Pan­ning plan­ning

How many bad de­ci­sions can one city’s plan­ners make? In Ot­tawa’s case, a lot, says Bruce Fire­stone.

Ottawa Business Journal - - Front Page - Bruce M. Fire­stone is founder of the Ot­tawa Se­na­tors and a bro­ker at Cen­tury 21 Ex­plorer Realty. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @ProfBruce.

How many bad de­ci­sions can one re­gion’s plan­ners make? Lots, if you are talk­ing about the city of Ot­tawa. Let’s re­view some of the high­lights (or low­lights, if you will) of ur­ban plan­ning in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal through the years:

Ot­tawa got rid of street­cars many years ago, not to re­place them with sub­way lines, but with dirty, smelly diesel buses that get stuck in the snow every win­ter.

The Na­tional Cap­i­tal Com­mis­sion ex­pro­pri­ated lands at Le­Bre­ton Flats at what was then a flour­ish­ing work­ing­class com­mu­nity only to de­mol­ish the neigh­bour­hood and re­place it with noth­ing for decades. Even­tu­ally, the NCC ap­proved con­struc­tion of a few unimag­i­na­tive condo tow­ers, thereby cre­at­ing an­other “nowhere.”

Ot­tawa saved – wait for it, Dr. Evil­style – “one mil­lion dol­lars” on the de­sign and con­struc­tion of its down­town arena by trun­cat­ing half its seat­ing ca­pac­ity so that the Civic Cen­tre was ob­so­lete the day it opened in 1967.

The city signed a bind­ing agree­ment with two re­spected firms (Siemens and PCL) for con­struc­tion of a light-rail line to the south, only to re­nege on its agree­ment. That de­ci­sion caused the city to miss out on $900 mil­lion in se­nior gov­ern­ment fund­ing, not to men­tion $2 bil­lion of real es­tate projects – ho­tels, apart­ments, shop­ping ar­eas and other com­mer­cial space – planned for the ar­eas around new LRT sta­tions. The city also lost $80 mil­lion of its own in­vest­ment in plan­ning, de­sign and right-of-way ac­qui­si­tion and got sued for $177 mil­lion in the process, even­tu­ally set­tling the suit for about $35 mil­lion plus mil­lions more in le­gal fees. All to build ex­actly noth­ing.

The NCC built “park­ways” – a.k.a. roads – be­tween ar­eas where peo­ple live and Ot­tawa’s three beau­ti­ful rivers and canals, along the way clos­ing or de­mol­ish­ing change rooms, toi­lets and small stores. As a re­sult, even if you’ve lived in Ot­tawa for decades, you don’t fully re­al­ize its beauty since you are sep­a­rated from its wa­ter­ways by tens of thou­sands of fast-mov­ing cars and buses. When you do man­age to ac­cess them, there is nowhere to get a tea, cof­fee or muf­fin or go to the bath­room.

On­tario amal­ga­mated 12 gov­ern­ments in the for­mer Re­gional Mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Ot­tawa-Car­leton into one, the City of Ot­tawa, os­ten­si­bly to pro­vide for more ra­tio­nal man­age­ment and cost sav­ings. In­stead, the num­ber of full-timee­quiv­a­lent mu­nic­i­pal po­si­tions – what you and I would call “jobs” – jumped from 12,500 in the pre-amal­ga­ma­tion days to 16,500, pro­duc­ing a vast bu­reau­cracy

The point is, if you want to keep your most valu­able re­source in your vil­lage, town or city — your kids — you have to build your brand. You have to make it feel like liv­ing in your com­mu­nity is a cool thing to do and con­vince young peo­ple they can do great things with­out mov­ing down the road to a megac­ity

that couldn’t find Ot­tawa’s ru­ral vil­lages with a com­pass and a map and cost­ing tax­pay­ers an ex­tra $800 mil­lion.

To this day, Ot­tawa al­lows sub­urbs where you’ll find 3,000 stick-built homes in a row with­out catch­ing sight of a cor­ner store, a pub, a shop, a den­tal of­fice or a med­i­cal clinic and where every trip re­quires a ve­hi­cle that must travel on curvi­lin­ear roads with rights-of-way wide enough to host For­mula One races.

I could go on for hours. So imag­ine my sur­prise when I learned re­cently that the city, which al­ready le­gal­ized in-home suites some time ago, was con­tem­plat­ing adding coach houses to its list of per­mit­ted uses.

I have fond mem­o­ries of liv­ing in what was then called a granny flat in Santa Cruz, Calif., many years ago.

The big house in front was oc­cu­pied by a lady who I thought was im­pos­si­bly old (prob­a­bly about the age I am to­day – her 60s). I got to know her a bit, so I asked her why she’d built a tiny onebed­room home in her back­yard.

