds, ignoring planning principles for politics.”

    That seemed to be the point you found troubling earlier in this discussion, calling it a “serious allegation”.

    It is indeed serious– to the extent that that it touches on an important issue — but the only thing “damaging” about the topic might be censoring references to it, which seems, if I understand you correctly, what you wish us to do.

    Or is there another reason you have a problem with it? I ask because taking precautions against conflict of interest seems to be a priority with almost every public body one can think of; why it should jump out at you as something worth decrying ( again, as you *seem* to be doing ) does strike me as a mystery still.

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