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


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.


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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