“Well, I like stu­dents,” she said. “I like their com­pany. My own fam­ily has kind of for­got­ten about me.”

And it was true. I never heard her phone ring, and she never had any vis­i­tors. She was lonely and, in ad­di­tion to hav­ing the com­pany of the stu­dents, she felt safer hav­ing some­one else live on her prop­erty.

Then she added, “And frankly, Bruce, I can also use the ex­tra in­come, too.” The year was 1969.

The point is, if you want to keep your most valu­able re­source in your vil­lage, town or city – your kids – you have to build your brand. You have to make it feel like liv­ing in your com­mu­nity is a cool thing to do and con­vince young peo­ple they can do great things with­out mov­ing down the road to a megac­ity, which noted ur­ban­ist Richard Florida says is a place of 10 mil­lion or more, of which Canada has none.

To that end, two se­nior Ot­tawa plan­ners – Alain Miguelez, pro­gram man­ager for zon­ing, in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion and neigh­bour­hoods, and John Smit, man­ager of pol­icy de­vel­op­ment and ur­ban de­sign, Alain’s boss – re­cently sat down with me for 90 min­utes of frank talk about the state of the city’s plan­ning.

“In my tour of duty in zon­ing, I’ve been fo­cused on re­mov­ing bar­ri­ers,” Mr. Miguelez told me.

“I was able to over­see up-zon­ing of about 100 kilo­me­tres of ar­te­rial frontage (to al­low both res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial uses), get mi­cro-re­tail zon­ing passed with­out ap­peal, get more front-yard park­ing flex­i­bil­ity in the ’burbs, es­tab­lish streetscape char­ac­ter zon­ing for in­fill in older neigh­bour­hoods, open the door to cor­ner lot sev­er­ances in the R1 bun­ga­low belt in­side the Green­belt, al­low front-to­back semis, al­low wrap-around semis, and now we’re do­ing coach houses, plus a re­view of min­i­mum park­ing re­quire­ments. We’ll end up elim­i­nat­ing them, or sig­nif­i­cantly re­duc­ing them, at key lo­ca­tions, al­low­ing open-air mar­kets as-of-right on church lands, and we’re about to start projects on mak­erspace, re­mov­ing ob­so­lete re­stric­tions in many ru­ral zones and clean­ing up yet more ob­so­lete re­stric­tions in sev­eral ur­ban in­dus­trial zones.”

Mr. Miguelez cred­ited his su­pe­ri­ors with giv­ing him lee­way to pur­sue changes he believes are nec­es­sary.

“I’ve been lucky that se­nior man­age­ment has gone along with all my stuff,” he said. “I’ve also been suc­cess­ful with hu­mour some­times. One of my star plan­ners is a car­toon­ist, and I got him per­mis­sion to do a video about what im­pact Ot­tawa’s park­ing stan­dards is hav­ing on de­vel­op­ment in this city.”

For ex­am­ple, Mon­treal re­quires one park­ing space per 250 square me­tres of restau­rant space, while Toronto asks for seven. Ot­tawa? It de­mands a whop­ping 23. What this means is that pleas­ing streetscapes and walk­a­ble places, such as Hin­ton­burg or the Glebe, could not be built to­day.

It’s worth watch­ing the city plan­ner’s video. Just plug “Re­view of Min­i­mum Park­ing Stan­dards” into YouTube’s search bar.

Maybe, as Amer­i­can au­thor and so­cial critic James Howard Kun­stler says in his book Home from Nowhere, it might be bet­ter to “burn all your zon­ing codes.” Mr. Smit won’t go that far. “Right now, devel­op­ers, com­mu­nity as­so­ci­a­tions and BIAs (busi­ness im­prove­ment ar­eas) have to twist them­selves into pret­zels to get things done in this city,” he said. “Our job is to ra­tio­nal­ize that. (For­mer deputy city man­ager) Ned Lathrop used to say, ‘Ot­tawa is chang­ing from a big lit­tle city to a lit­tle big city,’ and we have to ad­just to that. Once a city gets to a mil­lion pop­u­la­tion (Ot­tawa is ap­proach­ing that now), its econ­omy and cul­ture shifts in fun­da­men­tal ways, and plan­ning has to shift with it.”


Bruce Fire­stone still won­ders why the NCC didn’t al­low some­thing more imag­i­na­tive than condo tow­ers to be built at Le­Bre­ton Flats when it fi­nally ap­proved a bit of re­de­vel­op­ment on the prop­erty.


The Ot­tawa River and the Rideau Canal pro­vide plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties for cy­clists and pedes­tri­ans to soak up the beauty of the re­gion’s wa­ter­ways.

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