LIFE ON TRACK

The ar­rival of light rail brings many changes. What will LRT do to prop­erty val­ues, es­tab­lished neigh­bour­hoods, and the vibe of down­town? Laura Byrne Pa­quet talks to ex­perts about how tran­sit sta­tions trans­form cities — and of­fers a glimpse into the fu­tur

Ottawa Magazine - - NEWS -

The ar­rival of light rail brings many changes. What will LRT do to prop­erty taxes, es­tab­lished neigh­bour­hoods, and the vibe of down­town? LAURA BYRNE PA­QUET talks to tran­sit ex­perts — and of­fers a glimpse into the fu­ture of Ottawa’s real es­tate mar­ket

WE BUILD IT, WILL THEY COME?

That’s the multi-mil­lion-dollar ques­tion on the minds of every­one from de­vel­op­ers and city planners to home­own­ers. When Stage 1 of Ottawa’s light-rail tran­sit (LRT) line opens in 2018 and Stage 2 opens in 2023, will Ottawa mag­i­cally turn into a denser, live­lier city? Or will the city be­come a thicket of half-empty con­dos and neigh­bours angry about liv­ing in their shadow? How will the changes af­fect pedes­tri­ans and driv­ers, stu­dents and se­niors, the well-heeled and the dis­ad­van­taged? And — of critical im­por­tance, if cock­tail­party chatter is any guide — what will the LRT mean for prop­erty val­ues?

The short an­swer to all these ques­tions ap­pears to be: it de­pends. In par­tic­u­lar, it de­pends on what kind of real es­tate is built around the sta­tions, how we ad­dress the needs of

cur­rent and fu­ture res­i­dents, whether es­tab­lished neigh­bour­hoods em­brace change, and what sorts of poli­cies we put in place at city hall. Oh, and if the trains run on time, that will help. The pre­dic­tions are cer­tainly en­tic­ing. In illustrations sub­mit­ted by Ren­dezVous LeBre­ton (RVL), which is de­vel­op­ing the western sec­tion of LeBre­ton Flats near the fu­ture Pimisi Sta­tion, and Clar­idge Homes, in charge of the eastern half, peo­ple stroll along tree-shaded plazas flank­ing an aque­duct spanned by her­itage bridges. Be­low the plaza, an LRT train glides by. In the dis­tance, the new Senators arena glows in the sun. Soar­ing condo tow­ers, glassy of­fice blocks, and shiny shops stretch to the hori­zon.

And that’s just the area around Pimisi Sta­tion. Ev­ery week seems to bring news of other pro­pos­als, such as the clus­ter of huge tow­ers for Bayview Sta­tion or RioCan’s plan to re­de­velop Sil­ver City near Blair Sta­tion. Is there re­ally enough de­mand in Ottawa for all this? John Smit, act­ing man­ager of pol­icy plan­ning and act­ing di­rec­tor of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment for the City of Ottawa, is cau­tiously optimistic. Af­ter all, our pop­u­la­tion is fore­cast to grow from 912,250 in 2011 to 1.15 mil­lion in 2031. How­ever, the city isn’t go­ing to turn into mid­town Man­hat­tan overnight. Many pro­pos­als have time­lines of 20 years or more. His­tor­i­cally, be­tween 5,000 and 6,000 new hous­ing units are sold (or “ab­sorbed,” to use real es­tate lingo) in Ottawa annu- ally. Given that fact — and Ottawa’s glut of un­sold con­dos, which does ap­pear to be eas­ing — cau­tion seems wise.

The long time­line also re­flects the very hu­man ten­dency to resist change. One of the rea­sons we haven’t seen de­vel­op­ment on this scale around tran­sit sta­tions in the past is that res­i­dents protested ve­he­mently when den­si­fi­ca­tion be­gan to rear its con­tentious head in the 1980s. The city even­tu­ally lim­ited de­vel­op­ment, par­tic­u­larly in es­tab­lished neigh­bour­hoods such as West­boro.

To ease res­i­dents’ fears this time around, the city has de­vel­oped the Plan­ning Primer Pro­gram — free pub­lic cour­ses on top­ics such as the in­tri­ca­cies of the On­tario Mu­nic­i­pal Board. Smit says the primer can help de­crease re­sis­tance to new con­struc­tion. “Once peo­ple start get­ting a lit­tle bit more com­fort­able … they start par­tic­i­pat­ing with the process as op­posed to fight­ing the process.”

