It’s no secret that residents of Ottawa find themselves pitted against the City far too often on planning issues. I was intrigued by a recent “Top Ten Reasons for Optimism” list in Spacing Ottawa by Alain Miguelez, especially his comment about the need for a more constructive discourse around planning.
Here’s my own Top Ten list of the obstacles we need to overcome before we can reach that goal:
1. Revise the Planning Primer Courses. The City’s Planning Primer courses are in need of a major overhaul. Aimed to bridge the knowledge gap, the courses are overly long and cover too much territory. Trimming the content considerably to the basic level that residents need at the introductory level and making the information available on-line rather than only being available as evening credit classes would be beneficial. Even better, as some Canadian cities do, would be to deliver smaller seminar-styled presentations that are designed for a specific community – in that community, upon request with a pre-determined number of registrants.
2. Drill down to find the relevant language in the Ontario Planning Act (OPA). Most planning matters undertaken at the city level occur within the parameters laid out in the Ontario Planning Act. Understanding how this impacts what is and isn’t allowed is complicated, and hindered by cumbersome legal language. Most people won’t bother to wade into it until something impacts them or their community — by then it’s usually too late, and they are labeled ‘nimbyists’ when their arguments against something are powered by emotion instead of being legally based. An on-line simplification of the Act, undertaken by the province, would benefit Ontarians, not just Ottawans.
3. Abolish the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). The OMB is a quasi-judicial body created in 1897 to deal with railroads and municipal affairs, and pretty much has the final say on which view prevails when a decision is appealed by any combination of involved parties. Charged with determining the merits of the project based on the OPA as it applies to a proposed development, it often fails a community unless lawyers versed in planning are retained. Currently it is being reviewed by the province to determine what works and what doesn’t. Recommendations are expected soon. Some say it has outlived its usefulness and I’d agree.
4. Value those Community Design Plans (CDP) and Secondary Plans (SP). CDPs serve to map out future directions for a specific area of the city. They do not always include the needs of an entire community. Their focus is on main thoroughfares, such as Bank Street in the core or Main Street in Stittsville. SPs make into law the land uses that arise from a CDP, and carry significant weight at City meetings and OMB hearings. These are not bullet-proof vehicles however. Issues do arise when increased residential and commercial growth does not trigger corresponding increases in community space (parks and facilities) nor the provision of adequate services (transit for one). Such concerns need to be voiced by residents and then included by the city in CDPs and SPs.
5. Narrow the gap between Section 37 and Intensification Targets. It might seem odd to link these two topics, but they both substantially contribute to the current planning direction of Ontario cities, and Ottawa is no exception. Intensification Targets have been set by the provincial government through the OPA. These targets recognize that urban sprawl cannot continue at its current pace. They also recognize that the areas designated for intensification will increase pressures for community level infrastructure. Section 37 allows a certain percentage of Development Charges to be allocated to the community in which a proposed development is approved. The community is to determine the project(s) that would be the best fit for this expenditure. The information on how this works (what’s allowed, what’s not allowed) needs to be more widely distributed.
6. Remove speakers’ time limits at Planning Committee. Most people recognize a structural imbalance when they see one, and time limits on public delegations (5 minutes) at Planning Committee meetings sure have every appearance of imbalance. Presentations from staff and developers are afforded as much time as they wish. The public would be better served if the five minute speaking restriction was removed from planning committee, or applied equally to staff and development representatives.
7. Let the public figure out what Ottawa’s Official Plan (OP) really does. On the surface, the OP is the official document that maps all aspects of the City’s development. It attempts to control how the issues associated with future growth will be resolved at the city wide and neighbourhood specific level, and is guided by targets legislated in the OPA, and supported with a large array of related sub-plans such as heritage, transit, cycling and so forth. Getting prepared to participate in the upcoming 5-year revision could be made easier for the public if there was a condensed version made available.
8. Support Traditional Main Streets, Arterial Main Streets and Urban Centres. Where people will live and what infrastructure is in place to accommodate provincially mandated targets is considered in planning these areas. The first two designations strongly suggest where and what kind of buildings will be allowed on main thoroughfares, based on the fabric of the existing community. Urban Centres are a little more complex, but in short the ambition is to create mixed-use and employment centers in suburban and outlying areas in an effort to approximate an urban experience and reduce rush hour traffic and transit requirements. It will be important for all parties to discuss different approaches to successfully reach those targets in the upcoming OP revisions because the ‘one size’ approach does not fit all.
9. End the practice of “omnibus” spot-rezoning. The OP states that a development application is allowed to ‘up-zone’ by one zone from the adjacent property; this has become known as spot rezoning. Translated, it means that a property zoned for two stories could be spot rezoned for a three-storey building. Often, an application for spot-rezoning seeks more than one zoning increase. Large- scale spot rezoning should be prohibited from appearing on a planning committee agenda without first gaining widespread community support; this would ensure that the proponent and city staff would have to negotiate with all stakeholders.
10. Be Proud! Your neighbourhood is special. You are not a ‘nimby’ when you stand up for maintaining or improving the quality of life in your community, or the city you live in. Quality of life is important. It largely drives why we choose to live where we do. “Garages with Houses on Top” change the walkability in the urban core, and no more fit the existing character then do sixteen or twenty storey high-rises in suburban tracts.
A better dialogue between residents, city staff, developers and politicians is possible, but it needs to be much easier for residents to learn the basics of how planning decisions are constructed, and how they can be changed. City staff need to de-mystify the documents that govern their actions, and be responsive to residents concerns by including solutions that work for all factors under consideration. Most people support intensification, but find spot-rezoning as a means to that end to be unacceptable, particularly if a proposal seeks up-zoning beyond what is allowed. Many of us are beginning to understand that intensification doesn’t have to mean high-rise condos; it can mean communities like Sandy Hill and their many varieties of multi-use commercial and housing opportunities. When it comes to height, less CAN be more.
Donna Silver was Senior Assistant and Policy Advisor to former Capital Ward Councillor Clive Doucet for 12 years and worked extensively on urban development and infill issues for constituents and with City of Ottawa Staff.