Per­haps. Al­though any­one who has ever at­tended a rau­cous town-hall meet­ing may dis­agree. And the process may move for­ward whether peo­ple are com­fort­able or not: many ex­perts ar­gue it’s too late to stop in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion, be­cause cash-strapped cities sim­ply can’t keep build­ing ex­pen­sive roads and sew­ers into vir­gin farm­land for­ever. “This sort of den­si­fi­ca­tion is in­evitable in cities,” says pro­fes­sor Eric Miller, di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity of Toronto’s Trans­porta­tion Re­search In­sti­tute. “It may be dis­rup­tive for the peo­ple liv­ing nearby, and that may be cold com­fort for them, but in the big­ger pic­ture, this is the sort of thing that has to hap­pen.”

On the other hand, those who would like to move to those es­tab­lished ar­eas but can’t cur­rently af­ford to do so may have some rea­son for op­ti­mism. For in­stance, the Cen­tre­town Ci­ti­zens Ottawa Cor­po­ra­tion (a non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that man­ages hous­ing for low- and mod­er­atein­come peo­ple) is a part­ner in the RVL pro­posal; that plan in­cludes 1,100 af­ford­able hous­ing units on LeBre­ton Flats. That will put a small but wel­come dent in the city’s wait­ing list for af­ford­able hous­ing, which stood at some 10,000 house­holds in late 2016.

Sub­ur­ban empty nesters may also be cau­tiously hope­ful. Many want to free up cash by mov­ing to a smaller prop­erty with­out stairs. How­ever, if the avail­able con­dos cost as much as their cur­rent digs — and they have to pay land trans­fer taxes and condo fees — the Free­dom 55 set may

just stay put, says blog­ger and for­mer Trans­port Canada plan­ner Eric Dar­win.

So here’s another big ques­tion: How will the LRT af­fect Ottawa prop­erty val­ues?

In gen­eral, val­ues rise around rapid-tran­sit sta­tions, says Rachel MacCleery, se­nior vice-pres­i­dent of the Ur­ban Land In­sti­tute, a think tank based in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. How­ever, she cau­tions, “A lot of the prop­erty value ef­fects will de­pend on how much of an im­prove­ment in ser­vice and qual­ity, re­li­a­bil­ity, fre­quency … hap­pens as a re­sult of the light rail.” The bot­tom line is that tran­sit de­vel­op­ment doesn’t just hap­pen; max­i­miz­ing the value of tran­sit takes a con­certed ef­fort.

OC Transpo es­ti­mates that the LRT will even­tu­ally shave five to 15 min­utes off the av­er­age com­mute. Stud­ies have shown that the av­er­age dis­tance peo­ple are will­ing to com­mute in ma­jor cities hov­ers around 30 min­utes, so even a five-minute dif­fer­ence could make a neigh­bour­hood more ap­peal­ing to home­buy­ers.

Here’s the catch: If those ef­fi­cient trains are mainly fun­nelling sub­ur­ban work­ers into down­town, they’ll be packed on their way down­town and vir­tu­ally empty dur­ing the day. How­ever, if peo­ple are get­ting on and off the train through­out its route, the train will be less jammed at any par­tic­u­lar point. That might make tran­sit more ap­peal­ing. If rid­er­ship rises, it is eco­nom­i­cally fea­si­ble to run trains more fre­quently. That’s one rea­son the city is en­cour­ag­ing of­fice de­vel­op­ment around LRT sta­tions across the sys­tem.

Of­fice space in the core beyond Cen­tre­town and the Mar­ket might be a hard sell. Af­ter all, Lans­downe Park still had over 72,000 square feet of empty of­fice space in early 2017. Smit ac­knowl­edges com­pa­nies have been slow to move in but stands by the city’s de­ci­sion to en­cour­age com­mer­cial con­struc­tion there, de­spite what po­ten­tial pur­chasers said at the time. “We were told that when we were do­ing Lans­downe that of­fice de­vel­op­ment might be dif­fi­cult to have ab­sorbed. But we felt it was im­por­tant to en­sure that we had that el­e­ment.”

So if we build these dream com­mu­ni­ties of to­mor­row, will enough peo­ple come? Maybe — if we can make them eco­nom­i­cally fea­si­ble for empty nesters, if tra­di­tional neigh­bour­hoods em­brace change, if com­pa­nies lease of­fices out­side the core, if de­vel­op­ers build a range of hous­ing stock, and if city rules make all that possible. And, yes, if the trains run on time.

Looks like we have our work cut out for us.

IF

Night light A sketch of Blair Sta­tion in Glouces­ter, which might be over­shad­owed by a res­i­den­tial tower and dwarfed by a new Costco. The lat­ter, with its 800 park­ing spa­ces, means cars will still be king de­spite im­proved tran­sit routes

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